Whether you’re, shall we say, particular about workout clothes or rotate through a handful of “gets-the-job-done” pieces, there are certain activewear basics that every woman who works out should have in her closet.
Luckily, activewear brands are creating essentials that will appeal to every taste and budget—you just have to know what to home in on when building your collection. “The key pieces for any woman looking to expand her workout wardrobe include a form-fitting, well-stitched legging and a supportive bra,” says stylist Katie Graner. “These are staples that lend themselves well to versatility. I also love a matching set. It’s effortlessly put together and always cool.”
While Graner advocates for “investment” activewear pieces that stand up to plenty of wear (or that feature performance-enhancing design elements), she also keeps affordable pieces in the mix, too.
Whether you want to spend on luxury items or focus on a starter set of activewear that are more wallet-friendly, these are the seven essential pieces that should make up the core of your collection—with the best high and low buys for each.
The Supportive Sports Bra
For any intense workout, a great sports bra is crucial, no matter your bust size. Various construction details will suit a range of needs, from built-in cups to multi-way stretch and wide straps.
The Splurge: The designers at Brooks worked with scientists in the U.K. to create a sports bra that could not only eliminate boob bounce (genius!) but, as a result, shave time off of your PR. How? The bra features built-in, encapsulated cups that lift and separate your breasts (bye, uniboob!), plus just the right amount of compression. The technology makes it perf for high-impact workouts too. Another plus? The front closure offers easy on-off action so you never have to worry about pulling a sweaty sports bra over your head with Jell-O arms again.
The Steal: This All in Motion sports bra might not be next-gen like Brooks’, but it still delivers on the number one thing you want out of this essential: support.Adjustable straps, zip-front design, an inner hook, and padded cups make it ideal for high-impact workouts. What’s more: Its size range is extensive, in case you’re looking for a sports bra for bigger boobs.
The High-Waisted Legging
Whether a cropped, full-length, or a 7/8 silhouette is your preference, the ideal workout legging needs to come with a high-rise waist to keep your core supported and protected. Another must? Multi-stretch fabric with moisture-wicking properties to ensure that your leggings maintain their shape over time—and you stay dry.
The Splurge: “If I could own only one pair of workout leggings, the Invigorate High-Rise Tight would be it,” Graner says. “The built-in side pocket comfortably holds my iPhone 11 Pro Max, so I’m hands-free when I run, and there’s a subtle pocket at the back of the waistband where I keep my key. Plus, they last forever.”
The Steal: Built for comfort and performance, this high-rise legging is cut from smooth, four-way-stretch fabric—just like the Lulu’s above—with a hidden pocket in the waistband. Flatlock seams are another design element that make this deal even better, as they help to eliminate chafing and irritation.
The Matching Set
Investing in workout clothes that were designed to go together takes the guess work out of getting dressed for sunrise sweat sessions and makes owning your mornings (afternoons and evenings too!) that much easier. A matching set “keeps everything cohesive and looks stylish for workouts, running errands, and lounging,” Graner says.
Beyond Yoga Spacedye Slim Racerback Cropped Tank
Beyond Yoga Spacedye Out Of Pocket Legging
The Splurge: “I love this natural set from Beyond Yoga, which is my favorite brand for soft and durable sets with perfectly subtle, yet cool, designs,” says Graner.
Offline Real Me Strappy Back Sports Bra
Offline Real Me High Waisted Crossover Legging
The Steal: Aerie’s “Feel Free” fabric has many a five-star rating from customers who boast about its soft, supportive, and weightless feel. With four-way stretch and sweat-wicking properties, this set is as performance-ready as it is on-trend.
The Longline Bra
Whether you opt for a minimal style or go bold with a vibrant color, this piece provides a little more coverage and will make you feel instantly put together when paired your favorite workout bottoms.
The Splurge: The racerback design of this sports bra provides additional support—plus the straps are made from neoprene, which will help keep you looking and feeling cool, thanks to its sweat-wicking abilities. “I love this high-neck bra with a cut-out back because it’s unique without being loud,” says Graner. “It’s a stylish alternative to black, too, which feels chic and understated.”
The Steal: Made from ultra-soft fabric with added Spandex (we’re talking can’t-stop-touching-it soft), this fully-lined bra has a thick band for support with a keyhole back for added fashion points. Available in both earthy shades and rich jewel tones, there’s a hue for every activewear personality type. If you’re a set enthusiast, don’t sleep on the coordinating leggings.
The Third-Piece Layer
Whether you’re wearing it for warm-ups, outdoor workouts, or transitional activewear outfits, a third-piece layer, like a sweatshirt, zip-up jacket, or pullover, is a necessary add-on. When you choose one in a performance fabric, it’s a functional piece that’ll help your muscles stay warm during a workout or while you cool down.
The Splurge: Ideal for outdoor workouts, this zip-up jacket is made from water-resistant fabric and finished with reflective trim for visibility in low light. With a fashion-forward sheen, this grey hue is at once versatile and neutral—something Graner always leans toward when building an activewear collection.
The Steal:As the name states, this boxy pullover windbreaker does look expensive. But it’s about half the cost of the designer version above. It features a similar finish to the fabric and a hidden hood, just like the option from Adidas.
The Bike Short
Nostalgia plays a huge part in current fashion trends, and the same goes for activewear. Case in point: the resurgence of the ’90s trend toward biker shorts. They essentially function as cutoff leggings, making them every bit as versatile—whether you’re actually riding a bike, working out, or just buying groceries.
The Splurge: Sleek and sporty, this black-and-white biker short will look good with a sports bra during a workout or an oversized hoodie and dad sneakers off-duty. Built to perform and last a long time, this pair features power mesh on the inner waistband, moisture-wicking fabric, an inside key pocket, and flatlock seams.
The Steal: The white piping down the sides of these cycling shorts gives a similar feel to the tuxedo stripe on the Alala ones above. Aesthetics aside, like the pair from Alala, their longer length will help prevent inner-thigh chafing. They’re also made from a sweat-absorbing fabric called Aeroready that’ll keep you dry while you ride.
The Workout Top With A Twist
A front-wrap tee is the perfect base layer that’s anything but basic. Whether you wear one over a bra during your workout or toss yours on as a coverup after a sweat sesh, it’s a versatile piece for any active look. The key is to find one with a close-cut shape that’ll keep you warm and not get in your way while you move. Bonus points if it has little stretch so it’ll keep its shape over time.
The Splurge: Just as with Alo’s best-selling leggings, this long-sleeve top from the brand is made with four-way stretch material. Its super-fine weave makes for a luxe finish that’ll look good wash after wash.
The Steal:The fitted silhouette of this tee from Old Navy is sleek and flattering. What’s more, it’s made from a super-soft material called modal that’ll keep you warm but is still breathable.
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