“My gym” has a nice sound system with multiple subwoofers and supporting speakers all over the place.
In the mornings we typically get a noise level of between 60 and 80 decibels, with louder impact sounds when someone drops a barbell.
Group fitness classes run a lot louder than that:
At many gyms you are looking at average (!) sound levels in excess of 90 decibels (dBA).
Some classes have been measured at more than 100 decibels on average.
“At that point, you might as well go to see a heavy metal band.”
It is no wonder that some people complain about ringing in the ear and muffled hearing after attending group classes.
And it gets worse if you are a fitness instructor running multiple classes per day.
What do you do if you like your class but can’t the get other participants to agree on a lower volume?
Wearing earplugs comes to mind.
I have shortlisted and tested six different earplugs during my morning workouts to see what works for me and offer you some guidance.
Some of the earplugs covered in this post are very popular while others you may have never heard of.
They are not marketed heavily but are on this shortlist for a very good reason:
They work so well for me in many situations that they have become trusted friends.
What did I look for in my tests?
Your ear canal constantly changes its shape during your workout. I wanted to know which earplugs can best adapt to this and keep a good seal.
Also, many earplugs amplify foot impact sounds when you are running (e.g., on a treadmill) or jumping around in a fitness class.
Others exhibit a strong occlusion effect: they amplify your own breathing (and voice). I wanted to know which ones don’t do that.
I used all shortlisted earplugs while running on a treadmill, using a cross trainer, and working with weights and other gym equipment (shoulder press, chest press, lower back bench, etc.).
I tested two types of earplugs:
- Hi-Fi earplugs that are designed to offer moderate noise reduction but allow you to hear more of your music and communicate and stay in touch with your environment.
- Reusable earplugs with medium to high noise reduction ratings. If you find your gym or class way too loud or want to isolate from the noise in your environment as much as possible, these will likely serve you better.
Note: In both categories you can get earplugs with a fairly even noise reduction across the frequency range. It is the level of noise reduction that sets them apart.
1. In the category Hi-Fi earplugs I liked Etymotic’s ETY plugs best for exercising.
ETY plugs are easy to put in and take out, and noticeably lower the volume, yet I can talk and understand with them in.
Neither my own foot impact sounds nor my breathing get excessively amplified.
Alternatively, there is also an economical combination pack containing both sizes.
2. In the category reusable earplugs with medium to high NRR, my favorite workout earplugs are 3M Push-Ins.
Push-Ins are very effective at reducing all noise and offer a rock-solid yet comfortable seal (more so than ETY plugs).
With these too, I don’t experience annoying thumps or amplified breathing.
They are a pleasure to work out with.
Just note, they reduce the music volume by a lot.
Comparison table earplugs for working out
|#||What||Noise reduction||Consistent seal||Thumps on impact||Occlusion effect||Comfort||Other sounds w. exercising|
|1||3M Push-Ins||High||Excellent||Moderate||Low||Very good|
|2||Etymotic ETY Plugs||Moderate||Good||Moderate||Low||Good|
|3||Howard Leight TrustFit Pod||High||Excellent||Moderate||Low||Good|
|4||Vibes||Moderate||Good||Moderate||Moderate||Very good||rubbing noises|
|5||Flents Protechs Earplugs for Travel||Medium-high||OK||Medium-high||Low||Good|
|6||Loop Experience||Low||Good||Medium-high||High||Good||pumping noise|
Observations at the gym and details for all tested earplugs
1. 3M Push-Ins (NRR 28)
Push-Ins are reusable high-NRR earplugs with a foam tip and a stem with a good length.
For who: 3M Push-Ins are my number one recommendation if you want high noise reduction while working out. These seriously turn down the music volume.
- They are easy to put in and take out.
- The ear tip adapts very well to changes in the ear canal during workout and makes them effective at various insertion depths.
- These earplugs are very effective at all reducing noise, including bass noise.
- The noise reduction is even, so I don’t get the feeling that my environment is muffled.
- They are rock solid yet comfortable: whether I run, press and squeeze, or am upside down, they keep a consistent seal and remain comfortable.
For more technical details (chart, table) on the noise reduction I have been able to achieve with these, see the post What Are the Best Earplugs for Low Frequency noise.
Note: 3M also has the Express Pod Plugs, which look quite similar. They are not bad, but I definitely prefer Push-Ins: they are more comfortable and a lot more effective.
2. Etymotic ETY Plugs (NRR 12)
These belong to the category Hi-Fi earplugs. They have a triple-flange silicone tip and come in two sizes.
For who: I like ETY plugs for moderately reducing noise and keeping me in touch with what’s going on around me.
- I can easily talk and understand with these.
- There are virtually no thumping sounds when I run. Also, my breathing and own voice are not amplified.
- The stem has the right length for adjusting them and taking them out.
- They work well together with bone conduction headphones.
If you want to try both sizes, ETY plugs are also available in an economical combination pack.
Note: Etymotic also makes other Hi-Fi earplugs such as the ER20XS. These don’t have a stem but a pull-tab and a much lower profile. I find them more difficult to handle and get a good, comfortable seal with. For the gym I much prefer ETY plugs over the ER20.
3. Howard Leight TrustFit Pod (NRR 28)
For who: If you want high noise reduction while working out. Noise reduction is comparable to 3M Push-Ins.
Like Push-Ins, HL TrustFit Pod have a foam tip. For me, they adapt to all canal changes during workout and provide a consistent seal.
- They are very effective at reducing all noise and I get minimal thumping sounds on impact. They also don’t amplify my breathing or own voice.
- I find absolutely nothing wrong with these and they would be my number one choice for high noise reduction exercise earplugs if it wasn’t for the Push-Ins.
- I prefer the stem of the Push-Ins for putting them in, adjusting them, and removing them, and I find them somewhat more comfortable (less pressure in the ear). So Push-Ins win.
4. Vibes Earplugs (NRR 15)
Vibes are also Hi-Fi earplugs, but instead of three flanges they employ an earbud-type tip. They come with three different sized ear tips (S,M,L).
They block a bit more noise than ETY plugs (particularly in the bass range) and, by design, substantially less than 3M Push-Ins.
I find them very comfortable (more than ETY plugs) and like them for everyday noise reduction.
I think they are good earplugs for the coffee shop or walking around town. Take a look at my detailed test and review for Vibes.
Vibes are also OK at the gym, but there I clearly prefer ETY plugs.
Note: For me Vibes have to be inserted as deep as seen in the photo above, otherwise they don’t reduce noise. (The foam tip of the Push-Ins may be shaped similarly, but it is a lot more adaptable.)
- With Vibes, I hear a bit of a pumping sound when exercising on the cross trainer and rubbing sounds when running on the treadmill. It’s not a big problem but my top recommendations don’t do that. I think the causes are the short stem and the position where they sit in the ear canal.
- My biggest complaint is that with sweaty hands I have a hard time removing or adjusting Vibes. The short stem can become very slippery. Sure I could go to the bathroom and get some tissue, but…
- ETY plugs have a longer stem, need little adjusting, and don’t make funny sounds.
Note: In situations where you rarely have to remove/adjust these earplugs (at least not with sweaty hands), such as when wearing a helmet, the short stem can be an advantage.
5. Flents Protechs Earplugs for Travel (NRR 24 closed/NRR 4 open)
Protechs Earplugs for Travel have a cap you can open when you want to talk to someone, and after some getting used to this works really well. How cool is that!
Also, they are the only earplugs on my exercise shortlist that can be submerged and completely washed.
For me, they reduce noise well and evenly: they are a bit less effective than Push-Ins but more so than Vibes and ETY Plugs.
I think they are good earplugs for everyday noise reduction, and the characteristics I just described would in principle make them a good candidate for exercising as well.
With the lid opened these are much easier to remove than most other triple-flange earplugs. I like that a lot. With other such earplugs you have to be extra careful not to create too much suction when removing them.
I have two issues with these earplugs at the gym:
- At times they lose their seal when I push hard to get through the last few reps of an exercise (e.g, chest press). I inadvertently squeeze my ear canal at these moments. Likewise, when I am upside down (e.g., on a lower back bench) they also sometimes come loose. I then have to completely take them out and reinsert them.
- Impact sounds are louder with these when running than with foam tip earplugs (Push-Ins and TrustFit Pod) and ETY plugs. It’s OK, but my favorites just do better there.
For who: They could work well for people riding a gym bike, taking part in a spin class, or walking on a treadmill (as opposed to running).
Note: These earplugs are made by Moldex and also available under the name Flip to Listen.
6. Loop Experience (no NRR, European SNR 15)
Loop Experience’s design is pretty unique: they have a replaceable earbud-type ear tip (4 sizes included: XS,S,M,L) that is attached at a fixed angle to a ring.
Inside the ring is an opening with an acoustic filter to reduce noise while preserving sound fidelity. These earplugs too belong to the category Hi-Fi earplugs.
I use the large size ear tips.
For who: Loop Experience may be an option if you need only a little noise reduction and prefer a canal cap (e.g., an earbud siting at the ear canal entrance) over an earplug that is inserted into the canal.
(Unlike all other reviewed plugs you can’t insert these into the ear canal. This can be an advantage if you don’t want anything deeper in the ear canal.)
- Subjectively, they appear to preserve sound fidelity best, but they also reduce the least noise. I’d like more noise reduction when exercising to subdue gym noises (e.g., bar bells dropping on the floor).
- I’d not feel protected enough at the sound levels at which loud fitness classes are run.
- When moving up and down (e.g., on a cross trainer) these earplugs create a pumping sound. The ear canal entrance is perhaps particularly prone to changing its shape during exercise.
- When running, the thumps are louder than with ETY plugs.
- Loop Experience exhibit a stronger occlusion effect than all other earplugs on this shortlist: they amplify my breathing and own speech a bit too much for my taste.
- Loop also makes the Loop Quiet, earplugs with the same design but without acoustic filter. These offer more noise reduction. I have ordered them to test them as an alternative for people who prefer canal caps.
- I expect them to also exhibit a stronger occlusion effect than other earplugs, but they could still be a good candidate for people who don’t want anything in the ear canal.
How to keep your exercise earplugs clean?
3M Push-Ins and HL TrustFit Pod have a foam tip. I clean the tip with a damp microfiber cloth and put them in a pill box. When possible, I leave the lid open to let them dry. I am not sure how they would hold up to washing.
Given that these two earplugs are inexpensive, I replace them when the tip loses its pliability, hardens, or looks dirty.
- Unlike the other earplugs in this review, Push-Ins and TrustFit Pods don’t come with carry cases. I use pill boxes which I already had.
- In case you want to buy a case: both earplugs are about 3 cm (1.2 inches) long. The tip diameter of the Push-Ins and TrustFit Pod is 1.2 cm (0.47 inches) and 1.3 cm (0.51 inches), respectively.
ETY plugs, Vibes and Loop have a silicone tip that can last a lot longer than foam if well taken care of. Cleaning the tip with water (and occasionally a bit of soap) does it for me.
The manufacturers advise not to submerge these earplugs: they have an acoustic filter/channel.
Flents Protechs Earplugs for Travel (aka Moldex Flip-to-Listen) also have a silicone tip but no filter. They can be washed with soap and warm water.
What if you need to take calls or want to listen to a podcast while exercising with earplugs?
I have also tried Aftershokz OpenMove, bone conduction headphones (Bluetooth) with all short-listed earplugs while exercising. These headphones have an EQ setting “earplug mode.”
OpenMove work with all earplugs mentioned in this post but maximum volume and sound character vary.
They work best and go loudest with ETY plugs.
With Push-Ins, they sound good but are a lot quieter. It was fine for me for listening to podcasts and taking calls, but if you want volume and bass, this will disappoint you.
Note: Changing the EQ setting to normal mode (intended to be used without earplugs), substantially increases the volume, but then the headphones sound too boomy and uneven.
Why consider doing this?
If you want hearing protection first and just need something to take a call or listen to a podcast / background music, adding bone conduction headphones may be a good option:
- The combination of earplugs and bone conduction headphones allows you to select precisely the plugs that fit your ears, exercise routine, and noise reduction requirements.
- Then you add bone conduction headphones, which are designed for exercise (very stable fit, sweat-proof).
- Earplugs with a high noise reduction rating like 3M Push-Ins are more effective at reducing noise than almost all earbuds.*
- Perhaps you also run outdoors (without earplugs) and are already looking for open ear headphones.
(*There are a select few in-ear headphones such as Etymotic’s ER2XR (review) that can compete in terms of noise reduction even with earplugs like the Push-Ins.)
Why not do this?
The sound quality and maximum volume is no match for good earbuds or in-ear headphones. It’s not even close.
If you are a music lover or want to rock and roll, you are better off with quality earbuds or in-ears.
Where do you go from here?
For working out and attending fitness classes, I recommend you get two different types of earplugs and experiment with both of them:
1. A pair of earplugs with a high noise reduction rating for when it is very loud or you want to isolate yourself as much as possible:
Try 3M Push-Ins (NRR 28) for this purpose.
- In my ears they keep a comfortable yet rock-solid seal no matter what. These earplugs are easy to put in and remove and in-expensive.
- Get a small trial-pack first to see how you like them.
- While they are reusable, because of the foam tip, expect to replace them more often than silicone earplugs. If you find they perform well for you, consider ordering them in bulk.
2. A pair of moderately effective earplugs for situations where you just want to turn down the volume a bit:
Try Etymotic’s ETY plugs (NRR 12) for this use case.
- I can easily keep a conversation with them in.
- I experience virtually no amplification of my breathing or own speech and very moderate impact sounds.
- Again, their stem has just the right length to make them easy to insert and take out.
Both Push-Ins and ETY plugs reduce noise quite evenly for me, so I don’t perceive the environment as muffled.
However, because Push-Ins block a lot more noise, everything appears much further away. I am much more in my own world. If your fitness class is way too loud or you want to be left alone, this is an advantage.
On the other hand, you may find the noise reduction a bit much if you want to connect with others or enjoy moderately loud music.
1. Beach, Elizabeth, and Valerie Nie. “Noise Levels in Fitness Classes Are Still Too High: Evidence From 1997-1998 and 2009-2011.” Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health 69 (October 2, 2014): 223–30. https://doi.org/10.1080/19338244.2013.771248.
2. Sinha, Sumi. “Cycling Exercise Classes May Be Bad for Your (Hearing) Health,” March 27, 2019. https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/40620297.