After years of being called a trend, it’s clear that athleisure is simply how we dress now. But, like with all other styles of clothing, there are a lot of things — whether fashion-y bike shorts or activewear designed for peak performance — that don’t come cheap. In fact, when we asked fitness instructors about their favorite workout leggings earlier this year, many of the recommended pairs that cost over $100.
Lots of pros consistently turn to pricey brands like Lululemon and Outdoor Voices for stylish pieces that are moisture-wicking and can stand up to anything from spinning to barre class. “I care most about performance and quality since it’s my uniform,” says trainer and fitness model Bianca Paige Vesco, “so I have to budget for the cost.” But is it possible to find inexpensive workout gear that looks — and feels — like the high-end stuff? Turns out, yes, if you know what to look for. So, to find the best athleisure dupes, we turned to the trainers and instructors who spend most of their time in spandex, to see how the cheaper stuff measures up.
Best inexpensive leggings
Even though they’re some of the cheapest leggings out there, two fitness instructors actually raved about Forever 21’s styles. Fithouse instructor Hannah DelMonte, who teaches boxing and hot yoga, says these shiny, black Forever 21 workout tights are her favorite pair. “They don’t stink after an intense sweaty bout of sparring in the ring,” she says. Hannah Jean Hildreth, who teaches dance cardio at 305 Fitness, told us she has two pairs of Forever 21 leggings (including this laser-cut style), calling them her “all-time favorite.” She compares them to leggings she’s found at Carbon 38 (like this glossy pair) because they’re “buttery [soft], last forever, have a high, thick waistband, and are not see-through.”
DelMonte discovered these even cheaper leggings at TJ Maxx, and her pair is still going strong after eight years. “They withstand exactly the same workout, wear and tear, and weekly washing as my expensive leggings,” she says. While she hasn’t had any issues with her Layer 8 leggings, DelMonte acknowledges that high-end brands do offer a better guarantee of their products’ quality. For instance, after a pair of her Lululemon leggings started to rip at the seams, she says the brand gave her a free replacement pair.
Best inexpensive patterned leggings
According to Gina DiNapoli, a personal trainer and creator of the Jabs class series at Project by Equinox, Colorfulkoala’s subtle patterns set the brand apart from other cheap leggings with wild prints. She says their patterns are ones “that people would actually wear without feeling like, Is this a little bit too much for the gym?” High-waisted and with a gray-on-black camo print, this style is very reminiscent of these Lululemon Align leggings — but for less than a third of the price.
Best inexpensive compression shorts
Founded by a pair of sisters who were also collegiate track-and field-athletes, Senita Athletics is committed to designing affordable workout wear. Sports performance coach and professional golfer Andia Winslow especially likes the brand’s compression shorts, which come in high-waisted and longer inseam styles so she never needs to adjust them while working out. “They stay tight to your skin,” she says. “Compression obviously helps with blood flow, but also they’re not unsightly.” She wears them for running, yoga, high-intensity training, and even stand-up paddleboarding, and says, “they’re microfiber so they wick sweat and moisture,” performing just like a pair of much pricier shorts.
Best inexpensive sports bras
For workouts like yoga or barre where you’re not doing a lot of bouncing around — or if you don’t need a ton of support — you can probably get away with an inexpensive bra, like this one from Forever 21 that comes recommended by two fitness pros. “I get most of my sports bras from Forever 21, believe it or not,” says Becca Pace, a founding instructor at Brrrn. “I’m not very big busted, so they work really well for my low-impact classes.” Similarly, DelMonte says the majority of her hot-yoga sports bras are from the store. If you have larger breasts (or are doing higher-impact workouts), you’re probably better off sticking with a brand like Athleta that, while not as cheap, sells bras in specific cup sizes (instead of just small, medium, or large) for a better fit.
As Winslow says, these Old Navy bras are so cheap you can get a handful of colors or prints “to match your tennis shoes, your shoelaces, or your necklace.” Like more expensive bras, they come with removable cups for adjustable coverage and easier washing. Winslow is also impressed by their durability: “They don’t fade and the structure and the elastic maintains itself over time.”
Best inexpensive color-block workout set
While Outdoor Voices didn’t invent color-blocking, they’re certainly responsible for sparking the trend in leggings — especially when paired with a matching, longline sports bra. If you want a similar look for less — and don’t mind a very neon orange hue — Hildreth recommends this set from ASOS’s athleisure line, ASOS 4505. “Sets are expensive, so I always search for them on the cheaper side,” she says, noting that the ones from ASOS look very similar to their expensive counterparts.
Best inexpensive men’s workout tank top
Mark Osmundsen goes through two or three workout shirts per day as a barre and sculpt instructor at Fithouse, so he appreciates that he can buy these under-$10 tanks in bulk. “They’re super soft, breathable, and easy to wash,” he says. And with no obvious logo or branding he can wear them wherever he’s teaching or working out. While Osmundsen admits “the quality isn’t the same as something from Lululemon,” he still thinks that “at one-fifth of the price they’re really valuable.”
Best inexpensive men’s workout shorts
Whether he’s running outside or leading notoriously grueling workouts at Tone House (where he’s a head coach), James McMillian is most likely wearing his Reebok shorts. “The quality is amazing,” he says. “The sweat-wicking fabric helps with sweaty sessions in the gym, pulling excess moisture off of my skin.” The shorts also have details like reflective accents (for staying visible on low-light runs) and a drawstring waist — both of which call to mind these much pricier Patagonia shorts. While the Patagonias have the added bonus of a liner and zip-up pockets, they mostly do the same job.
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