How to choose the right fitness clothes for your favorite workout
Hint: It's all in the fabric.
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When shopping for workout clothes, it's easy to be stymied by the endless options for shorts, leggings, shirts, and so on. You have tons of brands to shop—from Instagram-famous activewear like Gymshark to household names like Lululemon or Nike—tons of colors, and tons of styles. It's overwhelming, to say the least.
What's more, not all workout clothes are right for every workout. Exercise in the wrong fabric, and you could end up feeling soggy, unsupported, chafed, or otherwise uncomfortable. But reading product descriptions can also leave you confused. What are the differences between Lululemon's Luxtreme or Nike's Dri-Fit? What's just marketing speak versus what's actually important to you as the consumer (and exerciser)?
As someone who has worked in apparel and textiles for most of my career, I know fabric properties better than most, but even I get confused by weird labeling and technology names. After sorting through hundreds of activewear product listings, I've created a convenient breakdown of what to look for when shopping for workout clothes.
1. The best fabrics for sweat-wicking
Chances are high that if you're working out—especially if you're working out hard—you're sweating. Sweat- or moisture-wicking fabric (which are the same thing, FYI) are designed to move moisture away from the surface of your skin and dissipate into the fibers. This keeps you from feeling sticky or soaked during your session and also allows the moisture to evaporate fasters, so you don't stay swampy. Other words to look for on the product tag are quick- or fast-drying. You can also do a quick test on fabric by putting one drop of water on the inside surface. If it soaks in and spreads out, the fabric will wick sweat. If the water pools or beads up, it will trap moisture in.
Dri-Fit is Nike’s term for its sweat-wicking fabric technology which is made of a "unique high-performance microfiber construction" that spreads sweat across the fabric so it doesn't sit on your skin. Everlux is Lululemon's version, which the company describes as "technical fabric that dries lightning-fast," thanks to its dual-knit construction that pulls moisture away from your body.
2. The most ventilated fabrics for breathability
Another way to combat sweat from pooling is to look for strategically placed mesh paneling, cutouts, or built-in venting. This allows moisture vapor and heat to escape through the clothes to help keep you dry and cool. The panels are typically placed in high heat and sweat areas, like under the armpits or along the chest or back. You may see clothing with these features labeled “ventilation zones” or “body-mapping."
Some brands have their own technology and names for their more breathable clothing: Under Armour’s is called Armourvent, Nike touts Engineered or Zonal Cooling, and Lululemon uses Senseknit.
- Shop Armourvent clothing at Under Armour
- Shop Zonal Cooling clothing at Nike
- Shop Senseknit clothing at Lululemon
3. The most flexible fabrics for mobility
You’ll often see workout clothes touted as having "four-way stretch," which means that the fabric will stretch in both the horizontal and vertical directions. This allows the clothing to move with you as you bend or move, instead of feeling like it’s fighting against you. This is great for activities where you need maximum range of motion, like when you're doing squats at the gym or working into pigeon pose at yoga.
Most athletic brands incorporate four-way stretch into all of their lines for running, yoga, lifting, or any other activity where big ranges of motion are needed. The Lululemon Align leggings that everyone (including our style editor, Amanda Tarlton) is obsessed with feel like a second skin partially due to the four-way stretch of Lululemon's Nulu material, which is 81% nylon and 19% Lycra elastane. Other options include the Colorfulkoala leggings—which have over 33,000 reviews on Amazon and which Amanda says are super flexible—and Target's All in Motion activewear line.
- Get the Align Pant 25" from Lululemon starting at $98
- Get the Colorfulkoala High Waisted Yoga Leggings from Amazon for $25
- Get the All in Motion Contour Flex Ultra High-Waisted 7/8 Leggings 25" from Target for $35
4. The most supportive fabrics for compression
Compression serves two main purposes in workout clothes: It helps stabilize your muscles and may improve your blood circulation while exercising. It also provides a supportive feeling, that many people prefer during high-impact activities that involve running or jumping. The level of compression in a piece of clothing can vary from light to heavy. The higher the percentage of spandex in fabric, the more compressive it is. Some brands also offer zoned compression where there will be more compression in areas where you need it more—like your legs or waist—and less where you don’t.
Under Armour is well-known for its compression gear, which is highly effective at holding everything securely in place. Athleta offers its Inclination leggings, which have over 1,000 reviews for their supportive fit, while Old Navy sells its Sculpt leggings in a range of compression intensities.
- Shop compression clothing at Under Armour
- Get the Inclination Tights from Athleta for $48.99
- Get the Extra High-Waisted Powersoft Light Compression Leggings from Old Navy for $39.99
5. The best options for preventing chafe
If you’re prone to chafing (we're looking at you, runners), you probably have your own methods for reducing the burn (thank you, BodyGlide). But when you're shopping for clothes, you can look for a few indications that a garment won't cause that red, raw skin. First, look for clothes labeled "seamless," which means they're designed to have few or no seams in high-friction areas—like between your thighs or at your waist—to help prevent your skin from rubbing and causing irritation. You might also see these pieces described as "slick," "sleek," or "cool." All of these indicate the fabric is more slippery, which can help reduce friction and chafing.
Some good examples include Nike’s Speed Tight, which has "flatlock" seams that lie flush against your skin; Lululemon’s Luxtreme fabric, which is silky smooth to the touch; and Athleta's Swiftlite fabric, which is the brand's lightest weight material.
- Get the Nike Women's Speed 7/8 Running Tights from Amazon for $90
- Shop Luxtreme clothing at Lululemon
- Shop Swiftlite clothing at Athleta
6. The most practical fabrics for outdoor workouts
Performance fabrics for active pursuits in the great outdoors have to do double duty. First, they must be breathable, so you don't overheat and, second, they must have some measure of rain or snow protection in case the weather turns (or you intentionally go out in wet conditions). To stay dry and comfortable, look for fabric labeled water-resistant or water-repellent. You may also see the acronym "DWR," which stands for "durable water repellent." It's a type of coating that's applied to fabrics to make them water-resistant. These attributes help water roll right off your clothes instead of being absorbed, but they may not fully protect you in a heavy downpour and will eventually soak through if you're in the rain for a long period of time. While you could opt for waterproof material, it's not as breathable and thus less than ideal for exercising.
Lululemon, Athleta, and Nike all offer quality water-resistant jackets ideal for running and working out. The Houdini Jacket from Patagonia has also received rave reviews for its ability to keep wearers protected from the elements and how fast it dries.
- Get the Zoned In Jacket from Lululemon for $228
- Get the Racer Running Free Jacket Print from Athleta starting at $118.99
- Get the Essential Running Jacket from Nike for $90
- Get the Patagonia Houdini Jacket from REI for $160
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.