Back in the ’80s, “when greed was good,” world champion powerlifter Robert Herbst was an attorney in Manhattan, and he trained with an investment banker at a gym on West 21st Street.
One day, Herbst and his friend decided to have a laugh. “As a total goof,” he says, “my friend and I did a heavy squat workout in our strait-laced, Wall Street finest: pinstripe suits, yellow suspenders, power ties, wingtip shoes, the works.
“People looked at us as if we were from another planet. It was hilarious,” he says.
Yes, a top gym commandment is to not judge what others are wearing, but it’s hard not to do a double take when someone — for example, presidential hopeful John Delaney — comes into the gym in a polo shirt tucked into belted jeans and does 30 curls in complete silence.
Anyone who frequents a gym has seen their fair share of John Delaneys, running on a treadmill in everyday workwear, like chinos and a collared shirt. Take a look at any fitness forum and you’ll have people trying to get to the bottom of this perplexing human behavior.
So did Delaney just forget his gym bag? Was it a misguided photo op? Was he trying to look more “professional” than, say, Paul Ryan?
For most, it’s the former — if they’re at the gym in a polo and jeans, it’s because they simply forgot their gym clothes at home, but they need to get a workout in anyway.
Take Reddit user aguad3coco, who’s worked out in his work clothes several times for this very reason. “I worked out in jeans for way too many times due to my own failings of forgetting my shorts,” he writes. “And it’s not that bad actually. The thought of being judged as an idiot is probably worse, but that’s about it.”
I’d argue that the plainclothes gym bros are the focus of too much judgment. Often, they’re the most committed people in the building. Maybe that’s what motivated Delaney to pose for the bizarre photo op — it suggests a devotion to his duty beyond any other candidate.
But what of the guys who actually put thought behind the decision to shirk their gym clothes? The dudes who hit the gym in whatever they’re wearing that day — on purpose?
“Just a bunch of guys in pants with 9-inch boots and T-shirts.”
Jeff, a 33-year-old living in Ontario, says that out of habit, he goes to the gym and heads straight to the bench press without changing. Specifically, it’s a habit he picked up training in the military.
“People serving in combat trades in the military always have in-house gyms, and the attitude there is, just come in and go down to your T-shirt and pop off a lift whenever you have the time,” he tells MEL. “I spent a lot of time at an infantry regiment and no one there was ever in ‘traditional’ gym attire. Just a bunch of guys in pants with 9-inch boots and T-shirts.” They’d go without changing because there just wasn’t enough time to mosey around the gym for two hours.
“When you’re done working out, you’d just pop on your button-up shirt and go back to work,” he says. Eventually, it became second nature for Jeff to simply work out in whatever he was wearing.
(Delaney doesn’t have a military background, so that can’t be his excuse. However, he did reportedly spend part of his youth working on his father’s construction site.)
“Guys work and sweat in jeans all day.”
Then there are guys who are just used to hard work in jeans all day, so why change? Jeff says working on the farm or in construction, “guys work and sweat in jeans all day, so it’s not weird to see guys getting some bench work in at lunch without changing.”
For the most part, these guys do exercises that don’t involve a lot of sweating and try to break it up throughout the day. “They just do the 250: 100 sit-ups, 100 push-ups and 50 chin-ups, and they’re only doing this if the gym is close by where they can move back and forth between their job or home,” he adds.
Chris, in California, also hits the gym in plain clothes. “I like to stop by the gym in jeans on my way home from work. I’ll just stretch, do a quick workout and leave,” he says. “But people do look at me weird.”
Beyond the side-eyes, Chris says basic strength training “isn’t hard while wearing your daily outfit — just hit 10 dips or pull-ups, or whatever amount doesn’t force you into a cardio sweat fit, and you’re good.”
And if you’re worried about the effectiveness of working out in jeans, find some solace in the fact that if Chris can’t make it to the gym, he’ll do some dips in his front yard… while smoking cigarettes. “I figure if I’m going to kill myself with cigarettes, I might as well work out while I’m doing it,” he tells MEL.
Other plainclothes gym bros have more unexpected reasoning. Redditor TJPontz says he doesn’t work out in gym clothes because it’s a waste of clothes. “Buying extra clothes just to break a sweat in them (or to just sleep in them like pajamas) is just ridiculous,” he writes.
Redditor Cyaney would rather work out in casual clothes than “have to go home and change multiple times or lug around gym clothes [or] deal with a locker.”
And, of course, some people just prefer it. “I find sweatpants uncomfortable. And they slide down easily. My belt keeps my jeans up,” writes redditor TooLameforaUsername.
“Come in and pop off a lift whenever you have the time.”
Lots of guys just want to pop in for a quick set. “Sometimes you only have 10 or 20 mins for a lift, or you find some free time you didn’t know you were going to have, and can’t think of anything else to do,” Jeff explains.
On Reddit, user Cingalls explains the motivation for exercising in his work clothes: “I’ve got a desk job and no time. First priority is to get some exercise in. Even if it’s just brisk walking on a treadmill, it’s better than nothing,” he writes. “Doing it in the right clothes is further down the priority list, and if I’m short on time, walking for 20 minutes in street clothes is better than doing nothing at all.”
Such is the case for Herbst, who’s no stranger to hitting the gym in jeans and a T-shirt. (That seersucker-suit deadlift was a one-time thing.) “I’ve occasionally snagged a quick few sets in plain clothes when that was all time-permitted,” Herbst tells MEL. “It looks strange, but people get over it.”
Judging by Delaney’s biceps, I’d wager he’s in that camp, too. Working out in plainclothes sends a subtle message to blue-collar guys and fellow gym rats: Yeah, I’m a busy guy, but I still get my sets in whenever I can.
Ultimately, Jeff says, “the stigma only exists with office workers who want their work clothes to remain clean, but it shouldn’t exist at all.”
Whether you’re an office worker or construction worker, don’t let the stigma get to you. “The people who think you can only work out in gym clothes,” Jeff concludes, “are the same people who believe you can only have sex in a bed.”