The Best Way to Train in 2021? In Your Street Clothes

Jamie Millar
·8 min read
Photo credit: MGM
Photo credit: MGM

From Esquire

Recently, I’ve been repeatedly rewatching the training montage from Rocky IV: you know, the one where he jogs through the Siberian snow in boots, a beanie and a shearling jacket. Partly for work, and partly because that’s the kind of thing I like to do.

That got me to thinking about workout clothes, because I’ve pretty much given up wearing them. Partly because of necessity: my wife and I left London for the northeast on the eve of the first lockdown with our two young daughters and one suitcase. We’ve been crashing at my mother-in-law’s, and sharing an overflowing chest of drawers, ever since.

But mostly because I can’t be bothered to change: I don’t even wear the few workout tops, shorts and secret socks I did manage to pack. Since the advent of Covid-19, I’ve basically lived in sweats – even more so than I did as a freelance journalist pre-pandemic, when I saw other people on a daily basis at my co-working space. And, although they’ve become associated with inactivity, sweats are workout clothes. Before them, people used to work out in wool.

OK, so I haven’t been jogging through the streets in a grey tracksuit like Rocky (I) or Adonis Creed, although I could quite comfortably, especially now it’s winter. For the few runs I did as part of my insufficient preparation for September’s Virtual Great North Run, I wore my workout tops, shorts and secret socks. But for resistance training – my much preferred form of exercise – sweats and cotton T-shirts are just fine. Dandy, even.

The other day, I found myself in the back garden doing a kettlebell workout while wearing a lumberjack shirt, which made me feel (briefly) like a real man and not a soft-handed knowledge worker. And, given that Rocky trains to fell Ivan Drago by chopping down trees, a lumberjack shirt technically is workout clothing. Pro tip: train outside in the cold and you won’t sweat as much. You might not even need to shower after – or change. Hey, it’s not like you’re going to see other people, right?

Don’t get me wrong: I love workout clothes, more than the next man. I have whole drawers full of the sweat-wicking stuff that I wore for frequenting the trendy gyms and studios of London, partly for work and partly because that’s the kind of thing I like to do – or used to, in another life.

Workout clothes can make your workout more comfortable and even effective, although that's because of a psychological phenomenon called “enclothed cognition”, rather than any high-tech fabric. In one study, subjects who were told that they were wearing a doctor’s coat paid more attention in tests than those told the same garment was a painter’s coat. Athletes who wear red have been shown to win more and lift heavier. Teams who wear black are more aggressive. What you wear can change your mindset and prime you for performance.

But you don’t need workout clothes, or any clothes, to work out: the Ancient Greek word “gymnasion” literally means “school for naked exercise”. I’m not advocating that necessarily, but it’s an option, at least for home workouts (with your camera turned off).

As with everything else in 2020, my priority has shifted from optimisation to damage limitation. I’m less concerned with doing a great workout than I am doing a workout at all. I get paid for writing about health and fitness, not indulging in it, and I have two young daughters. Between professional obligations and childcare, I’m workout time-poor. So I have to grab 20 minutes of skipping here, 15 minutes of kettlebell swings (every minute, on the minute) there. Time saved changing is time spent exercising.

Not having to outfit for fitness also eliminates a layer of resistance. When a window opens, I can grab my rope or kettlebell and be working out before I can fabricate an excuse not to – like, say, not having a clean top and shorts that go together, or not wanting to wear Nike and Adidas at the same time. To borrow a phrase from Atomic Habits author James Clear, I’m removing “friction” – in a metaphorical sense, anyway. And I’m suitably dressed to break up the working-from-home day with “movement snacks”: a few minutes of stretching, or horseplay with my kids (which can be a legit workout).

Lest this all sound decidedly un-aspirational, my agnosticism is shared by some rather more fitspirational individuals. Michael Eckert is a US Marine and former holder of a Guinness World Record for completing 50 strict pull-ups in one minute. In videos of himself, say, hanging from a bar with one hand while flipping a weight plate with the other, he’s typically wearing “boots and utes” or “utility uniform”: combat trousers and T-shirt.

“Usually that’s what I’m already wearing and when on duty you have very minimal time to work out,” says Eckert. The boots do make his workouts slightly more difficult – but when he takes them off, things feel easier. Actually, boots and utes are “very comfortable and pretty easy to move around in”. Which explains why kettlebell instructors often wear combats, aside from pretending they’re in the Spetsnaz. “It doesn't matter how you look as long as you have deodorant on and get the work done,” says Eckert.

Andrew Tracey, the fitness editor of Men’s Health UK and its January 2021 cover model, worked as a 16-year-old in a bodybuilding gym where the ultra-committed members came straight from their manual jobs to lift in dusty combats and steel-toed boots. When he started his own events construction business out of the back of a van, he’d slip off his boots to squeeze in barefoot workouts in car parks during the day in whatever else he was wearing. Or he’d train in the evening in what he could cram into an overnight bag: short shorts and Vans, which he describes as an “incredible”, flat-soled training shoe with a roomy toe box that he’s worn religiously for 20 years and won’t think of changing out of unless he’s running over 5K.

Workout clothes, he says, might be one of the flimsiest barriers to entry that fitness can appear to have. A uniform may help you get the workout juices flowing. Or it may be a dependency-forming crutch you could do just as well without, a barrier you build for yourself.

The activewear-industrial complex is “mainly geared towards how you look towards others when you exercise,” says Ryan Hurst, a former competitive gymnast and martial artist turned co-founder of online coaching company GMB Fitness. “Because, honestly, you could work out in anything, as long as it’s comfortable, and still get the exact same results.”

That doesn’t stop Hurst and his fellow GMB ninjas fielding questions about what exact shoes or “pants” they’re wearing in their videos, or what exercise mat or pull-up bar they’re using. A new outfit can help people get in the right frame of mind to embark on a “fitness journey”, says Hurst, who encourages them to acquire “adequate tools” before they set out. But you really don’t need the exact same thing. Anything (adequate) will work.

Those pants, in Hurst’s case, are often jeans, the topic of a disproportionate number of those questions, and a recent post on GMB: “If You Can’t Do It In Jeans, You Can’t Do It”. It’s partly about “being able to do the things you want to be able to do – anytime, anywhere”, without first having to put on special clothes and warm up for ten minutes.

But it’s also partly about the “creepy fetishism happening with the way Fitness Experts are expected to dress and look and act”. The fashion statements are related to the comments Team GMB get about not being ripped or jacked enough. “Which is funny because I am kinda ripped,” says Hurst. Not that you’d know, because he keeps his shirt on.

People find it genuinely remarkable that Hurst works out in jeans, although he’s really only demonstrating in his videos. And he does wear workout clothes for long or intense sessions, mostly so he doesn’t get his normal clothes “all sweaty and nasty”. But for a light session or training outside, he won’t bother changing out of his Prana jeans and Vans.

Cultural expectations about how people should dress when they exercise aren’t just creepy: they’re actively restrictive. People feel like they can’t do things until they’ve purchased certain clothes, equipment or supplements. Articles about health and fitness can make it seem like you have to spend £2,000 on a Peloton or, as I read the other day, £200 on a skipping rope set before you can get fit. I’ve name-dropped some bits of kit, but none are prerequisites. There’s a whole world of bodyweight exercises you can do for free, right now – if your clothes aren’t too tight. And you could always take them off, in a totally non-creepy way.

The act of purchasing can be a substitute for working out. You feel like you’re doing something – but you’re not. Workout clothes don’t make the man. Training montages do.

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