Best Protective Styles for Working Out (and the Worst!)

I’ve lived a pretty active lifestyle for the past few years, and I’ve also gone through my fair share of protective hairstyles during that time: crochet braids, knotless braids, wigs, braids and beads, cornrows, and many more styles. It’s pretty much a given that wearing your natural hair in a protective state — versus in a blowout, twist out, or fro — will least obstruct your ability to get that cardio in, but what are the best protective styles for working out? And which are the worst?

Worst: Weaves

Do people still get weaves in 2020? Although they’re a super cute way to change up your look, weaves aren’t a great protective style for exercise because they give very little scalp access, and your hair is usually braided down in a pattern that has little spacing. When you’re working out, there’s nothing worse than a sweaty, itchy scalp that you can’t reach! You might get an arm workout trying to get the itch out, but not much more.

Not so good, But Doable: Wigs

So my Fingercomber Kinky Kurl Out half-wig largely inspired this post, because I wore it to the gym one day and said never again. Wigs may seem like a good options because your hair is cornrowed straight down underneath, but unless you’ve glued your wig down, they’re often too unstable to wear while doing burpees and crunches. Plus, if you’re using a kinky or curly wig, it’s hard to pull the hair back away from your face and into a ponytail without exposing your edges. If you’re a wig wearer and want to work out, make sure you’re rocking a customized unit (cut and styled to perfectly fit your head) to avoid any slip offs.

Better: Cornrows/Twists/Flat Twists (No Extensions)

Whether you’re a wig wearer or just rocking medium sized twists for the week, doing a protective style with your own hair like cornrows, flat twists, or two strand twists gives you the necessary scalp access to freshen up your hair between workouts. Though you might not want to wash your natural hair frequently, you can at least get some tea tree and peppermint oil on your scalp to soothe, refresh, and hydrate if you have one of these protective styles.

Better: Braid or Twist Extensions

Why styles like box braids, senegalese/havana/passion/spring twists, and crochet braids make the best protective style choices for people serious about their exercise is because they give you access to your scalp with minimal manipulation of your own hair. While you risk ruining a perfectly good hairdo if you wash your sweaty flat twists, you can easily dab a washcloth or soaked cotton ball throughout the scalp of your braids with extensions to keep your scalp fresh. Or go ahead and shampoo weekly, you won’t damage your hair by frequent detangling since it’s all put away!

Best: Shoulder Length Braid or Twist Extensions

I made a distinction between regular braids and shorter length braids and twists, because shorter braids tend to be lighter than heavier braids. When we workout, we often do a lot of movement, and butt length box braids can tug and pull on our edges with all our movement. Shorter braids won’t strain your hair as much, especially if worn in a low ponytail as opposed to a bun. The style I have in this feature photo — spring twists — are ridiculously light and the absolute best protective style for working out.

Do you feel like your hairstyle impacts how active you are? What are the best protective styles for working out in your opinion?

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  1. Hi! I just got large knotless braids for a 2 week trip to the beach and I have just gotten back into running and I don’t want to break the streak and have to start over again. Is it going to be too much on my hair to job 4 times a week with the braids in? Thank you

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this topic! I’ve been searching for what to do with my hair and you’ve provided solid answers on two different occasions. I really appreciate your content.

  3. Oh my goodness, I am so glad that you asked this question because that is literally why I read this blog post. I just moved to Hawaii and currently have boho/mermaid/goddess box braids that are chest length and it’s time for a take down. But not sure what to get next because I want to swim more, but my long braids are way to heavy to consistently get wet in the ocean.

    I was considering doing a braided bob, then saw a cornrow version mixed with singles. Too many choices lol. But your question and Ijeoma’s response was hugely helpful!


  4. Hi I am a 14 student athlete. I play volleyball practice three times a week or more and sometimes tournaments on the weekends. I really want to do my own box braids without extensions is this ok.

  5. hello, I have been trying to research which style to wear for swimming daily in the ocean and also doing hot yoga weekly. I live in Hawaii so it is very humid, but can’t complain 🙂 Typically I just go natural but the humidity is creating some interesting mushroom shaped dos, haha, and I want a change. I think I have 3c or 4a hair just above my shoulders (my hair doesn’t really grow and its looked the same since I was 11 🙂 Im now 44, haha. I am curious about light weight dos like twists or braids (using extensions). Any ideas would be appreciated.

  6. Thank you so much for this post! I have been searching for answers on whether or not I should get a sew-in weave hairstyle if I sweat so much while working out! This post was very straight forward and informative and it helped me to decide on what I should do with my hair. I will get crochet braids again!

  7. I know you made this post a year ago, but I am a teen who plays soccer and with low porosity natural hair daily exercise and games are killing the moisture in my hair. I usually try to rock a braidout and a bun at practice, but lately my hair has just gotten drier and drier. I’m really not into the idea of using any type of extensions, but do you have any hairstyle ideas I could adopt that could maybe keep the moisture in my hair?

    1. Bless your heart love! I remember my hair being an eternal struggle during my soccer days in high school, AND I had a perm. I think a bun is a good way to go, so if your hair is getting dry, it’s indicating that your regimen needs to change, not your hairstyle. For your low porosity hair, try using products with humectants, like honey and glycerin, that will help your hair absorb more moisture. I’m about to shoot you an email!

  8. This was very helpful. Thank you for sharing. I have a question.! I usually wear box braids when I workout. I’m extremely active at the gym. I find that my style gets messy really quickly. (Especially when my braids are really long and braided big.) I find that because my hair is wet from sweat and my braids so long it pulls…making my style look bad pretty fast. My question to you is, is there anything I can wear on my head with my braids so I can at least save the front on my hair line from coming out of the braids?

    1. Thanks for reading! Its the weight of your braids, especially bobbing up and down as you workout, that is pulling your edges. You’re probably pulling your hair back into a tight ponytail right? Try pulling the majority of your hair back, and then take the front section and pull it to the sides first and then back (as if you were putting each half behind your ears). This puts less stress on your front edges.

  9. Another great style, especially for we short haired 4c naturals is finger coils. They have been a life saver for me! Not only are they low maintenance, they stand up well to the shrinkage caused by sweating! They are also versatile as you can coil & coil out to change up the look as you desire.

  10. I’m going to start a 6 month protective style and fitness challenge and this post has given me some great info! Thank you! Personally I believe I’m going to wear small two strand twists because they’re versatile, easy to moisturize, last a long time, and never let me down when I was an athlete in high school.

      1. Thank you so much for your reply! So far things have been going great (hairwise and bodywise) ! I can’t wait to see my results at the end of my 6 months. I love my mini twists I have right now, but after re-visiting this post I’m inspired to try Marley twists and crochet braids. Do you have a video on how to keep your own hair moisturized under crochet braids? Thanks so much!