What you wear during your workouts should not only make you look good but feel good as well. This means that the ideal fabric for gym clothes should keep you cool and comfortable to ensure you get the most out of each sweat session.
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The best material for exercise clothes should not only be soft and gentle on your skin but also be tough enough to withstand the rigours of training – whether the exercise involves difficult positions (think yoga or Pilates), extended wear or challenging weather conditions.
For example, endurance runners that run marathons and ultras for hours need activewear that won’t irritate or chafe the skin. The clothes they wear should also be durable enough to withstand long hours of use and be moisture wicking. So, although it’s easy to find any type of workout clothes, selecting the best material for working out and participating in athletic events is something else.
What Fabric Properties Should Sportswear Have?
Sports or exercise fabric is a type of technical clothing material that’s designed to ensure the wearer is comfortable and cool during a workout. Light, breathable clothing material usually works best so you can focus on your routine rather than on the discomfort you are feeling during exercise.
However, the type of fabric you need would also depend on the intensity of the exercise or specific physical activity. For example, sportswear for outdoor winter sports should be breathable activewear with excellent insulating properties.
Moisture-wicking gym clothes work for all indoor exercises, especially for people who perspire profusely. However, for certain exercises like yoga or Pilates, the primary sportswear fabric properties that stand out are good stretchability and durability.
Fabric Properties to Look for in Fitness Clothing
There are many properties that make certain sportswear fabrics ideal for certain exercises or physical activities. Below is a list of the most important properties to consider:
Whether it’s sportswear for cycling, running, swimming, hiking, aerobics, tennis or any other sport, the clothes you choose should ideally be long-wearing to ensure you maximise their use. For physically demanding sports, wearing durable activewear is essential for protection.
Absorbency and Wicking
The absorbency and wicking properties of sweat resistant material used for activewear add to the comfort of wearing the garment. These characteristics of certain sports fabrics make it easy for you to carry on with your exercise without worrying about perspiration.
Absorbent, fast-drying and moisture wicking synthetic fabrics usually make the best material for sweating, whether you’re into dancing, gym workouts, Pilates or other workouts.
New lightweight technical fabrics help athletes, fitness buffs and sports enthusiasts perform optimally with little to no discomfort, just like breathable synthetic fabrics. Fabric weight is a big factor in sports performance, especially in endurance sports where every milligram adds to the load on the body as the wearer struggles to finish a race or event.
The quality of being extensible or stretchable is another important sportswear fabric property. Form-fitting, comfortable sportswear enhances mobility, posture and one’s natural silhouette.
A good example is women’s leggings that are made exclusively with extensible fabric that allows wearers to freely move, whatever form of exercise they are performing.
Aside from being breathable, moisture-wicking and lightweight, the best workout clothes for heavy sweating should also be colour-fast. When a fabric material is colour-fast, it won’t ‘bleed’ even if it becomes damp or wet from perspiration, water or rain.
Sportswear should ideally be washable and easy to clean so that dirt, perspiration and any unpleasant odours can be removed quickly in a single wash. Moreover, activewear should also have the ability to shrink back to size after being laundered.
Activewear made from fabrics that are considered to have good thermal conductivity make poor insulators, so they would be cooler to wear. These are ideal for use in certain sports where strenuous movements warm up the body and can lead to profuse sweating. Conversely, fabrics that trap more still air will keep you warmer – which is ideal for winter sports like skiing and ice skating.
Water Vapour Transmission
Waterproof, breathable fabrics possess a property referred to as water vapour transmission. These fabric materials can prevent wind and rain from penetrating the clothes, yet also allow moisture from perspiration to escape. This property is essential in sportswear designed for trail running, kayaking, cycling and other outdoor sports.
How to Decide on the Best Fabric for Working Out
Some people prioritise looking good as they exercise, so they choose fashionable workout clothes. However, choosing the best workout material is more about comfort and fit rather than being on-trend or looking attractive.
When you work out, the clothes you wear affect your performance. Therefore, it’s best to choose clothes that are made from technical exercise fabric that’s appropriate to your sports activity. This is because there are specific athletic pursuits like golfing, tennis, cycling and swimming that require certain sports attire.
In general, however, it’s best to go for activewear that is breathable, comfortable, moisture-wicking, lightweight, fast-drying, stretchable, odour resistant, durable, waterproof and shrinks back to size during washing.
Types of Fabrics Used in Fitness Clothing
Performance fabrics, like technical clothing materials, are engineered to achieve a certain goal. So if you engage in exercise or athletics, you would do well to prioritise purchasing activewear that’ll help you perform your best, whether during a training or a sporting event.
Garments Used for Activewear Tops
Sportswear today is made from a plethora of different materials like microfiber, cotton, spandex, nylon and polyester. The best material for tank tops would be stretchable, cool, breathable and moisture-wicking.
The best moisture-wicking workout shirts are made of fabrics that pull moisture away from your body and allow it to evaporate so you stay dry and comfortable. Examples of gym shirt material that’s great in terms of comfort, fit and keeping you dry include cotton, nylon and dacron.
Garments Used for Activewear Bottoms
The best options for tights and yoga pants material would be form-fitting yet comfortable and breathable gym leggings.
But it’s hard to pick the best material for gym leggings since there are so many options available out there. These include spandex, nylon, wool and company-patented performance materials. Just remember that when buying women’s activewear bottoms, the gym shorts material or the fabric of your leggings should feel great on you.
Garments Used for Sports Underwear and Socks
The importance of keeping cool, comfortable and dry not only applies to activewear tops and bottoms but also to sports underwear and socks. Remember, these pieces of garments are worn right next to your skin, so they should be made of high-quality materials.
Polypropylene, nylon, spandex and mesh are some more commonly used fabrics used in making socks and sports underwear, including bras.
Best Workout Material – A Closer Look at Each Fabric
Now, it’s time to put the most commonly used fabrics for gym clothes under the microscope. Note that the best workout materials or exercise fabrics are generally used in combination to create various sportswear. But to give you insights into each particular fabric, below is a detailed discussion of each.
Cotton is a widely used natural fibre and is used for a range of applications beyond the manufacture of activewear. But is it for you? Should you purchase all-cotton workout clothes?
To know the answer, you need to be aware of the pros and cons of cotton:
- Pros: Light and breathable, great for daily wear even for warm weather; washes very well and doesn’t hold on to odours
- Cons: Extremely absorbent, so it can get heavy and damp
If you sweat a lot, cotton workout gear might not be for you. But if you don’t sweat profusely during exercise, hold on to those cotton workout shorts and leggings.
Cotton Fitness Clothing FAQs
- Is cotton breathable? Yes, very much so.
- Is cotton moisture wicking? No.
- Does cotton shrink? Yes, unless it’s treated.
- Does cotton absorb sweat? Yes.
- Is cotton waterproof? No.
- Does cotton stretch? Yes.
- Is cotton durable? Moderately so. Mildew and prolonged sun exposure can damage it.
Polyester is a popular synthetic workout fabric you’ll find on just about any sports label. But, just like with cotton, there are pros and cons of polyester clothing for exercising.
- Pros: Durable, lightweight, breathable, non-absorbent and wrinkle-resistant; provides good insulation and repels UV rays
- Cons: Allows stink-causing bacteria and fungi to thrive, so it smells and holds on to odours
If you wear polyester sportswear or prefer working out in polyester, it’s best to wash soiled polyester material clothes right away so the smell doesn’t linger.
Polyester Workout Clothes FAQs
- Is polyester breathable? Yes.
- Is polyester moisture wicking? Definitely.
- Does polyester shrink? It is generally shrink-resistant – not unless you actively invest time and effort to shrink it.
- Why are sports clothes made of polyester? Because it nearly has all the qualities required in sportswear fabric.
- Does polyester show sweat? It’ll lend your sports clothes a sheen due to perspiration.
- Is polyester a waterproof fabric? Yes.
- Does polyester fabric stretch? It can stretch moderately between 5 and 15% while under load.
- How durable is polyester? It is durable. In fact, it’s also resistant to many chemicals. It doesn’t shrink and is generally resistant to wrinkling and abrasion.
If you’ve ever worn nylon workout pants or shirts, you’ll know how light and soft the material is on the skin. This comes as no surprise as nylon has been a staple for making women’s stockings. If you’ve ever wondered whether there’s a downside to nylon, here are the pros and cons of nylon fabric:
- Pros: Very soft, durable, resistant to mildew and mould, stretchable, moisture-wicking and quick-drying
- Cons: Does not absorb dye easily, so it poses challenges to digital printing – but this is more of a manufacturing challenge as doesn’t really affect wearers
Nylon Sportswear FAQs
- Is nylon a breathable fabric? Yes.
- Is nylon spandex breathable? Definitely; that’s why it’s a popular combination used in activewear.
- Does nylon wick moisture? Yes.
- Does nylon shrink? Pure nylon does not shrink at all.
- Does nylon make you sweat? Yes, since nylon can trap heat and sweat, it’s best for use during cold-weather activities or exercises.
- Is nylon waterproof? Nylon is water repellent.
- Does nylon fabric stretch? Yes, it does.
- Is nylon durable? Definitely – more durable than polyester, too.
Spandex, Lycra or Elastane
In case you’re confused, spandex, elastane and Lycra refer to the same thing. Whilst spandex and elastane are the generic name for the same synthetic material, Lycra is one of the more famous brand names for this fabric.
- Pros: Super stretchable and flexible as it can expand to almost 600% of its size; wrinkle- and shrink-proof, and has a decent level of breathability, somewhat moisture-wicking and quick-drying
- Cons: Avoid ironing or tossing in the dryer too often as it can lose its stretch
The high level of stretchability characteristic of performance spandex makes it an ideal fabric for workouts that require a high range of motion. This is why Lycra sports clothing is popular in yoga, Pilates and weightlifting.
Fitness Lycra is usually associated with making athletic attire. However, you’ll also find spandex or elastane being used as an ingredient in producing boxer briefs, socks and even looser garments, although in lesser amounts.
To prolong the life of your spandex or Lycra fitness clothing, make sure to always wash on cold and air dry.
Spandex, Lycra, Elastane Activewear FAQs
- Is spandex/Lycra breathable? It is decently breathable.
- Does spandex/Lycra shrink? Spandex won’t shrink except when it is blended with other fabrics that do. Similar to nylon, spandex can hold its shape exceedingly well even with lots of washings.
- Is spandex/Lycra waterproof? While not naturally waterproof, spandex is water-resistant.
- Does spandex/Lycra stretch? Very much so. In fact, spandex is highly valued for its high degree of stretchability, making it a popular fabric in making sportswear.
- Is spandex/Lycra good material? From a manufacturer’s point of view, spandex is a superior sportswear material because it is cost-effective, easy to pint on and design, shrink- and wrinkle-proof. Its excellent stretchability and fast recovery (return to its original size) make it a superior choice for making swimwear and other sports garments.
A popular fabric blend is polyamide and spandex fabric, which is used mainly in manufacturing skin-tight activewear like leggings, sports bras and track shorts. Take a look at this comfortable, pretty and functional polyamide (nylon) and spandex seamless crop top by L’urv.
Synthetic polyamides are made into different fibres, although there are also organic or naturally occurring polyamides like wool and silk. Nylon is actually one type of polyamide fabric and is sometimes considered synonymous to it. It is the most common polyamide fabric used in sportswear.
Aramids like Kevlar and Nomex are types of polyamide fabrics that aren’t commonly used in apparel, although their names might be familiar. Nomex is a flame-retardant fabric used in firefighting gear, whilst Kevlar is used in making bulletproof vests.
- Pros: Very durable, shrink- and abrasion-resistant, has high stretchability and is moderately moisture wicking
- Cons: Low breathability, prone to pilling, high water absorption
Polyamide doesn’t shrink in the wash. For best results, wash with a gentle spin cycle and tumble dry at cold to moderately warm temperatures.
Polyamide Fitness Clothing FAQ
- Is polyamide fabric breathable? No. It has low breathability, so it’s usually blended with other fabrics.
- Does polyamide shrink? Polyamide is shrink-proof.
- Is polyamide waterproof? Polyamides like nylon are water repellent.
- Does polyamide stretch? Yes, it has excellent stretchability.
Comparison of the Best Workout Materials
When it comes to choosing the best material for working out, there are plenty of options available. Each exercise fabric may have its pros and cons, but what sportswear manufacturers have done is to come up with fabric blends that serve to combine the best qualities of certain materials.
To make choosing fabric for your gym clothes easier, you can refer to the following table, which summarises the different properties of popular activewear materials.
Other Fabrics Used in Gym and Fitness Clothing
Aside from popular materials like cotton, nylon and spandex, there are other not-as-popular fabric options that are worth looking into.
- Bamboo: Although bamboo sounds like a natural fibre, it is classified as a synthetic fabric because of the way it is produced. Bamboo is lightweight, breathable, durable, moisture-wicking and has a more luxurious feel than cotton.
- Polypropylene: Another synthetic fabric, polypropylene is water-resistant, lightweight, durable, easy to clean and environmentally sustainable.
- Merino Wool: Merino wool is a natural fabric that is soft, wrinkle-proof and has great insulation properties. It is also naturally antibacterial, so it can regulate odour. However, it is also highly absorbent (bad news for heavy sweaters) and relatively more expensive than other materials including cotton.
- Gore-Tex: Gore-Tex is a branded waterproof, breathable fabric membrane that is generally used for making performance clothing and footwear.
- Mesh: Mesh is a synthetic fabric that’s comfortable, cool, lightweight and breathable. It is usually made into lining material for sportswear, including athletic jerseys and workout apparel.
- Tencel: Tencel is a brand that creates lyocell fabric made from sustainably sourced, natural wood. It doesn’t wrinkle easily and comes in vibrant colors. It’s also moisture-wicking and breathable.
- X-Static: X-static is a branded fibre with a layer of pure silver bonded to the surface. It is waterproof, windproof and breathable. It also eliminates almost 99.9% of bacteria, so odour is kept under control.
- Econyl: Also known as recycled or repurposed nylon, econyl is usually blended with other fabrics in making form-fitting apparel, yoga pants, swimsuits, sportswear, sweatpants, etc.
Final Workout Material Advice
In choosing the best material for working out, it’s better to focus on your comfort needs rather than on what’s fashionable or looks good on you. You should also consider the type of activity you are engaging in and whether you perspire a lot.
Aside from these qualities, check each exercise fabric for durability and care, as some materials can be pricey. Make sure that the sports apparel you choose will help you perform optimally, whether you are working out, training or participating in an athletic event.