Workout Wear Decoded: Finding the Fabric and Fit For You

Believe it or not, what you wear to the gym can be a huge factor in the quality of your workout. Think about it; if you’re uncomfortable due to heavy or itchy fabrics or clothing that is too loose or too tight, chances are, you’ll end up leaving the gym a bit earlier than you might have otherwise. It’s for this reason that active sportswear has recently become something of a science, with new fabrics being introduced that claim to do everything from wicking away sweat to keeping you cool in the heat and warm in the cold. I’ve even seen ads for clothing that claim to help you tone up just by putting them on (FYI: that one’s totally bogus). While the new innovations in the fibers industry are helping to revolutionize the way we work out, it can also be a little confusing when trying to navigate through all the different cuts, fits, and fabrics available. So before heading out to the mall, save yourself some time (and frustration!) and check out our handy guide to help you find the gear that’s right for you.


Spandex: Spandex is one of the most widely-used active sportswear fabrics due to its strength and elasticity. It is also a very comfortable fabric because it allows for greater range of motion while weightlifting and helps prevent chafing during cardiovascular exercise. If you’re into cycling or intense cardio, spandex pants or shorts are a great option. Most spandex clothing will also contain cotton or polyester, allowing for breathability and preventing the clothing from being too tight. Nylon is another fabric similar to spandex that offers up the same benefits.

Nike Relay Women's Running CaprisSpandex Women’s Running Capri, $54, (

Cotton: Cotton is a great fabric for the upper body during exercise because it’s loose and breathable, which keeps the body cool. However, if you tend to sweat a lot, cotton may not be the best option for you. It does tend to become heavy when wet, which can become uncomfortable and impede your workout.

Men’s Pima Cotton Basic Tee Shirt, $19.50, (

Moisture Wicking: A moisture wicking fabric is a synthetic fabric that is thin, lightweight and tightly weaved, with the ability to transport moisture through itself, keeping the wearer cool and dry. However, not all fabrics labeled “moisture wicking” are created equal, so it’s important to read your labels when looking for the right one. Check the fiber content; if cotton or polyester is included, then the fabric has been sprayed with a chemical that wicks moisture from the body, but the chemical will eventually wear down in the washing machine. Instead, choose a fabric that’s 100% polyester. The original moisture wicking fabric is called Coolmax, but there are several others on the market that work equally well, such as dri-fit, dri-release, and UnderArmour.

Women’s StudioLux Spin Tank, $64.99, (

Wool: You may be thinking, “why on earth would anyone wear wool while working out??? It’s so hot and scratchy!” And yes, wool can be hot and heavy, but it can also be light and breathable depending on the weave. New technologies have come up with a “smart” wool that utilizes wool’s hydrophobic qualities, helping to ventilate and keep you cool during a workout. For this reason, wool is a great option for running socks, because it will keep feet cool and dry during long runs.

SmartWool PhD Outdoor Light Socks - Merino Wool, Crew (For Women) in Light Grey - 2ndsSmartwool Outdoor Lightweight Socks, $13.95, (

Polygiene: Polygiene technology, developed by Freya Active, is used in sportswear fabrics to minimize odors by stopping the growth of bacteria and fungi. While this may not be important to everyone (you are supposed to sweat at the gym, after all), if you worry about smelling a little funky after an intense workout, it may be worth a try. By inhibiting the growth of bacteria, the fabrics will also experience less wear and tear than other fabrics, so this could also be beneficial for those who are highly active.

Active  Sports TopActive Cosmic Blue Sports Top, price not available online, (

Polartec Thermal Pro: If you enjoy working out outdoors during both summer and winter months, it’s a good idea to invest in some winter-specific clothing. For cold weather, Polartec Thermal Pro is a great insulator due to air pockets in the fabric which trap air and retain body heat, keeping you warm without weighing you down. Another good one to go with is Artic Fleece, a lightweight polyester fleece designed for outdoor activity. Additionally, these and most other thermal garments are treated with a water repellent, allowing you to work out even in snowy conditions.

Women’s Patagonia R2 Fleece Jacket, $159, (

Compression Fabrics: Similar to spandex, compression materials are stretchy and comfortable, but new technology allows this fabric to offer an additional benefit. Through the use of a special knitting process, these fabrics can improve circulation during exercise by stimulating blood flow, helping to alleviate sore muscles and improve muscle recovery time. This would be an excellent fabric to use if you’re just beginning an exercise regimen or are changing up your routine. The tight fit also makes this fabric ideal for cycling or weight training, because you can easily monitor your form.

Reebok Women's Novelty Compression Capri - Dick's Sporting GoodsReebok Women’s Compression Capri, $45, (


When it comes to fit, the best advice I can give is to try it before you buy it. When it comes to spandex, nylon, and compression fabrics, I usually prefer to go with one size larger than I normally would. The garment should fit tight, but not so tight that it cuts off circulation or restricts motion.

When dealing with looser fabrics such as cotton or jersey, you will probably want to go a bit smaller in size, so that the fabrics aren’t too baggy. You want to keep cool, but you don’t want excess fabric getting in your way. Once you begin to sweat, the fabrics will expand a bit and feel heavier, so the less fabric weighing you down, the better.

For women, finding a sports bra that fits properly is really important, especially if you have a larger cup size. Be sure to find one that offers the right amount of support based on the physical activities you plan on doing. Also, make sure the straps fit comfortably. They shouldn’t be digging into your shoulders or back, but shouldn’t be loose enough to fall down, either. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you can slide your finger under the strap from front to back.




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