The 5 Different Types of Gym & Workout Shorts Explained

A short is a short is a short… right?


You can’t just wear any old shorts and expect to have a great workout.

Regular shorts will chafe, they’re not the most breathable, and they’re not always comfortable, either.

Cornstarch, talcum powder, and moisturizer can help prevent chafing, but even with those in your arsenal, you’re missing the breathability and comfort factor.

So should you wear basketball shorts to the gym? Bike shorts? Compression shorts?

Let’s take a look at all of the different types of workout and gym shorts you can choose from.

There are shorts for every sporting activity that you can think of, and they come in an array of materials. Let’s break these down one by one.

5 Different Types of Gym or Workout Shorts

When shopping for gym shorts, here are your main choices:

Bike Shorts

Compression shorts, bib biking shorts, and waist biking shorts are great for cycling.

The one you use is up to preference, although compression shorts are normally utilized by serious cyclists. Recreational bikers favor bike shorts.

Bike shorts are padded in the rear, which is excellent for dealing with the bike’s saddle.

Other than the padding, the shorts are tight and spandex-like, with their own built-in underwear.

The shorts are designed to move with your body while preventing chafing, and they don’t have any loose fabric that can get caught in the bike’s mechanical parts.

The two types, bib shorts and waist shorts, are almost identical, except the former has straps that go over your shoulders to hold the shorts on.

This is great compared to waist bike shorts, as waist bike shorts have a habit of riding down.

Waist bike shorts, if too tight, can also restrict deep diaphragm breaths. That can make your ride more uncomfortable than it needs to be.

Spandex or Compression Shorts

Spandex and compression shorts are highly similar.

They both contain spandex and are form-fitting. The main difference between the two is that spandex shorts are stretchier and not as tight as compression shorts.

Compression shorts lack stretch, as they can help prevent pulled muscles by stopping your joints from moving too freely.

They also prevent chafing, as they’re so tight that they barely move around on your skin.

You can wear spandex or compression shorts for any workout.

They’re particularly useful for leg day at the gym, where you’re pushing your range of motion to the limits.

The supportive nature of compression shorts is particularly helpful here. They can also be worn under looser shorts for other activities.

The compression shorts won’t restrict you, but you may have to push a little harder when moving flexibly.

Looking on the bright side, spandex and compression shorts often wick moisture. So, even if you sweat more, your shorts can handle it.

(Watch out for hyper-short, tight shorts if you’re going to a commercial gym — they may be against the dress code.)

Basketball Shorts

Basketball shorts are designed for use while playing basketball, but you can wear them for other workouts if you want.

Basketball shorts are longer and baggier than typical athletic shorts.

This is to provide a great range of motion. There’s no fabric there to constrain your movements, especially lateral movements.

Part of basketball shorts’ look isn’t for function, though.

The 1990s saw a change in basketball shorts where they became looser and longer, influenced by hip hop culture.

The baggy style can get caught in machinery at the gym and snag on things while running.

However, they’re great shorts for lifting barbells and dumbbells, kickboxing, and playing sports.

Running Shorts

Running shorts are light and breathable, and they’re somewhat tight to help prevent chafing.

These shorts come in various lengths and styles, and which one you choose is mainly up to preference.

Women’s running shorts are usually shorter than men’s, though there are long options available, too. 

The two main types of running shorts you’ll find are V-notch and split running shorts. 

V-notch shorts fit looser than other running shorts, and they’re designed to provide a large range of motion.

However, split running shorts allow for even more flexibility.

It would be a good idea to try out both types of shorts and see which one suits you best. 

Just be aware, splits are very breezy as they’re quite literally “split”—the fabric isn’t sewn together in the middle. Instead, the shorts cover you up with overlapping fabric.

Both types of shorts come with or without a liner.

With Liner

Some running shorts come with liners that are supportive and help prevent chafing, and they’re designed to let you run without underwear.

Unfortunately, sometimes the liner starts getting uncomfortable after a few washes.

The leg elastic starts to chafe, and sometimes the chafing gets so bad that the powder and moisturizer solutions don’t help prevent it.

The quality of the liner depends on the brand you get, so try to go at least mid-range when purchasing running shorts with liners.

Without Liner

Liner-free running shorts can sometimes chafe more, but again, it depends on the brand.

Without a liner, many people opt to wear spandex or compression shorts under their shorts. They find it to be more supportive and comfortable that way.

Men sometimes opt for a jockstrap in place of compression or spandex shorts.

All-Purpose Shorts

All-purpose shorts fit close to the body, but not tightly.

There’s no excess fabric to get caught in machines, but they don’t restrict your movements, either.

This type of attire can be worn during all forms of exercise, though they’re not great for workouts with a lot of lateral movement, as you may feel slightly restricted.

Generally, all-purpose shorts are incredible for a varied session at the gym.

They can take you from the treadmill to the rowing machine to the weight room. Like with most gym shorts, you can wear compression shorts underneath these.

Different Types of Workout Shorts Materials

If you choose to go with a basketball short or an all-purpose short, you’ll still have to think carefully about what material you’re looking for.

Here are your main options:


Cotton is a common material in workout shorts.

It doesn’t hold as much bacteria as some of the materials available, and a study shows that it doesn’t smell as bad as other materials post-workout, but it absorbs moisture. 

When wet, cotton shorts can chafe badly, and cornstarch, talcum powder, and moisturizer won’t always help.

It’s smart to wear compression shorts under cotton, or double up on your moisturizer and powder barries to prevent chafing.


Nylon is excellent for workouts, as it’s stretchy and it dries quickly.

It wicks sweat away from your skin, and the sweat dries almost instantly on the surface of the shorts. 

It’s also a breathable fabric that can help keep you cool during your workouts. You’ll find that this smooth fabric helps prevent chafing, too.


Polypropylene is a lot like nylon. It’s breathable, water-resistant and it wicks sweat that later evaporates.

The outside of the garment gets wet with sweat, but you’ll feel dry underneath.


Polyester is common, highly affordable, light, breathable, and durable. It’s essentially a powerhouse fabric that provides everything you need in a workout. It wicks sweat and keeps you dry.

It’s UV-resistant, too, so it’s fantastic for running in summer.

Polyester’s only downfall is its scent. Polyester gear smells strongly after use, and it’s often difficult to wash the odor out.


Mesh is usually made from nylon or polyester, and its main purpose is breathability.

The garment is full of little holes that promote airflow.

Depending on the material, mesh shorts can be moisture-wicking, too.

Mesh is commonly used as a liner in running shorts, but there are fully mesh shorts, too.

Mesh shorts are typically loose-fitting but not baggy. The material is often used in all-purpose shorts and basketball shorts.


Bamboo is becoming increasingly popular for use in sportswear.

Bamboo is breathable, eco-friendly, and moisture-wicking.

If you come across some bamboo workout shorts, they’re worth trying out.


Spandex is a stretchy fabric that always snaps back into shape, so it’s perfect for workouts with a lot of leg work.

Like nylon and the two poly fabrics above, it wicks sweat which evaporates quickly, and it’s breathable.

You’ll often find spandex, polypropylene, and polyester blends in your workout shorts.

Wrapping Up

There are shorts for pretty much every sport, but the ones discussed above are the most common.

You can generally wear any shorts for any activity, but they have their designated uses for a reason!

Your best bet for most gym workouts would be an all-purpose short that’s not too baggy and not too tight. For running or cycling, you’ll want something a little more snug to prevent chafing.

And for athletics, a basketball short might be the best fit so you don’t feel constricted.

Better yet, line your closet with a bunch of different types of workout shorts so you always have options!

Before you go, check out more guides like this one:

Hope this helps!