Illustration of masked individuals lifting weights
Illustration by Elnora Turner
Health

What Mask Should I Wear If I'm Going Back to the Gym?

Answering questions about mask safety, cleaning, how to return to training, and dealing with face sweat.
August 5, 2020, 3:05pm
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Now that I’m back to working out (definitely not inside and decidedly outside, on a sidewalk, in a mask, rigorously cleaning all of the equipment with sanitizing spray, sanitizing my hands, six feet from my fellow class-goers) there are still a lot of unknowns to contend with, and this is the best information I have so far.

The best sources for safety info and protocol are your health authorities, but sometimes even thorough instructions can leave gaps in how to practically apply it, especially when everyone else can seem to be following a completely different set of rules. Generally speaking, trust science, epidemiologists, and doctors; choose reasonable safety and the common good over your personal gain; and remember that coronavirus is not about your personal risk, but the risk of vulnerable people around us, and you’re going to make the right choice every time. That said, here is all that I have learned in trying to do the damn thing:

Have you found a good mask to work out in? I’m still looking and waiting for the Under Armour one to ship. - SD

I would point out that while every retailer and their mom is selling masks that sure seem to walk and talk like they give adequate protection, many of them also stress that the masks are “not FDA approved or medical grade,” so just because it’s for sale doesn’t mean it hits any functionality marks at all; as with basically everything in this pandemic, we are left to do all of our own due diligence about our safety!! Freedom baby, drink it in!!!!!!

My feelings around masks are generally that pretty much anything is better than nothing at all. However, some recent guidance from the WHO has indicated that my earlier favoritism towards bandanas is severely misplaced, for a few reasons: while they are are by far the comfiest mask-esque things to work out in, they are actually too thin to be effective, and if they get wet (as they would if you’re sweating or breathing heavily into them), they make it harder to breathe. 

What makes a good workout mask seems to also make for a good mask in general, and that involves two factors: material and fit. For the material, something synthetic that is breathable/wicking/quick-dry is the best choice, because a wet mask will suffocate you more. This is a bit less of a factor, but a synthetic mask material (or silk, or chiffon, if you’re fancy) holds a stronger electrostatic charge, at least more so than cotton, which helps it filter better. 

For the fit, the WHO has reservations about stretchy masks (it “increases the pore size of the fabric”), and just common sense dictates that the mask should lie as flat as possible against your face and over your nose and cheeks, which is something that I’ve found a lot of novelty/fashion masks don’t really do, unless they are stretchy, which is bad. 

So the very best mask is one that molds to your nose shape, either because it’s designed that way or has a moldable aluminum pin in the nose bridge, like standard disposable medical masks do. The WHO guidance also says that the minimum recommended “Q factor” (basically, the filtration quality factor) is 3, and materials that rise above that number include paper tissues and towels and cotton t-shirt material that is either woven or knit. It also recommends non-medical grade masks (so, fabric masks) to anyone who isn’t a health worker or member of an especially vulnerable population (over the age of 60, immunocompromised, etc.).

Every mask I’ve bought has had two layers with an opening between them on one side, so you could slide some tissue or more fabric in there for extra protection. So if you have a well-fitting mask that’s cotton, or stretchy in nature, and you want to up the filtration factor, you could slide some tissue or even a scrap of medical-mask material, which is made of polypropylene, the best filtration material tested in the WHO paper. 

If I’m being honest, I definitely wear masks that don’t hit all of these points, but I also still put a premium on social distancing/not being in public or indoors with others very often. I am fortunate to work from home, and to have a gym holding outdoor classes, so I haven’t had to be super-stringent about the technical aspects of my masks. Given the risks of being not just enclosed indoors but in a presumably air-conditioned space where the filtration system is not designed to deal with coronavirus aerosols, people trying to go to their indoor gyms should be way more careful (and ask themselves, extremely seriously, whether it’s worth it at all). 

All of this said, while I am working out outside (and bear in mind that that is a huge mitigating factor in terms of how solid my mask needs to be), my go-to has become these synthetic Adidas masks that my partner bought and that I later saw in a Vogue roundup (pictured above in the Instagram post); the company appears not to sell them anymore. They breathe pretty well, they don’t get soaked through, they fit around my nose nicely but are made of sturdy layers of fabric, and have stretchy ear loops (but the rest of the mask does not stretch). 

I was wondering how you stay hydrated while practicing proper mask etiquette. I noticed that your gym is offering outdoor lifting and my gym may be doing something similar soon as well. Of course, the question of hydration remains. Obviously to drink water I'd need to take off my mask, but you're not supposed to be removing, let alone adjusting it. Do you just not drink water while you're lifting, or do you have another method? - Martin

I have to, slash get to, lean on the flexibility of being outside for this question, namely that taking your mask off outside as long as you’re not going near other people is generally acceptable. However, you’re also not supposed to touch your mask, so I have to work around that too. 

Because pulling down a mask involves a lot more touching (which you are not supposed to do), I almost exclusively use the kind of masks that loop around your ears, so I can just unloop one side and have a drink of water, and then reloop. But per the CDC, don’t touch your mask and then touch your face or other surfaces you don’t plan on cleaning.

How do I help my poor soft hands that aren’t used to bars right now? - Stephanie

If you are not gripping the bar or your dumbbells correctly, do that first. And then just take it slow; as annoying as it might be to try to pace yourself, if you rip your hand-skin, your open wounds will do it for you. Do not wear gloves!!

Do you have a question about working out, eating, health, or why you shouldn't be afraid of lifting heavy weights? Send it to swole.woman@vice.com and follow @swolewoman on Instagram.

How do I handle the disappointment of lost gains? What I don’t know won’t hurt me!! - Ellis

I used to feel very protective of my absolute strength until I started hitting various walls, like needing to drop down in the weight I was lifting to work on my form, or getting sick and having to take several weeks off. After that, I started to learn to absolutely love the simplicity of Starting Over Again. 

It sounds like it sucks, but the way to think about it is: You get to lift, and it’s easy. What a blessing! You just show up, check the boxes, and leave! Piece of cake! 

The important thing to remember is that thanks to muscle memory, strength comes back faster and much more easily than it takes to build it up for the first time ever. So in a way, you are kind of always as strong as you ever were at your strongest; the only thing that separates you from being there again is being in practice and in good health and having the time and energy. 

It takes a little time to feel secure in that, which is why you see so many macho people breaking themselves trying to lift their absolute max way too often. But my suggestion is try to enjoy and trust the process, and use that time to focus on your form and firming up your habits; soon lifting will be hard again and you might actually miss when it was easy. 

What should you wipe down after? The bar obviously, but what about the plates and the floor? - Jinkins

Our gym has us wipe down the bar, the plates, and the bench before we put them all away. While I’m happy to do it, the fact that we are lifting in the direct sun and heat means even if someone coughed corona onto one of these surfaces, it would not likely live through the session

That said, I would jump through any hoop if it allowed me to lift weights, so I clean absolutely everything with a smile on my face and a song in my heart, and as long as we are still in this uncertain phase when we’re not precisely sure what safety measures are more necessary than others, it deeply reassures me to see others do the same. 

Your first move should be to follow the rules of your gym; whatever they ask you to clean, clean it, thoroughly, the way you would have wanted someone to clean it before you. Other than that, focus on anything you touch with your body; I would say the floor is overkill, but for everything else (seats, seat backs, arm rests, handles), be a good member of your community and go for it.

Should I train less frequently to minimize exposures? How do I do that without killing myself 1x/week? - Olivia

Training less frequently at a gym, especially if it involves going somewhere where people aren’t really following the rules, would definitely minimize your exposure. But at a certain point, you would be going so infrequently there is no point, so it’s worth asking what you’re getting out of it if it doesn’t make sense to do it regularly.  

If I were trying to go back to the gym but no one was following the rules or it didn’t feel safe, I would just keep working out at home, because training a lot heavier once a week wouldn’t do more than make me unnecessarily sore once a week. The rule of thumb is you need to train at least twice a week to even maintain a certain level of strength, and three times a week to get stronger, so if that’s not doable, don’t bother with less and focus on your safety first. 

How do you deal with face sweat? - Ami

Boy; do I sweat from the face. I suspect that it’s not really my face but my whole head, including in my hair, which drips forward into my face because you’re so often bending forward in lifting. 

The only thing that I’ve found to help, actually, is wearing a baseball cap. I assume a headband would work too, though that is a bit 80’s vibes, for me. This one lifter is a big fan of basically head wraps, and I could see that being helpful too. 

I have not found that my mask has made the part of my face that it covers more sweaty than usual; I feel like that idea is propaganda from the Big Personal Freedoms lobby.

What improved while you were away? Did the pistol squats help? - Top Hat

It’s too soon to tell if my random quest to do a single pistol squat (which I still haven’t yet done) has actually paid off in any material way, but I’m really hoping that I can now deadlift 400 pounds. Is this rational? I will find out in a few months.

What do you do if you need a spot, with the new etiquette about touching and masks? - Emma

No one wants to hear this, but I think I would avoid doing stuff that would require a spot right now, at least the version where someone is standing right over you to spot your bench. There is an argument to be made that if you are both wearing masks, you are not close enough to each other for long enough that infection is a concern (according to the CDC, “exposure” to an infected person means being less than six feet from them for at least 15 minutes, whether you are both wearing masks or not; again, the way ventilation systems work seems to negate this six foot rule somewhat). 

But while I like being strong, I can’t be strong if I’m dead, and my being strong would not be worth anyone’s serious illness or death. There will be a time in the future when we know more about what is safe, and that will be the time to push our numbers.

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com.