The Rise of the Tank Top: Why the Workout Tank Now Trumps the T-Shirt

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Notice how many women are now working out in tanks instead of tees? Here’s why.

Nike tank top
The trend of wearing a cute tank, instead of a t-shirt at the gym, is actually a performance preference. (Photo: Nike)


Take a look around the gyms and boutique fitness studios in New York, and you’ll see a sea of sleeveless, toned arms.

That’s because, among women, colorful tanks (largely from hot, fitness-fashion brands) now trump tees as the performance top of choice. It’s a trend confirmed by slews of fitness instructors, fans, and fashion experts.

In terms of sales, “tanks are stronger than tees in performance [wear],” says Karyn Riale, retail buyer for The Shop at Equinox. “We definitely see more demand for tanks in this category.” (But in fashion, she notes, tees still rule the racks.)

So what performance details are wooing women to workout tanks?

“I wear a tank to all of my workouts because pit sweat is not cute or comfortable,” explains SLT/Barry’s Bootcamp instructor Layla Luciano. “I love a tank with racerback straps because it allows for open, unrestricted movement in the shoulders especially when I'm doing a strength training workout.”

SLT Megaformer workout in New York
A tank-top-filled SLT class (Photo: Philip Greenberg for The New York Times)

Ditto for yoga. “A t-shirt can restrict a certain pose or an arm bind. Yoga is all about extending range of motion and supporting free movement,” says Pure Yoga instructor Amanda Murdock, who also teaches at SLT. “Wearing a tank top, which has less fabric and arm restriction, is a better choice for a more rigorous yoga practice.”

Tanks are also a way to functionally show off the fruits of your labor.

Pure Yoga instructor Serena Tom likes how they “accentuate the body” and “mimic your movement” instead of masking it.

And Flybarre’s Kara Liotta says women who’ve worked hard at the barre don’t mind displaying their newly toned arms. “Barre workouts are all about toning and sculpting, and FlyBarre, in particular, has a heavy emphasis on arms. Women want to see the muscles they’re working for proper alignment and feel great when they see their bodies change. A tank top shows off the beautiful shoulders and chiseled arms created in this type of class,” Liotta says.

Flybarre barre workout and plank pose with Kara Liotta
Flybarre's Kara Liotta teaching arm-toning planks (Photo:

Dozens of students we spoke to like how tanks are more streamlined. “I don't like any extra fabric getting in the way when I'm working out. Plus, when I’m doing an intense workout and I’m drenched in sweat, a tank just makes more sense,” says Susan Harrison, a director at Quinlan Private.

And designers are clearly taking note.

Yoga Smoga’s head designer told us that most women find sleeves constrictive, especially when doing a pose or exercise that involves rotation of the arms, adding that when a top has sleeves, there’s more of a possibility that the garment will ride up and show the tummy.

Amanda Casgar, who heads up community relations at Lululemon, is quick to point out that not all tanks are created equally with moisture-wicking fabrics or anti-stink properties.

Does this mean the tee is over?

Not entirely. “While I love a tank for workouts like Flywheel, where I know I’ll be sweating hard, frankly, my arms are far from Madonna-sculpted goodness, and my boobs are kind of large, so sometimes it’s nice to cover all that up!” says New York publicist Sara Davis.

Gym-goer and Stylecaster's director of communications, Meghan Cross, adds that there’s a healthy prevention aspect to wearing a tee. “On sunny days, I wear t-shirts on a run to protect my shoulders from freckling and burning.” Same goes for super-cautious Maggie Rulli, a news anchor at Channel One News, who told us that she puts on a tee whenever she hits a mat. “It’s important to cover up as much skin as possible—all kind of viruses can live on those mats...eek!”

So while there’s little doubt that the functional tank is on the rise as a fitness staple, Hanes doesn’t need to panic just yet. There will always be a time and a place for a classic tee. Just not necessarily at the gym. —Sharon Feiereisen and Melisse Gelula 

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