What to wear when exercising ? 10 FAQ and the 10 Fabrics that make Work out Clothes what they are .

I started writing this article because I really wanted to know about the best fabrics to wear next to my skin as I sweat it out. Currently I wear the first clean and pressed t shirt and sweatpants I get my hands on and head for that rare visit to the gym. 

If you regularly go for aerobics classes, or is into high intensity exercising at the gym or do work out video sessions or do Yoga, Pilates etc at home or visit the gym for socializing and a little bit of running, you might be interested too.

Here is what I have learned. The questions I should ask and the answers I should expect.

Exercising mentioned here includes stretching, yoga, jogging and other cardiovascular exercises like running outdoors, dancing, aerobics, weightlifting etc. and any other similar activities that raise your heartbeats and get you into a sweat. Professional cycling, Hiking,  Swimming etc needs a different discussion.

Doing all these activities and being stylish while doing them seems to come naturally to some. Some have to work at it, as well. 

There are three main qualities we all want from the exercise clothes and the fabrics that makes them – comfort, stretch and breathability. There are some others too, though not as important.

10 FAQ on fabrics for exercise wear.

Is it Moisture wicking?

Wickability is the ability of a fabric to transfer sweat ( or any moisture) away from the body by capillary action and from the surface sweat evaporates. Poof! Fabric with this capacity does not absorb moisture nor does it retain it. It helps regulate body temperature and also prevents rashes and itching.  Polyester is the fabric with the most of this capacity. Nylon and Rayon follows.

Is it Comfortable

Comfort translates to the ability of the fabric to take in sweat and still makes you feel fresh and at ease. Not yucky or whatever term you use to describe that feeling of being sweaty all over and having to travel with a lift full of people. 

This is related to wickability in that when a fabric do not retain and keep sweat and remain soggy it is comfortable against the skin.

In moderate temperature cotton and other natural fabrics are comfortable against your skin and is highly preferred because they breathe naturally but when you sweat a lot as you are supposed to do when you work out because of the high absorbency of natural fibers they absorb sweat and retain it. So you will be highly uncomfortable in cotton wear when exercising.

Is it Lightweight ?

You do not want to be weighed down by your clothes ; laziness is enough. Synthetic fabrics are lightweight- it is in their yarns.

Is it Fast drying ?

This is again related to wickability. When moisture evaporates from fabric, it obviously dries fast.

Is it Breathable? ; Can it maintain air circulation?

Natural fabrics are breathable, there is no question about it. In case of performance fabrics you will be bringing this quality with inserts ( of mesh fabric) which will provide the proper ventilation

Is it Non restricting ?

This means that the clothing allows the body to move in a full range of motion. You want clothing which will allow you to move easily as you run or do cardiovascular exercises or whatever you do.

Is it Flexible ? 

The fabric should be able to stretch and still retain the shape. Stretchable fabric stretch their maximum without breaking and once the stretch is relaxed, goes back to the same position it was earlier. This allows it to be made into figure hugging clothes preferred for many sports activities.

Fitting clothes are flattering and makes the person motivated to exercise more says Readers Digest. Who am I to argue?

Is it Odor resistant? 

This refers to unfortunate fabric that smell like ‘cheesy-feet’ aka socks that has seen good old fresh days after you have used it for some time.   This happens when bacteria in the sweat mix up with air and grow. 

Some fabrics can smell horrible if sweat is not washed up soon; natural fabrics is supposed to smell less. A study conducted by scientists corroborates this ; It  says “The polyester T-shirts smelled significantly less pleasant and more intense, compared to the cotton T-shirts”. Microbial Odor Profile of Polyester and Cotton Clothes after a Fitness Session

But cotton can also smell horrible if the sweat is retained for a long time. I have experience. And also a post that tells you how to remove the sweat smell from clothes.

If sweat smell is a persistent  problem with you will have to look for performance fabrics with this odor controlling capacity.

Some fabrics like wool and bamboo fabric are naturally antimicrobial fabrics and they prevents odor-causing bacteria from growing. 

Is it Durable?

This is an understandable question – if you work out regularly the clothes get wear and tear and you do not want to spend a fortune on exercise clothes. 

Gym clothes need to be washed everyday that you use it on- you do not wait for it to show stains or smell bad before you toss it into a machine. And it should be able to withstand all the tumble inside the washing machine and come out clean. Synthetic fabrics are the best bet for this quality.  The fibers are strong and durable. But so is good quality cotton, but not as much as polyester or nylon.

Does it give Support?

This can be a feature of the fabric or a feature added to the garment. In leggings hidden compression panel maybe added to give support.

Different types of garments used in exercising

 Top wear

T shirts and other pullover tops  are the most used for exercising by both men and women. Some people use compression shirts inside the loose fitting shirts for support. It is better to use fitted t shirts for exercising in the fabric of your choice. 

For top wear, you need a fabric that will keep the sweat away from the body and dry fast once it is wet and not get soggy and heavy like cotton and other natural fabrics.  Synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon are the best for this. 

 Bottom wear

Pull on shorts or pants, Bicycle shorts, running tights, leggings, leotards.

Workout pants are modest options for working out. Sweat pants, track pants, joggers are favorites in this segment.

You can choose sweat pants with adjustable drawstring on top of an elastic waistband or figure hugging types with just the elastic waistband and zippers. The snug fitting pants may have zippers at the hem to allow easy getting out and in. 

Yoga, Pilates etc need pants that will allow you to move legs in all directions so stretch ability is of paramount importance. You can buy yoga pants (full-length tights or leggings with a slight flair in the lower leg) for yoga and Pilates. Leggings (full length or capri length) are also used. Unitards are not so popular anymore.

For cycling you need pants that will allow you to move your legs with great flexibility and which will not get caught in the equipment. 

If you prefer shorts for your activities there are many options – from loose fit to figure hugging types, and in varying lengths. If you indulge in aerobic activities inside a gym you can use  long shorts (7-9 inch long) but high intensity activities like running and cross training are better done with short shorts ( 4 inch).

 Inner wear

You can  use many layers of clothing for warmth and comfort. Muscles shirts and tank top are used under regular workout clothes as layering in cold weather. Sports bra is a necessity for women for support during workouts.


This depends on your place of activity – inside a gym or outside in hot weather or cold weather. Also whether you need support.

You can buy wool or wool blend socks for cold weather outdoor activities. Synthetic socks are better for indoor activities and hot weather outdoor activities because they wick sweat and evaporate the sweat fast and so dry fast. You can choose socks with extra support on the heels and the balls of the foot if injury prevention is a concern


Microfiber is a great choice to take to the gym to wipe out sweat – it is lightweight and absorbent.

10 Popular Fabrics used in work out wear

 1 Synthetic fabrics like nylon, polyester and acrylic

These 100% synthetic fabrics wick sweat away from the body. 100% polyester double knits are popularly used for making comfortable pants for exercising. 

One of the main advantage is that these fabrics can be washed and dried in washing machine easily – and no need for ironing. Just wash it, dry it and wear it. They do not have much wear and tear even with frequent washings or rough use.

They are not as absorbent as cotton fabrics but that is an advantage on them. They do not soak the sweat and keep it in. They dry quickly and are naturally lightweight.

2 Polyester spandex blend / Nylon spandex knits

These are two way stretch fabrics made by blending synthetic fabrics with spandex. They are best suited for making form fitting garments.

Polyester spandex knit is the usual fabric for making form fitting leggings – you need the spandex fibers for giving these clothes a snug fit with enough stretch

Nylon Spandex knit is a two way knit fabric which is great for making form fitting clothes, as they stretch effectively. Bicycle shorts, tights etc are made with this fabric. 

3. Cotton/synthetic blends

Blends of cotton and other synthetic fabrics have double advantages – they do not shrink like cotton nor do they wrinkle. They are easy to care like synthetics but breathable.  They are not as absorbent as cotton, which is an advantage in making clothes for exercising.

Triple blends – Cotton/polyester/spandex knits

This is great for hot weather activities because of the  great absorbency. You can wear clothes made of this fabric for activities in which you would not sweat too much like walking, stretching yoga etc.  The fabric is not as durable as nylon spandex knits because of the addition of natural fibers.

Cotton/spandex/nylon is a favourite to make soft but durable and moisture wicking leggings. 

Rayon/ cotton/polyester is another combination used.

4. Polypropylene knits

This is a good fabric for making clothes for cold weather activities. It has great insulation properties. Polypropelene is water resistant. It has excellent moisture wicking capacity which makes it a very popular choice for workout clothes, though it is plastic basically.

5. Merino wool & other wools

Wool generally is a temperature regulating fabric – if you use it in winter it will keep you warm and in hot weather you will still be comfortable.  So because of its superior qualities it ranks high as a fabric to make work out clothes. Thin wool can be used for hot weather and thicker wool for cold weather.You can learn more about the properties of wool here.

Merino wool is a very expensive fabric but it is odor resistant, lightweight, breathable, and very soft . It is used to make a base layer top under your t shirt. 

Merino wool is also used for socks which can keep feet warm and comfortable in cold climate. 

6. Jersey Backed Microfleece

This is a fabric used to make  sweatshirts and sweatpants suitable for exercising in cold climates. This stretchy fabric  is suitably lightweight (than regular fleece), Soft and smooth on the outside, with thermal and wicking capacity.

7 Cotton (woven) fabrics

I am talking about absorbent cotton fabrics like cotton pique, Twill, Poplin and Gabardine. If you want natural fabrics and nothing else, you can consider these fabrics.They can be used to make track pants and comfortable tops for simple exercises.

Cotton is adsorbent so mild sweat will be absorbed by the fabric and make you feel comfortable.

If you are a germo-phobic you may want to wash your clothes in hot water which will kill all bacteria – with synthetic clothing this is not an option. You can even boil your cotton clothing and it will come out ultra clean. Imagine doing that with the synthetic fabric you have. 

Organic cotton cloth is a good choice for those looking for ethical options in cotton. 

8 Knit fabrics

Lightweight knits used to make clothes suitable for exercising includes Cotton Jersey knit, Interlock knit and Tricot knit & other t shirt knits. Medium weight knits like sweatshirt knits, double knits are also used. They may not have the two way stretch of spandex blends, but they are very comfortable to wear for mild work outs. 

Mesh knits

These are added to exercise clothes for ventilation – Mesh inserts are usually added on the sides of pants and on the backs of tops for  air circulation.

9 Branded Performance fabrics

This refers to company patented fabrics with specific value added to it for a distinctive feature.

There are trademark for all kinds of technologies you can think of in work out clothes. You can choose synthetics with quick-drying climacool® technology – this will help you feel cool and dry even when doing intensive activities. Supplex is made with all the advantages of cotton and synthetic fibers. Slim Fix technology, Seamless knit technology , High compression technology are some I have read about used in exercise clothes. 

Goretex is a branded fabric which is water proof. There are many branded synthetic fabrics Nike Dri-FIT, Polartec PowerDry, with very specific qualities ( as is evident from their names, no secret there) used to make work out clothes.

Here is a list of common synthetic fabrics.

10 Tencel

Tencel is the brand name of  lyocel fabric produced by the Austrian company Lenzing AG. Tencel is hailed as the answer for a fabric to make work out clothes which is ethical and sustainable enough. The advantage that Tencel has over all other fabrics is that it is made in an environmental-friendly way. Tencel is a soft, breathable, naturally sourced fabric, with moisture wicking capacity.

As world wakes up to the dangers of unsustainable production processes of almost all fabrics there may be more demand for Tencel and other eco-friendly fabrics

Related post : Eco-friendly and organic fabrics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *