We all recognize how challenging it is to perceive the passage of time from one day to the next, only to revisit a slice of media from years past and be slapped in the face by how glaringly different the contemporary norms are. Case in point: Watching Clint Eastwood jog around in any of his Dirty Harry films — usually sporting a plain white or gray T-shirt, black or navy blue sweatpants that are a little too short for his 6-foot-4 frame and dingy tennis shoes — it’s absolutely striking how you’d never see a self-respecting fitness enthusiast in either the gym or the streets wearing such a collection of clothing these days.
Not only would most people put substantially more effort into ensuring that the clothes match in some way, but the workout clothes themselves have become specialized to the extent that comparing training gear separated by four decades is like comparing the Stone Age to the Space Age.
With respect to workout shirts, there are so many considerations to review before we even delve into direct discussions of how the fabrics of the shirts perform in different environments. For example, are there circumstances where it’s more advantageous to wear long sleeves as opposed to a tank top, even if the temperature is conducive to wearing both, and even if you’re packing a set of display-worthy biceps? Is there a benefit to wearing a training tank that’s as tight as a wrestler’s singlet, or does the tank top lose all of its functional benefits if it isn’t worn loosely?
How to Identify a Great Workout Shirt
With so many training-directed shirts out on the market, we have to separate them into categories and apply certain methodologies. For example:
- Does the shirt have a stated purpose, and is it constructed to achieve that purpose? A shirt that claims to be designed to remove sweat certainly can’t accomplish that if it doesn’t have permeable, porous fabric.
- Does the shirt utilize that latest science to sustain its structural integrity and prolong its usefulness? If the shirt begins to fray and deteriorate after only a few uses, the intent of its designers doesn’t really matter all that much.
- Does this shirt make the user look stylish and not ridiculous? All of the functionality in the world doesn’t matter if you look silly while wearing it.
With all of this in mind, here are some of the shirts that will simultaneously improve your levels of performance and comfort, while also enabling you to look as good as your shirt-optimized workout is making you feel.
Best Long-Sleeve Training Shirt: Under Armour Rush Seamless Long Sleeve
What This Type of Shirt Should Do: In a workout setting, there are only a few major reasons why you’d want your entire upper body covered. For instance, you may want to use a long-sleeve shirt because of what it would keep out, like minimizing exposure to the sunlight or other external nuisances in the environment, like bushes. You may also want to use your long-sleeve shirt to hold things in, like the sweat that would otherwise drip along your arms and onto training equipment, or onto arms, thereby rendering your wrists useless for wiping sweat from your brow. Frankly, one of the most common reasons people like long-sleeve performance attire is to help keep them warmer than a short-sleeve shirt ever could.
What Makes This One Special: Under Armour’s Rush line has a special layer of insulation in the midst of all the moisture-wicking, chafe-minimizing fabric. The “infrared technology” is intended to redirect your heat back toward your body. The advertising suggests that this boosts your energy level, but the reality is, it should help to keep you warm in cold environments.
What Might Make This a Questionable Purchase: The heat-retention liner makes perfect sense on a long-sleeve shirt, but the infrared liner is also applied to short-sleeve shirts that paradoxically appear to have been optimized to keep the trainee cool. It’s difficult to see the point of ostensibly prioritizing heat retention while simultaneously exposing so much skin. Also, as far as this specific shirt goes, that $80 original price tag is insane.
Final Verdict: This Under Armour product checks all of the boxes that most people would logically desire from a long-sleeve shirt, except that you could probably find four or five long-sleeve Old Navy shirts that would provide 90 percent of the functionality for the same price. However, if you want to maximize the heat that a long-sleeve T-shirt can provide without adding further cumbersome layers, this one is your winner.
Best Short-Sleeve Training Shirt: Nike Pro Dri-FIT
What This Type of Shirt Should Do: This is the sort of shirt you wear when you want a snug fit that accentuates your muscles and physique, or when you want the sweat to evaporate from your body as quickly as possible before you end up leaving sweaty smears on everything your body touches.
What Makes This One Special: The Nike Pro Dri-FIT line is made out of sustainable materials for those who are environmentally conscious. It also has notable ventilation that’s been strategically placed along the sides, which have been designated as zones requiring special focus for enhancing their breathability.
What Might Make This a Questionable Purchase: I don’t know that the breathability feature is critical to the point where it’s worth the extra money over and above a run-of-the-mill compression shirt. At the same time, the shirt is inexpensive enough that the ventilation doesn’t come at that steep of a cost, and the venting fabric is the same color as the rest of the shirt, so it doesn’t stand out in a glaring way. Also, the general blend of polyester fabric used to weave this shirt doesn’t seem capable of pairing with anti-odor features, which is a shame, but is forgivable since it seems to be an ordinary drawback within the shirt category.
Final Verdict: This stylish shirt will leave you looking jacked, help keep you dry and also ventilated like a well-designed building, for whatever that’s worth to you.
Best Budget Training Shirt: Go-Dry Cool Odor-Control Core Muscle Tank Top
What This Type of Shirt Should Do: This type of shirt should provide you with virtually all of the functionality of a premium workout shirt at a low price. That functionality should include as many of the following attributes as possible: Venting fabric, moisture wicking and built-in odor control. Ideally, it would look decent as well.
What Makes This One Special: Did I say low price? These shirts are $10 apiece, meaning that you can lay out your entire fitness wardrobe for the week for $70 if short-sleeve shirts are your thing, and you don’t want to repeat any fashions.
What Might Make This a Questionable Purchase: If you’re on the swole side, these shirts don’t necessarily offer you an opportunity to pull off the most flattering look. Also, Old Navy really only gives you the classic Henry Ford color scheme of drab colors, so if you want a vibrant look, this won’t give it to you.
Final Verdict: If all you want are the essential comforts of a sleeveless tee without the bank-breaking price tag — and at the admitted cost of any head-turning color schemes or designs — this is the shirt for you.
Best Training Tank Top: Adidas HEAT.RDY Warrior Woven Tank Top
What This Type of Shirt Should Do: This is the type of top that should barely be there to begin with, requiring you to check off the bare minimum number of decency boxes while you wear something of substance up top, or fulfill your health club’s requirement that members keep a certain amount of skin covered.
What Makes This One Special: It stretches and it’s slim-fitting, with side panels and a back yoke. In other words, the maximum amount of heat will escape from your body while you train, which makes absolute sense. After all, no one dons a tank top and then demands to remain as warm as possible.
What Might Make This a Questionable Purchase: If you have to pay full price for this, you instantly have to reconcile with the fact that you’re spending $50 for roughly half of a workout shirt that’s intended to act as if it doesn’t exist.
Final Verdict: This tank top fulfills the objective of maximizing the flow of air to your skin and keeping you as cool as Bobby Drake, while also enabling you to appear somewhat stylish. It’s hard to ask for much more out of a tank top.