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What to Wear at the Gym: Tips on Proper Gym Etiquette Pt 1

Friday, January 22, 2010 Posted by Peter Janiszewski, PhD
It’s late January, and as I predicted, new year’s resolutions are in full swing at the gym. The Athletics and Recreation Centre (ARC) at Queen’s university, where I work out has become MUCH busier in comparison to attendance before the holidays. Along with all the new faces at the gym, comes the inappropriate gym etiquette and fitness faux pas being perpetrated at an annoying frequency. Thus, as a means to vent my frustration and also as a guide for those who are new to the unique social environment of a gym, I have put together a 3 part series on proper gym etiquette (be sure to check out Part II and Part III). Today’s discussion focuses on proper athletic attire. 

Proper gym attire should really a no-brainer, or one would think. When coming to exercise at a gym, some sort of athletic garb is most appropriate; running shoes, shorts and a t-shirt is an ensemble that always works well, and doesn’t attract too much attention or ridicule.

Here is a brief list of things that should and should not be worn at the gym (all of these items I have personally witnessed over the years).

Lower body:

What to wear: Shorts are a very obvious and comfortable choice, one that I stick to exclusively. Some people prefer to wear longer pants (i.e. track pants, or the uber-popular black athletic pants for females - a la LuLu Lemon style).

What not to wear:

- Jeans: not the most giving fabric. Certain exercises, such as squats or lunges may be particularly difficult to execute. Also, just in case this wasn’t abundantly obvious, combining low-rise jeans with an exposed thong string is a sure-fire way to get much (well-deserved) ridicule. (Yes I have actually seen this).

- Short-shorts: when it is the tight Spandex type shorts popular among female volleyball players, it may draw some attention from the men. If you are a female and you don’t mind male attention, or you feel that it spices up your workouts – go for it! Then again, a gym can be a bit of a meat-market so if often doesn’t matter what you wear – people will stare at you. On the other hand, if you are a male, wearing short shorts that are loose, combined with a lack of underwear, is NOT the right attire for many exercises – lunges, deadlifts, squats come to mind. In this instance, the row machine is a particularly poor choice. (I have witnessed this first hand back in highschool when a teacher did this very thing on a rowing machine and exposed himself to all the students).

Upper Body:

What to wear: T-shirts are the way to go, especially if they are made from a dry-fit or moisture wicking material that will keep you nice and dry despite sweating. Some people prefer cut off sleeves (I’m included in this category) or basketball jerseys, and many females wear athletic tank tops – all are fair game.

What not to wear:

- Layered shirts: some males feel inadequately buff and thus decide to layer their clothing to appear bigger. This really can’t be too comfortable, and unfortunately everyone can see you have 5 t-shirts on.

- Sports bras ONLY (i.e. without a t-shirt or tank top over it): Now I know many males will disagree with me on this one, but if you are a female and you’d rather not get gawked at my all the guys around you, this would also be a poor choice. On the other hand, if you are at the gym to find love rather than actually work out – best of luck to you! (BTW – the last time I saw a female wearing a sports bra, it was part of the low-rise jeans, exposed thong ensemble – no joke!)

- Dress shirts: there is a time and place for a crisp buttoned shirt – like a job interview. Alas, the gym is not that place.


What to wear: Any sort of athletic shoe (excluding soccer cleats, golf shoes, etc.) will do – whatever you find comfortable. If playing squash or basketball, you can get special court shoes, but otherwise a good all around running shoe will suffice for most activities.

What not to wear:

- Sandals/flip-flops: Aside from looking like an idiot, when in an area with lots of heavy objects being tossed about (especially by people with poor gym etiquette – discussed in a later post) you want your feet covered and at least somewhat protected.

- Barefoot: This is sort of like the above, but takes a special type of person to pull off.

- Workboots: Ok, so on the other extreme you have someone so worried about foot injury that they decide steel-toe work boots are the only footware appropriate for the job. While I commend you on being so concerned with safety – workboots really aren’t meant for athletic performance, not do they look reasonable with a pair of shorts.

Head gear:

What to wear: nothing…ok, maybe a headband for females with long hair. But that’s it!

What not to wear:

- Toques – unless your gym operates at sub-zero temperatures, keeping you head warm is not an issue…and of course, you risk once again looking like an idiot. (This may be a Canadian phenomenon, I’m not sure)

- Bandanas - Ok, we all know you’re tough and everything, and are potentially in a gang, but unless you are marking your turf around the squat rack, leave the bandana at home.

- Baseball caps – This one is fine. But as a personal choice, given I am guaranteed to sweat, do I really need a hat to absorb that sweat and make my head smell?

- Goggles – unless you are playing squash or doing laps in the pool, goggles are not necessary while doing bicep curls


What to wear: Really, nothing. A towel is usually a good idea, particularly if you suffer from hyperhydrosis (excessive perspiration). Some people also like wearing weight-lifting gloves to avoid excessive callous formation on their hands. Othewise, accessories are not necessary.

What not to wear: Everything else.

Hope that helps shine some light on appropriate gym attire. As I am certain I'm not the only one who has seen ridiculous wardrobes at the gym, I'd love to hear from you in the comments section below. What is the weirdest/silliest thing you saw someone sporting at the gym?

And for more gym etiquette, be sure to check out Part II and Part III in the series.

Peter Janiszewski

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15 Response to "What to Wear at the Gym: Tips on Proper Gym Etiquette Pt 1"

  1. Wendy @unsafeatanysize Said,

    When you say no sports bra, I think you mean without any shirt or tank top? If you're a big chested gal, going to the gym without a good sports bra under it all will definitely lead to serious discomfort.

    Posted on January 22, 2010 at 1:25 PM

  2. Peter Janiszewski, PhD (Cand.), MSc Said,

    @ Wendy - Yes, I apologize if that was unclear. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wearing a sports bra - much like wearing underwear bottoms when exercising.
    I was alluding to wearing a sports bra only - which, even that is a matter of personal taste (if not gym policy). Some gyms do not allow anything less than shorts and t-shirt - even exposing your shoulders is reason for trouble:)

    Posted on January 22, 2010 at 1:33 PM

  3. biopunk Said,

    I read that "sports bra" thing the same way.

    Wait a minute... Headbands are okay, but I shouldn't be wearing a toque???

    Posted on January 22, 2010 at 2:43 PM

  4. Anonymous Said,

    Some people think (erroneously) that sweating more will cause them to lose weight (which it will, in the form of water). I once saw a man (well, the bits of him visible) dressed in heavy sweatpants, a sweatshirt over another shirt, a hood up, a towel around that hood (i.e. folded over in a sort of sausage-shaped formation), and gloves. Presumably his intent was to increase the amount of weight he 'burned off'. I'm not a doctor - I'm more of a literature type (Dostoevsky, etc.) - but I don't think that is a healthy thing to do.
    I've also seen jeans and tight spandex shorts.

    Posted on January 22, 2010 at 5:37 PM

  5. Anonymous Said,

    Did you REALLY see somebody wearing goggles while weight lifting?!?! If so, that would beat everything I have seen to date!

    And I have also seen the low rise jeans/crack phenomenom.... on an obese man. Trying to do kneeling cable crunches. Inches upon inches of exposed butt. *shudder*


    Posted on January 22, 2010 at 6:15 PM

  6. Peter Janiszewski, PhD (Cand.), MSc Said,

    @ Nicole - Yes I have actually seen someone with goggles weight-lifting - I swear I am not making that up. In fact, I have seen this particular gentleman on a number of occasions.

    @ Anyonymous - I agree that dehydrating yourself is not the wisest strategy. Nevertheless, it is very commonly done by athletes who compete in weight-categorized sports, such as wrestling. Cutting weight, by the method you described, and many worse methods (working out in plastic wrapping, excessive sauna use, diuretics, etc.) are just viewed as part of the sport. I've never agreed with this, and despite the obvious health risks, it continues to be done.

    Anyone else see anything ridiculous?

    Posted on January 22, 2010 at 6:28 PM

  7. Travis Saunders Said,

    I will admit that I have worn my running shorts (aka short shorts) into the gym on many occasions. In my defense, it's really hard to do a good treadmill workout in basketball shorts! Although I make sure to wear basketball shorts for anything other than running.

    I've also noticed that attire is very gym specific. In Calgary I worked out in the Varsity/Olympic gym, where people were almost always in ripped tshirts and grubby shorts. In contrast, in the regular student gym, everyone was dressed up in the latest gym fashions. And at Queen's, the PEC tshirts are ubiquitous. I still haven't been to the gym in Ottawa to see what the standard gear is.

    Posted on January 22, 2010 at 6:39 PM

  8. E. Foley Said,

    It would be good to also mention to avoid wearing any sort of fragrance to the gym, especially if you're going to be on cardio machines during busy hours.

    Some folks (myself included) have fragrance allergies, and when we're sucking in the air around us while on the elliptical, getting a lungful of cologne, perfume, or body spray can have serious consequences.

    For me, depending on the type and strength of the fragrance, my reaction can be as mild as nasal congestion or as severe as my throat closing.

    Be kind to your gym mates - use deodorant, but save the rest of your scents for after your shower.

    Posted on January 23, 2010 at 9:46 AM

  9. Jenny Said,

    I'd like to add makeup to this list. I really can't stand girls who stand around chatting in their full eye/face/lip gloss glory. If you're going to the gym, work up a bit of a sweat. If you just want to look pretty and wear shirts that show off too much stomach/cleavage, go hit up da clubz.

    Posted on January 24, 2010 at 1:44 AM

  10. Kate Porter Said,

    I second E. Foley's comment about fragrances. I'd also add that applying fragrances, hair spray, or aerosol deodorant in the gym is inappropriate, for the same reason.

    And I think I do have to disagree with you on the bandanna issue. I wear a bandanna when I run in the gym, because it's the only thing that keeps my hair a) out of my eyes and b) off my neck. Headbands don't adequately pull the hair back (plus they interfere with my glasses), and my hair is not long enough for a ponytail (plus I have bangs). For someone with mid-length or moderately short hair, a bandanna can be the difference between a good workout and an incredibly uncomfortable one.

    But, my bandannas are clearly not gang-related, either. I will agree that for someone with very short hair, and for most men, a bandanna is inappropriate.

    Posted on January 27, 2010 at 3:34 PM

  11. Kate Porter Said,

    Oh, and re: the goggles--is it possible that they were prescription sports glasses? I used to play soccer, and some of the players had prescription impact-resistant sports glasses that looked a lot like swimming goggles. They're designed to not fall off during vigorous motion.

    Obviously, chemistry lab goggles or regular swimming goggles are a little silly.

    Posted on January 27, 2010 at 3:36 PM

  12. Morgan Said,

    Peter you forgot to mention wearing underwear is key...and not just with short shorts, but with all clothes worn at the gym. Girls wearing white pants, stretching with no underwear is a slight problem, no? :)


    Posted on January 28, 2010 at 8:28 PM

  13. Ktbug Ladydid Said,

    I don't mind running shorts on guys as long as they've got on bike shorts or something underneath that's skin tight. I don't go to work out for a free show. Same to girls. Don't wear short shorts unless you're covered. Oh, and no bracelets that can get tangled/caught, clunky necklaces, or large earrings.

    Posted on February 1, 2010 at 12:10 PM

  14. Anonymous Said,

    How do you feel about thin t-shirts with no bra. I don't care what people wear on the beach, but in the gym, I don't want to see your nipples, thanks. I would feel the same about some guys sweaty testicles hanging out of his shorts.

    Posted on November 11, 2010 at 12:36 PM

  15. Anonymous Said,

    Back in high school, one of our vice principals was a police officer prior. While using the fitness room (which was rather well equipped) he thought to do some quick workout scheme thing. In a two-piece, $800+ (I know it was $800, because I saw the tag, and later bought my $800+ suit from the same company.)
    Needless to say, using the squat press in an $800 suit will certainly stress the stitching.. Riiiiiiip..
    "I didn't think this through." was all he said.
    And amazingly enough, nobody laughed, even after he'd left, we all just went back to routines.
    At least he took off the tie, that could've caught on something. :-p

    Posted on August 5, 2011 at 9:58 AM


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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