By now you’ve probably realized that your loungewear won’t hold up in a HIIT class, which makes absolute sense since that’s what the best workout leggings are for. The sheer range of styles, materials, and cuts at our disposal seems to multiply by the day, which can make it challenging to understand the difference between a workout legging and a couch legging. (Cue the reluctant sigh.)
You’ll get the most out of your workout if you actually feel supported in what you’re wearing, which is why we went to designers and fit experts to find out what exactly makes a great workout legging. Is it stretch? Absorbency? Breathability? The answer is all of the above (and then some). Find out what we learned from the pros, and shop the best workout leggings below.
Are certain materials better suited for specific workouts?
Absolutely. Kate Warrington Williams, Lululemon’s VP of Women’s Design and Performance, says there are two big factors to consider when selecting workout leggings: “What am I going to be doing while wearing them and how do I want to feel during my chosen activity?” This will help guide your fabric choice, in addition to features and fit. For instance, if you’re a runner, you’ll probably want something that’s breathable, sweat-wicking, and with discreet-but-functional features like hidden pockets and vented zips.
Danny Harris, co-founder of Alo, echoes this sentiment. He says the brand tests each material in-house in a variety of workouts to make sure everything feels as good as it looks. “Through the team’s trials, we’ve found that softer, lighter weight materials are more suited for lower impact workouts, while heavier, tighter-knit materials perform better during high-intensity activities like running and spin.” That means if you’re doing cardio, you’ll probably be better off with a fabric that feels thicker. If you’re sticking to yoga or barre, you’ll want to keep an eye out for a thinner fabrics and minimal seams.
What fabrics should I look out for when shopping for a workout legging?
Most brands tout a different propriety fabric, but if you look at the overall makeup of your go-to styles you’ll notice some similarities. Materials like nylon, elastane, lycra, and polyester are commonly used for their ability to wick sweat, dry fast, and regulate body temperature. The percentage composition will also impact how stretchy or supportive the legging is, so look out for pieces high in lycra or spandex if you want a good amount of elasticity.
Another great tip is to read up on the brand you’re shopping. Some athleisure labels like Girlfriend Collective have built an entire business around using recycled materials from plastic bottles or fishing nets, while others like Alo and Lululemon are known for their proprietary performance fabrics. (Lululemon’s Fast & Free Tight and Alo’s Airlift legging both have a cult-like following for their respective fits, but more on that later.)
What makes a legging “supportive”?
If you’ve ever shopped for leggings, chances are you’ve come across buzz words like “supportive” or “sculpting”. But what does that really mean—and how can a certain type of fabric be more supportive or sculpting? Harris explains that it’s all about the knit: “Materials that are very supportive are based on how they are knit. Tighter-knit pieces (mixed with the right fit) tend to be the most supportive and sculpting.” You can quickly tell a legging is more supportive once you try it on. Look for thicker fabrics and high-rise styles to hold you in place while doing cardio or strength training, but remember that maximum support isn’t always what you want. Some workouts, like a Vinyasa flow or a heated yoga class, require lighter weight materials that mold to your body and move as you flow.
How have sustainability concerns impacted the design and manufacturing process?
Activewear brands large and small are on the road to making their designs more eco-friendly. Girlfriend Collective for example has been at the front of the pack for a while now. “From the beginning we vowed to always put what’s best for the planet and the people on it first,” says Claire Weldon Smith, head of design at Girlfriend Collective. For the brand, that’s translated into using recycled materials to create its fabric and divert waste from landfills or oceans. According to Weldon Smith, this considered approach means the brand is “able to use less water and CO2 than similar products made from new raw materials.”
P.E Nation is another label making headway towards more sustainable design. Pip Edwards, co-founder and creative director, says the brand now takes more care when sourcing and choosing suppliers to partner with. “We look for vendors who have SEDEX and BSCI Certification, only use OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certified fabrics,” she explains.
Are there any materials to avoid?
There are two ways to think about it: one is through the lens of function, the other, preference. Harris says pieces low in lycra or spandex tend to be rigid, so they won’t be able to move with your body throughout the workout. That means if you’re doing something bendy, you’ll probably feel more in tune with your flow if you’re wearing a legging with more lycra or spandex. As for shoppers with certain personal preferences, do your research. For those keen on eco-friendly options, Weldon Smith suggests steering clear of anything made with a high content of brand new synthetic materials (or virgin materials). “Opting for recycled materials ensures that we’re not guzzling up any more precious resources that are used to create brand new fabric,” she explains.
There’s a lot to take in, but material, cut, and fit should all be factored into your decision making when shopping for the best workout leggings. Once you know what to look out for—and what you like to wear depending on what exercise you’re doing—it becomes easy to experiment with all the different styles available. Below are 27 expert-approved picks to get you started.