Sweating in Spanx: Is Athletic Shapewear Cheating?

by Charlotte on May 30, 2012 · 27 comments

Baby Spanx! Somewhere someone is trying to buy these…

Having five kids in ten years was not kind to my body. While the kids are 100% worth it (except for #4 today, right now he’s at about 70% thanks to an incident with a grocery cart and a display of condoms and reading glasses (I know, what?!) I’d rather not talk about), my boobs deflated while my thighs expanded and I’ve got so much loose skin on my stomach I have to tuck it into my jeans. Seriously, I call it my skin apron. It’s kind of amazing. I’m not trying to knock my body — I’m strong, healthy and generally pretty happy with myself (and hey birthing 5 kids is kind of an athletic achievement in it’s own right, yes?) — but you can understand why the idea of fitness shapewear, i.e. Spanx for sweating in, is so appealing to me. In fact, it’s so appealing that I own no less than 18 separate pieces of athletic gear promising to lift, tighten, tuck and even tone. All of which seems kind of ironic considering that’s why I’m in the gym in the first place, right?

But I’m not the only one intrigued by these products as evidenced by almost every major brand including Fila, Reebok and Champion coming out with their own line of toning tops and shaping shorts (and pants, jackets and undies), not to mention all the new brands like StyleFirm and Casall who specialize in shaping gear. So how do the clothes hold up under a really hard workout? And do they live up to their pretty promises? Here’s my mummy-with-a-tummy’s experience.

The Pros

Let’s be honest: there’s really only one reason why fitness shapewear even exists and that’s because we all want to look good. And we don’t just want to look good, we want to look better. As in, better than we really look. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Feeling confident in ourselves and how we look can be key to feeling comfortable going to a gym that’s practically guaranteed to be populated with super fit people. And yet athletic clothing with its thin fabric, ultra stretchiness and bright colors can be pretty unforgiving. Enter shapewear with its hidden “tummy controlling” panels, mesh inserts, flattering seams and optical illusion patterns! And while I don’t think they live up to all the hype – you’ll notice that even shapewear is modeled by women who definitely don’t need it – they do better at holding me in and up than regular workout duds. (To see my piece-by-piece breakdown, check out my slideshow on Shape.com!)

Another perk (ha!) is that most shapewear is also, by its very nature, compression gear and multiple studies have linked wearing compression clothing with minor improvements in performance and muscle recovery when worn for at least an hour after your workout. Now you have permission from scientists to do your grocery shopping in your yoga pants! Plus the thicker fabric means they are less likely to go transparent when you’re in a deep squat!

The Cons

The biggest problem with athletic shapewear in my book is that the fat has to go somewhere. Unless the pants go up to your armpits (and there are some that do) that usually means the ultra-tight tummy-controlling waistband gives you a muffin top wherever the compression stops. Even wearing a shaping top doesn’t quite ameliorate the squish factor (and moves some of the fat out your armpits). Some brands handle this better than others but I’d say all of them have this problem to some degree. My other issue is that I tend to carry my weight in my thighs and most shapewear only focuses on your stomach.

What concerns most people, however, is that shapewear is not known for being terribly comfortable and if there’s one place a girl should be able to breathe unrestricted, it’s during her workout. Thankfully I’ve found that most all of the items I’ve tried are very comfortable and don’t feel overly constricting. Since the fabric is generally thicker than regular spandex, while it can make you feel quite a bit hotter, it also seems to hold up longer under tough workouts.

And of course I wonder a little bit about the meta message of all this. Are we telling women you have to look fit to get fit? That makes no sense. Perhaps shapewear is solving the wrong problem – shouldn’t we be focusing on changing society’s perception of what makes a woman’s body beautiful rather than changing our bodies to fit the perception? On the other hand, women have been wearing shapewear of some kind for centuries and at least my StyleFirm jacket doesn’t make me faint or have whale boning in it. (And also, this jacket is the most flattering jacket I have ever owned. I seriously love this thing. I wear it everywhere. All the time.  And no they’re not paying me to say that.)

In the end, for myself, while I don’t wear them every workout, I definitely like having them as an option. What’s your opinion — Do you think it’s “cheating” to wear shapewear to the gym or is it a good confidence booster? Have you ever tried any of them?

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Miz May 30, 2012 at 5:22 am

ahhh I have tried them and for me they are just tooo tooo constricting for the gym/a workout.
too sausagecasing’y (technical term :))
outside of the gym? for a little (butt) boost of confidence? YES!!!

Im super hot-natured tho.
so it could just be misfit me


Katie May 30, 2012 at 10:38 am

Ditto all this. Especially the sausagecasing-y-ness. I can’t get down with that.

Maybe I have a bit of misfit in me too. ;)


Charlotte May 30, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Well and having seen your navel I daresay you don’t need them;) Do they make butt-boosting Spanx too?? That would be fun!


Cort The Sport May 30, 2012 at 5:42 am

If athletic shapewear gives someone the needed confidence to get into an exercise program or step into a gym, then by all means, go for it!

I have the same post-kid tummy skin thing going and hate having that on an otherwise fit body, ugh! Why can’t it be a simple and cheap in-office procedure to fix that?? Anyway, as a result, I am not at all comfortable or confident racing in a two-piece trisuit, it has to be one piece, and I look so much better in a one-piece. So in that sense I guess I am wearing “shapewear” lol!

Otherwise, no shapewear for me. Gym shorts, running shorts, fitted tops, and loose singlets for me.


Charlotte May 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Okay this makes me feel better because you look amazing! I’m a one-piece girl myself. That said I think I rock the heck out of those little skirted retro suits:)


redhead May 30, 2012 at 6:53 am

I don’t have a problem with them, if you’re wearing them to feel better about yourself. I know a few people whose skin just stretched in a way when they were pregnant where it just won’t go back. Have you ever seen those shows with the people who lose hundreds of pounds? It’s the same thing, only much more so – their skin couldn’t shrink back, and even though they lost the weight, they just have extra skin hanging unless they get plastic surgery to literally cut some of it off. No amount of exercising is going to fix your skin, so if shapewear makes you happier and more confident with that kind of thing (and you’re comfortable enough in it to work out), then more power to you.
I do wear yoga pants a lot (I guess they’re sort of compression-y) but that’s it for me – anything else is just too tight!


Nicole May 30, 2012 at 9:04 am

I don’t have a problem with athletic shapewear, although I do think it makes more sense outside of the gym. I couldn’t imagine wearing a compression top, because it would be too hot and tight and uncomfortable. Compression shorts I could actually see more easily, because they would keep everything in place (it’s not just chests that bounce!), and in fact I’ve sort of been meaning to try to find some, but I am looking more for actual compression shorts than shapewear shorts- so tight on the thighs/butt but not going ski high or tight around my tummy.

P.S. I am a twin. Along with having twins, my Mom had a complication where she had too much amniotic fluid. My Dad wanted to send her pictures to Ripley’s Believe it or not. So she might only have two kids, but she’s got the full skin apron going on. For a really long time (most of my life) she wouldn’t wear a bikini, but in the past 5 years, she’s decided to go for it (she’s 50, so she’s decided she’s old enough she doesn’t care, and she is insanely fit so she’s not hanging out all over the place). She just wears board shorts that aren’t low rise. So don’t fear the mummy tummy!


Charlotte May 30, 2012 at 2:38 pm

The funny thing is I never wear compression/spanx out of the gym! I feel like my jeans do all right holding me in I guess. And your mom is my new hero. I love her!!


Amber May 30, 2012 at 9:41 am

I don’t personally own any actual fitness shapewear, but I wore regular high waist spanx when I was pregnant so that I could keep running and I wore them a bit after too because the imagery of my displaced guts sloshing around probably increased my actual discomfort.
I think it sounds great as long as it’s actually functional. If it’s hampering your workout because you can’t breathe or move properly then, pass.
And PS, I carry weight in my thighs too. Even when I’m at my fittest, they’re a good 2 sizes bigger than my hips and waist.


Charlotte May 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Wish I’d known this when I was pregnant! And your idea of wearing them post partum is genius. Lots of research has confirmed the benefits of “belly wrapping” after childbirth. I used a “taut” compression thingy after my daughter was born and my only regret was that I didn’t have it for all my kids!


Amber May 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm

for fun, here’s what running 8+mo pregnant looked like, spanx, support belt and all! ;)


geosomin May 30, 2012 at 10:33 am

I could see the point of compression wear for long runs if there are bits of you that wobble about – I carry my extra weight in my butt, so if there are workout pants that make my butt look great I’m all in! I don’t own any shapewear ($$$) but wouldn’t turn it down. For me it’s more important to have the right gear for what you’re doing…whether it’s gymwear or hiking gear or whatever. If it were hot or restrictive I would not like it. Bonus points for style :)


Charlotte May 30, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Love this: ” For me it’s more important to have the right gear for what you’re doing…whether it’s gymwear or hiking gear or whatever.” And ALWAYS bonus points for style:)


Amy May 30, 2012 at 10:47 am

I don’t own any shapewear marketed as “shapewear” or firming wear for the gym, but I do like a tighter, more “firm” fit around my stomach. I have belly fat/lower back fat (aka muffin top even when my pants fit!!) and I feel better if those parts do not jiggle when I move. It’s actually uncomfortable, not only for my brain, but for my body, too. Plus, looser shirts end up gaping too much and pants start slipping and people see my chest or stomach fat if I do burpees or push ups. That’s not cool dude!


Charlotte May 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Yeah I found that out the hard way too when I did a headstand in a looser top and it slipped over my head, not only blinding me but making me flash the whole gym. Ah, good times!


Laura is Undeterrable May 30, 2012 at 11:27 am

I don’t think it’s cheating, but I’m not going to wear it because it would be dang uncomfortable. I do gravitate towards thicker fabrics though and I am careful about what shirts I pair with what pants. I have some pants that are less flattering with a tight shirt so I don’t wear them together. It’s dumb, but if I walk by a mirror and see a pooch over my pants I’m going to get self conscious. I’d rather be in clothes that make me feel good so I can focus on my workout.


Charlotte May 30, 2012 at 2:58 pm

“I’d rather be in clothes that make me feel good so I can focus on my workout.” Very well put! It’s true, if I”m concerned about adjusting my shirt or pulling up my pants or whatever then it def. negatively impacts my workout!


Quix May 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm

I don’t specifically buy anything compression besides socks/sleeves for running, but my biggest pet peeve, as someone who lost a lot of weight and has a little extra skin, dear fluffy lord – not everyone loves low rise. Frankly, it looks ridiculous on most people. I like my workout pants and shorts and capris up to my navel thxuverymuch.


Charlotte May 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm

AMEN. I have long said that low-rise jeans don’t do most women any favors. I’m not saying waistlines need to come back up to our pits but a nice midrise looks good on everyone.


Alyssa (azusmom) May 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm

My favorite pants, workout or other, are my Lucy Perfect Core Pants. They’re higher-waisted, and supposedly have a slimming panel that reminds the wearer to draw the naval in toward the spine, like we do in Pilates. While I don’t think they do all that, they are VERY comfy and won’t ride down while I teach my class or take yoga. With my flabby tummy, low-rise pants are out of the question. I REALLY don’t feel like showing my-ahem-plumber’s crack to my students!
I admit to having worn shapewear to work out in. Partly because the top smooths out my bra line and covers up the girls, but also for that nice compressed feeling. If it’s comfortable and makes the wearer feel better, I don’t have an issue with it.


Alyssa (azusmom) May 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Oh, and I used to wear corsets onstage. Not at all comfortable, but the girls looked FABULOUS!!!!!! (As you say, the fat has to go somewhere, lol!)


Heather Eats Almond Butter May 30, 2012 at 7:45 pm

No, I do not think it’s cheating. I love any kind of pants that hold in my stomach moosh and extra skin. It’s not pretty, and honestly, I’m kind of scared what it will look like after the twins arrive. My favorite are Hard Tail yoga pants b/c I can pull the fold-over waistband up all the way and not have a muffin top. So comfy, and I feel much more secure when I’m not constantly tugging at my top to try and conceal the moosh. Even though I’m compressing and concealing, I find it quite freeing.


Jody - Fit at 54 May 30, 2012 at 8:03 pm

As I always say – to each their own & if it makes them feel better & it makes them more likely to exercise & go, I say I am all for it!!!! I have won a couple of these. I don’t buy because I am not a fan of that super tight fit BUT I do love how I look in it! The one thing for me – I get claustrophobic trying to get that sweaty thing off – can get scary! ;-)


Cathy May 30, 2012 at 10:58 pm

I think it’s fine if it’s your thing and makes you feel better. As a fellow mom of five I’m sure I could some, but I’m all about comfort. It helps that I currently exercise at home, lol.


ash June 5, 2012 at 9:37 am

SO glad you wrote about this! Since college I have gone from obese to average– and while I don’t find the wobbly bits annoying (I’m young enough I suppose) when I run my skin actually hurts in my tush and thighs from the bouncing…. and even two sizes down in LuLuLemon run tights don’t change that fact. I find myself leaning forward and having terrible form which hurts my back. Sometimes I think I should invent a butt-bra!


Kimberly June 9, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Too bad the squish can’t land someplace useful. Like one’s chest.


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