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Workout Gear: To Sleeve or Not to Sleeve?

A tutorial for proper gym shirt etiquette

Enter any random Gold’s Gym on any given day, and you’ll see a parade of specialized workout shirts. Look closer and you’ll notice just as many variations of sleeves: full-length, half-length, T-shirt-style, tank top, muscle spaghetti straps, even no shirt at all. Is it aesthetics? Personal preference? Douchiness? Or, maybe, is there a method to the madness of the assorted shirts we wear at the gym?

Former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Miles Shuler says there are multiple methods to how guys choose their workout tops. “Personally, I like sleeveless,” he says. “It gives me some air to breathe. I like to have all my range of motion when I’m working out, and I like to feel comfortable. I can switch it up, though — I can wear a T-shirt, sleeves cut off at the shoulder, or a tank top. But I never wear a long sleeve cotton shirt. Overall, it depends on what you’re working out for.”

“I train in a sleeveless compression shirt,” he continues. “If you’re a bigger guy who wants to shed pounds, however, you might want to put on a full sleeve. Also, if you want to warm up really fast, you might want to go with long sleeves.”

Shuler’s choice to train in sleeveless compression shirts is backed up by a boatload of scientific theory. Thanks to athletic gear powerhouses like Under Armour and 2XU, it’s widely believed that “compression gear increases blood circulation, which helps deliver more oxygen to your muscles while speeding the removal of acids and the other byproducts of physical activity,” says a 2015 TIME magazine health report. “There are other purported mechanisms of action, all of which supercharge performance while speeding recovery.”

So long sleeves in the gym get big a thumbs-up from sports scientists — so long as the sleeves are the compression kind.

When it comes to purely aesthetic reasons, working out sleeveless also has its privileges. The more you see your physical gains in your gym’s wall-to-wall mirrors, the more you’ll come back. Guys also go sleeveless to flex their muscles on other guys. “Like Deion Sanders said, ‘If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you play good,’” says Shuler. “If you feel like your triceps and biceps are on point, you’re going to want to show them off. On the football field, it can be used as an intimidation factor. It’s like, ‘Okay, he looks like he’s the real deal.’ Appearance plays a big part in sleeve choice.”

When it comes down to tearing off your shirt like Hulk Hogan and going bareback, Shuler says it’s best left to private facilities with guys you know. “If you’re going to a Gold’s Gym, you don’t want to be topless because you want to respect everybody else that’s working out — it’s a hygiene thing. But when I was with the Panthers, we could take off our shirts and work out because everybody was comfortable with each other.”

In other words, you’re free to hit the gym in any kind of sleeves you want, Bro-tein shake. Rock out in a compression long sleeve like Tom Brady. Go HAM in short sleeves like Mark Wahlberg. Attack the iso-lateral bench press in a filthy undershirt like Bruce Willis. Just don’t go shirtless and drip your gross sweat on everybody like Shaq at the free-throw line.