What You Need to Know About Working Out After Getting a Tattoo

What You Need to Know About Working Out After Getting a Tattoo

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 the people around you 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 maneuvers that hone and show off hard-earned muscle. Both tattoos 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

“Depending on the tattoo, healing time is typically two weeks,” says Josh Arseneau, an artist at Electric Anvil in Brooklyn, New York, who has been tattooing professionally for over a decade

Dániel Törőcsik, an artist at Brooklyn’s Atelier Eva studios, says the exact amount of healing time needed hinges on a few factors. “This depends very much on the size of the tattoo, the technique used, and the immune system. It is difficult to give an exact day. Some people have a smaller tattoo that heals in three days and can start playing sports or exercising, others use a cream for a month to heal the wounded area.”

You also shouldn’t immediately assume a basic black and grey tattoo will heal quicker than a more colorful piece automatically. “The difference between the inks is mainly in the pigments, but this is not what prolongs the healing time,” Törőcsik says. “In general, it’s often for larger tattoos that people opt for color ink, so this in itself implies that a larger area of skin has been opened up, and a larger surface area would need to heal before getting back to exercise, which could take a bit longer. I would rather say that the extent of the tattoo, the style, and technique of tattooing can affect the length of healing time than the color of the ink.”

But just because you have an estimate of how long the healing process will take—again, 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 and Törőcsik shared a few relevant tips you should keep in mind about working out after getting a new tattoo, in addition to typical advice for aftercare, which is essential to follow for a good healing process.

Arseneau is 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.

“If all goes well with the healing process, the client will not really notice the tattoo,” Törőcsik notes. “Normally, after the tattoo is done, the skin relaxes and there is no longer any pain on or around the tattooed area. If the pain does not go away and the skin around the tattoo is still red and sensitive to touch days later, it is a good idea to use an anti-inflammatory cream to help the wound heal. If it still does not go away, you should see a dermatologist. The same should be done if a tattoo heals with a large wound or if any allergic reaction is seen in or around the tattoo. You should not immediately think the worst, but you should seek the opinion of a dermatologist.”

In the most general cases of healthy healing, however, you won’t have to wait long to get back to the gym. “[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.

You’ll be fully in the clear once your skin seems to be back to normal, according to Törőcsik. “If scabbing has fully fallen off and the entire surface of the tattoo is the same as the rest of the skin, it is safe to resume exercise,” he 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.”

“If you sweat a lot while exercising, think about how you can keep your tattoo dry at all times,” Törőcsik adds. That might mean keeping the spot covered by an adhesive dressing (more on that shortly).

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.

“If you want to keep moving during the recovery period, I would recommend walking or cycling,” suggests Törőcsik.

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.”

a portrait of fit mixed race man with dreadlocks doing exercise at home

Halfpoint Images//Getty Images

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!”

Ultimately, you need to remember that if you want a good tattoo, it’s up to you. “The tattoo artist contributes 50 to 60 percent of the final result—the rest is contributed by the client and how they care for the tattoo during the healing period,” Törőcsik says. Don’t make the mistake of rushing back to the gym, or skipping the preventative steps you need to take for the care of your tattoo to prioritize your gains. After all, you won’t lose muscle by taking a few days off, and you’ll bounce back after a break from exercise quickly. A badly-healed tattoo is much more permanent—so if you want your ink to look just as good once it’s healed as when you walk out of the shop, make sure to take care of it.

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Brett Williams, NASM

Brett Williams, a senior editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.

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