When it comes to working out, motivation plays a big part in your success. But what you wear also matters. Baggy sweats and cotton T-shirts may be comfy, but they can also wreak havoc on your body. The right workout clothes, on the other hand, wick away sweat, display movements clearly, and protect sensitive skin. Consider yourself an exercise veteran? Don’t assume you’re immune. Gym rats and newbies alike are at risk of falling victim to these athletic-apparel offenders. So before you lace up your favorite sneakers or pull on your go-to sports bra, learn what you should NEVER wear to the gym:
100 Percent Cotton Clothing
Steer clear of workout wear made with 100 percent cotton fabric. This fiber may seem like a cool and comfortable option, but because cotton absorbs moisture and is slow to dry, your sweat will literally stick with you. Aside from weighing you down, damp cotton duds can cause chills and skin irritation or body breakouts, and increase friction in chafe-prone areas.
Fix It: Trade cotton wear for quick-drying synthetics or lightweight, moisture-wicking fabrics, which are specifically designed to draw droplets away from the skin for optimal evaporation.
Tip: No matter what kind of fabric you sweat in, retire the item if it starts to take on an odor of its own. “There’s a lifetime on fabrics when you’re soaking them with sweat on a regular basis,” says personal trainer Joey Gonzales, COO of Barry’s Bootcamp in New York City.
If you don’t ditch your kicks until the soles come unglued or a hole appears in the toe, you’re doing your feet a disservice. Deteriorated soles and arch supports can keep you from establishing a solid base when standing on a slick studio floor and may even damage joints. Brett Donelson, a certified personal trainer, USA Cycling coach, and USA triathlon coach in Vail, Colorado, says good athletic shoes promote correct alignment during exercise. “Generally, you want your knees to be tracking over your toes, whether you’re doing a set of squats or cycling,” he says. “If your shoes are not giving you the support you need, your knees won’t track over your feet, and that will lead to knee and foot pain.”
Fix It: Replace your tennis shoes about every 500 miles, suggests Melissa Paris, a New York City-based personal trainer and a Lululemon Athletica ambassador. “If you run two days a week, a new pair once a year is OK,” says Paris. “If you run six to seven days a week, you should replace them closer to every three months.”
Tip: If you’re picking out a new pair of sneakers, Gonzales and Donelson recommend seeking professional analysis of your strides, so your shoes can correct for your foot’s natural tendency to roll inward or outward. Choosing function over fashion is key for a safe, effective sweat session. “Everyone’s obsessed with wearing good-looking shoes, but shoes are a prescription, and they should be seen as such,” says Gonzales.
Unsupportive Sports Bras
You won’t be able to give your workout all you’ve got if you’re uncomfortable or self-conscious. A good sports bra does the work of protecting the ligaments and tissues in your chest from excessive stretching or stress so you can push yourself without worries.
Fix It: To pick the perfect bra, keep in mind the level of impact of your typical workout and the shape of your body. Low-impact sports bras work for activities like yoga or walking, while options designed for high-impact activity are ideal for interval training and intense cardio classes. Choose bras in moisture-wicking fabrics with flat or covered seams to minimize trapped sweat and chafing. Large-chested women should opt for bras that have wider straps, which disperse weight and won’t dig into shoulders, and wider bands (or even underwire) at the bottom of the bra, which provide maximum support.
Tip: Even if you’re happy with the bosom buddies you’ve got, make sure to replace them every six to nine months. Jessica Matthews, MS, E-RYT, a San Diego-based exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise (ACE), says worn out sports bras won’t do their job, and can lead to ligament damage. Although the life of a bra depends on how often you wear and wash it, she suggests looking for cues like distorted cups, weakened elasticity, bent or protruding underwire, or a fit that isn’t flat against the body.
Jewelry that hangs, swings, or sticks out has no place in the gym. “Anything that’s going to get in the way or make you think about anything besides your workout should be left at home,” says Paris. Matthews says rings—even wedding rings—can be uncomfortable or get damaged when lifting and can easily get caught on yoga and Pilates mats.
Fix It: Stow hardware in your gym bag or locker to keep yourself and your baubles out of trouble.
Loud Ear Gear
Even if you don’t accessorize for exercise, you probably wear headphones to pipe in your pump-up soundtrack. Although donning ear-gear can help you get in the zone, it can also limit awareness of your surroundings.
Fix It: Keep the volume of your music at a level that allows you to hear what’s going on around you, says Paris. “If you’re sitting on a piece of equipment someone’s been waiting for or a fire alarm goes off, you need to have a clue.”
Tip: Whether you’re in a fitness center or getting fit outdoors, dialing down your beats will also optimize your ability to tune in to your breathing during a lifting session or to monitor your foot strike when you’re on a run.
Loose-fitting clothing is for lounging, not lunging—wearing too much material in the gym is a safety hazard. “If you have something very baggy on, it can get in the way of what you’re doing, or it can get snagged and caught on something,” says Matthews. It’s also harder to see your body’s alignment, posture, and movements when you’re not sporting fitted clothing, which can pose another safety risk: If your form is all wrong when you’re lifting or attempting a tricky Pilates move, you’re more likely to hurt your body than help it.
Fix It: You don’t have to squeeze yourself into an all-spandex ensemble, but trading your oversized apparel for more form-fitting workout gear will up the safety factor of your sweat session.
Tip: Although shapeless clothing can seem like the ultimate in coverage, Matthews says during activities like yoga, baggy clothing can actually be revealing, baring bellies and upper thighs during certain poses. Donelson urges the athletes he works with to wear clothing that will cover and hug the thigh, so they can stretch and move with freedom. “In a public setting, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” says Donelson. If you’re a fan of loose gym shorts, slip on a pair of compression shorts underneath to ward off unwanted exposure.
Although you don’t want to be swimming in fabric, finding a happy medium is key—no sportswear should hamper your full range of motion.
Fix It: Cuffs of short-sleeved workout tops and fabric covering shoulders and armpits should be roomy enough for lifting, flexing, and waving your arms around. As for bottoms, Matthews says you’ll know they’re too form-fitting if the waistband or crotch feels restrictive during forward folds, lunges, or squats.
Heavy Perfumes and Lotions
No one wants to smell at the gym, but draw the line at deodorant and skip additional scents. The aroma of strong perfumes or colognes is intensified when your body heats up and starts to sweat, which can lead to a workout-busting headache for you or someone working out near you.
Matthews also cautions against using greasy lotions before a gym session. Thick hand and body creams can make your skin slippery and thwart your best attempts to hold a plank or grip a barbell, not to mention the unsightly residue it can leave behind on benches and handles. A heavy facial moisturizer can also wreak havoc on your workout if sweat causes it to slide into—and sting—your eyes.
Fix It: Skip strong-smelling toiletries. Matthews says opting for fragrance-free, oil-free lotion or sunscreen specifically formulated for sport is your best bet for skin-protection that won’t foil fitness efforts