LOOK AROUND ANY gym these days, and you’ll see lots of exposed skin while your fellow exercisers sweat. You’ll also see lots of ink, since many of these people are likely to have adorned their most visible body parts with tattoos (32 percent of US adults have at least one tattoo, according to Pew Research Center).
There are few better times to show off body art than when you work out, since gym etiquette allows for minimalist, body-baring clothing and encourages displays that show off hard-earned muscle. Body art and exercise also allow people to exert some element of control over their physical being, a powerful common interest for people searching for agency and bodily autonomy. Whether you’re a massive bodybuilder with a full arm sleeve or a small yogi with strategically-placed pieces, tattoos and fitness are a perfect pair.
A gym might be among the best places to display your body art, but it’s also one of the worst spots to find yourself immediately after having the ink set into your skin, given the likelihood you’ll sweat and expose yourself to germs. Getting a tattoo can be a painful experience, and healing one the right way takes much more than just the few moments after a session when the artist wipes away the excess ink and blood from the area to clean the fresh wound.
Making sure that new art is properly cared for is a process—and you need to understand what you’re doing to avoid mistakes that can lead to poor results and even worse, an infection. Here’s what you need to know if you get tattooed and work out—including how long you should take before returning to the gym after your tattoo session.
How to Heal a Tattoo
You shouldn’t roll straight from your latest tattoo session to the weight room. Take a moment to learn some of the most essential practices of tattoo aftercare to know just how long to wait to get back to your workouts after getting a tattoo.
The fact of the matter is, tattoo aftercare is complicated. Yes, you have some beautiful new art on your skin—but if you think about it, you just put that skin through the ringer, puncturing it thousands of times with a needle to deposit the ink. You’ll need some time to heal, and your tattoo is at risk of infection if you don’t follow the proper protocol to protect it. Gyms are specifically not known for their cleanliness, and the movement, sweat, and tight clothing that go along with exercise can add even more elements to the equation.
Taking the right steps isn’t only good for your short-term health—your tattoo will look better in the long run if you allow it to heal and take care of it properly in the aftermath. After removing the covering applied by the artist after the session, here are a few basic steps to follow:
- Wash the area with non-scented soap, then pat dry with clean cloth/paper towel
- Apply healing lotion (Aquaphor ointment or tattoo healing product)
- Cover from direct UV/sunlight with loose-fitting clothing
- Avoid scratching the area
How Long It Takes to Heal a Tattoo
But just because you have an estimate of how long the healing process will take—and that’s slightly different for everyone and every tattoo—that doesn’t mean you can just stop your normal routines until it’s done or have a one-size fits all policy to keep your tattoo clean. You’ll need to know how to protect your new body art in every situation as it heals.
How Long to Wait to Work Out After Getting a Tattoo
If you’re an active person, that need for knowledge especially applies to your exercise and workout schedule. Both the activities you’ll be doing and the places you’ll be doing them might not be ideal for a healing tattoo; while there are tons of people in just about every fitness-focused space with body art, the gym itself is not a friendly place for fresh ink.
Arseneau shared a few relevant tips you should keep in mind about working out after getting a new tattoo, in addition to his typical advice for aftercare, which are essential to follow for a good healing process.
He’s quick to note that he’s not a medical professional, so if you have a fresh tattoo that starts exhibiting signs of infection, get checked out by a doctor. “What I’ve recommended is pretty standard in the tattoo community, but every body is different and there are lots of variables,” he says.
In the most general cases, however, you won’t have to wait long. “[Exercise] is probably okay a day after getting a tattoo if it’s not going to be in contact with the floor or equipment,” Arseneau says.
That said, there are a few things to consider when you approach exercising after getting a tattoo.
Tattoo Placement Matters
Depending on exactly where on your body you tattoo is, you might have a harder or easier time with your workout.
“A fresh tattoo on your torso will probably impede a proper range of motion more than one on an arm or leg and will need an extra day or so of rest,” says Arseneau. “Likewise, the area around knees and elbows will also need extra time because of the skin stretching movements.”
But having healthy habits might make the process even easier to begin with. “Fortunately, if you’re a frequent exerciser you will heal quickly and a day of rest might be enough if the tattoo is in a tricky spot,” he says. “The new tattoo will be sensitive for a few days, so if you try a movement and it hurts, try something else.”
For those looking for a quick answer to the question of how long you should pause your workouts after a new tattoo, there it is: Take one day off, then get back to your workouts. But that’s only if you’re able to follow the other guidelines to the letter.
Wash the Tattoo Soon After Sweating
If you’re a heavy sweater, or if you’re taking on an exercise modality that might cause you to sweat more than others (like a HIIT session or hot yoga), you might want to take extra caution.
“Sweating can certainly be an issue if it’s allowed to sit too long on the fresh tattoo,” he says. “Sweat is pretty dirty, so wash the tattoo right after your workout. I think a day or two would be plenty of time.”
Which Exercises to Avoid After a New Tattoo
Given everything we know about new tattoos, it should be obvious that exercise modalities that require skin-to-skin contact or rigorous movement should be avoided. That means martial arts like jiu-jitsu or kickboxing, basketball, football, or rugby are likely off-limits for at least a few days. Swimmers should probably take some extra time out of the pool, too—most artists recommend that you avoid soaking the spot for at least two to four weeks.
All of the other guidelines mentioned above are important. You don’t want to irritate the new ink on your biceps with a kettlebell rack, for example—so try to be smart about your training.
And remember, where you train matters, too. “The gym environment definitely has a germy reputation,” Arseneau says. “I would recommend be very cautious about equipment and being super careful about the floor. It certainly depends on the gym and the kind of workout you do, as well. The barbell or kettlebell could rub on your legs, wall ball will hit your arms, and you’ll probably be all over the floor.”
Whether you train in a dingy, old school basement gym or a modern boutique club, you’ll still need to have the same post-workout routine, according to Arseneau. “Don’t forget—do not to touch your new tattoo with your dirty gym hands!” he says. “Wash them and then wash the new tattoo directly after your workout.”
How to Protect Your New Tattoo When You Work Out
Once you’re comfortable to get in the gym, make sure that your healing ink is protected. “A great way to limit direct contact with the gym equipment and floor is clothing,” Areseneau says. “Typically, it is recommended to wear loose fitting clothing over a fresh tattoo. This will ease the irritation caused by rubbing of clothing. Most athletic gear is pretty tight, but you’re also usually not wearing it all day.”
Just make sure to clean and moisturize the area as soon as you’re done, he advises. But there are more options for eager exercisers, if you’re willing to get some more aftercare materials.
Tegaderm and Saniderm, two types of adhesive dressings, can help to cover the tattooed area as you heal. Arseneau says they’re great options to serve as barriers against germs for medium and small-sized tattoos.
“A good way to use those products is to apply them to the cleaned, dry tattoo the day after you get it,” he advises. “When you take the absorbent bandage off in the morning, clean and dry the tattoo as recommended. But don’t apply any Aquaphor. Just immediately place the Tegaderm or Saniderm over the fresh tattoo. It stays on for three to four days and you don’t have to do anything special to it at all. It just heals itself like magic.”
Just make sure that you don’t put the dressing on without prepping the tattooed spot first (unless your artist immediately applies the dressing, as that is also becoming a more common practice). “I recommend applying the day after because your body will be pushing out plasma to try and form a protective scab over the tattoo (that’s another reason to be good about washing it—you’re constantly flushing all that scabbing material away),” Arseneau says. “If you put the Tegaderm on immediately after getting the tattoo, all of that plasma will be trapped and will blister under the fake skin. You definitely don’t want that to pop or leak out at the gym!”
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.