Selecting the appropriate workout shirt material is a vital aspect to consider while engaging in physical activity. However, with a wide array of options available, it can often be perplexing to make a choice.

The question arises: Should you opt for cotton or synthetic fabric for your workout shirts?

My suggestion is to opt for cotton shirts most of the time for use while exercising, but there are a few exceptions where synthetic shirts truly shine. The reason behind this recommendation is that cotton strikes a perfect balance between breathability, durability, and comfort.

This article aims to delve deeper into why cotton is the ideal choice for workout shirts and how it compares to other materials. So, if you’re struggling to pick out the right gear for your workout, read on for further insight!

Why Wear Cotton Shirts During Workouts?

So why is cotton such a popular choice for working out? A better question would be “Why not just keep wearing your cotton shirt?”

Well, for starters: it’s breathable.

Natural fibers, like cotton, allow air to flow freely around your skin, which keeps you from getting too hot or humid during intense workouts. Since it’s also lightweight (most cotton shirts, at least), it won’t weigh you down as you move and exercise.

What’s more, cotton clothes usually don’t require special maintenance. In other words, you can throw them with the rest of your wardrobe in the regular wash cycle.

Finally, most cotton shirts are relatively inexpensive compared to other synthetic fabrics.

Couple during workout

Why Do Some People Discourage Training With Cotton Clothes?

You might have seen many talks about the drawbacks of cotton and why it isn’t the best option for workouts.

So what’s their point?

When you exercise in a warm environment, it’s normal for your body to heat up. As this happens, your thermoregulation system works to bring the body back to its regular temperature.

The cooling process involves heat being released from your body through the skin by evaporating sweat. That’s basically why you continue to sweat the more you exercise.

What does cotton have to do with this, though?

Well, the material you wear highly impacts the thermoregulation process. While cotton absorbs sweat well, the sweat sticks to the clothes and doesn’t escape into the environment.

That’s why cotton shirts stay wet during vigorous exercise.

On the other hand, synthetic clothing has better moisture-wicking properties to help dry sweat faster. Synthetic material releases the water into the environment at a faster rate than cotton.

Why Do I Say Cotton Is Best?

First, not all cotton shirts are made equal. Some cotton shirts are made from Ringspun cotton, which is lightweight, thin, more durable, and doesn’t have the rough texture of regular cotton.

Second, not all of us sweat to the point that we look like we jumped in a pool. Some of us sweat a lot, while others don’t. Keep in mind that the workout environment and type of exercise affect how much you sweat.

Furthermore, other factors might determine how much you’ll sweat. For instance, if you’re training in a warehouse with no fans, your more expensive synthetic shirt won’t really do you any better.

Finally, you need to consider the type of workout. For example, you won’t sweat that much doing a workout that involves max bench press to the point where you would even be able to tell the difference in its superior moisture wicking properties.

Pros and Cons of Cotton Sportswear

Do you know that cotton is the most widely used clothing material worldwide?

While it’s a natural, biodegradable, hypoallergenic, and comfortable material, there are still reasons why some athletes don’t prefer wearing cotton.

Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of cotton sportswear.

Pros of Exercising in Cotton

  • Comfort: Cotton fabric is soft and comfortable against your skin, well-suited for long-term wear and movement.
  • Breathability: Thanks to its lightweight material, cotton allows heat and sweat to escape, keeping you cooler while you exercise.
  • Durability: Cotton is known to last a while, meaning you can get good use out of your shirts before needing replacements.
  • Retaining moisture: While some see this as a disadvantage when it comes to sportswear, it’s usually beneficial as it keeps you warm in cold weather.
  • Safety: Cotton is safe, as it’s free from pesticides, pigments, and bleach. It’s also hypoallergenic.
  • Affordable: Cotton shirts are generally less expensive than other synthetic fabrics, making them a better option in the long run.

Cons of Exercising in Cotton

  • Soaking: Cotton tends to absorb sweat quickly and hold it in. So if sweat is your main concern when it comes to exercise clothes, cotton may not be the best option for you.
  • Shrinkage: Even though cotton requires minimal maintenance, it tends to shrink after multiple washes.
  • Short wardrobe life: Even though cotton clothes last for a decent period, some advanced synthetic clothes last longer.

Benefits of Synthetic Workout Shirts

While we prefer cotton shirts for a workout, we can’t neglect the benefits of synthetic workout shirts in some scenarios.

Couple exercising together

1.   They Protect Against Chafing

Whether you’re going for a hike or a long run, chafing is a common and frustrating problem. It happens when skin parts rub against each other, causing irritation and discomfort.

Natural fabrics, like cotton, tend to absorb sweat, however. So, in case you’re running for a long distance wearing cotton, your clothes will absorb a lot of sweat. Thus, they’ll clump and get heavier. That’s when synthetic material comes in handy.

Because the layers closest to the skin are made of moisture-wicking fabric, they push sweat away from the body and minimize friction.

2.   Suitable for Runners

Synthetic fabrics can make a huge difference in your performance if you’re a runner. Whether it’s a 5K or a marathon, synthetic fibers allow sweat to evaporate into the environment. This feature keeps you dry and won’t weigh you down while running.

As such, long-distance runners can’t survive without synthetic fibers. If they wear cotton, it’ll keep soaking sweat to the point that it starts slowing them down—which impacts their performance.

I’ve personally switched to running with synthetic socks when I’m doing long distances because the synthetic socks take the moisture away and don’t grab onto my foot when it’s wet. Cotton socks can definitely cause blisters when they are soaked with sweat.

3.   Better for Endurance Athletes

Synthetic materials help in regulating the body’s temperature during intense activities.

A study showed that synthetic sportswear improved the performance of endurance-trained athletes by optimizing exercise-related thermoregulatory and perceptual reactions.

This gives synthetic fabrics the upper hand over cotton in some sports, like running and cycling.

To Wrap Up

Ultimately, choosing the best workout shirt depends on your needs and activities. For the majority of exercisers, cotton is an ideal material for shirts. It’s comfortable, breathable, and won’t get in your way during the workout.

You shouldn’t worry about sweating much or feeling like your clothes are restricting your movement while wearing cotton. That’s because not all cotton clothes are made equally, you can always opt for ultra-thin cotton shirts made from Ringspun cotton.

Plus, you should take the weather, environment, and type of workout into consideration. If you’re training in a closed room with no fans or proper ventilation, synthetic clothing won’t make any difference.


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