The best and most stylish activewear for every type of workout

Noelle Ike, CNN Underscored
Updated Fri November 1, 2019

Story highlights

  • Some of the best workout clothes for women are also gorgeous pieces of activewear
  • Popular brands like Outdoor Voices, Alo Yoga and Sweaty Betty top out list

Long gone are the days of working out in baggy basketball shorts and ratty old T-shirts. Today, activewear is way more than simply clothes you work out in.

The increasing popularity (and resounding acceptance) of stylish, trendy athletic clothing has made uber-comfortable clothing something that's not just for the gym. It's infiltrated all corners of culture, from high fashion runways to the offices of Silicon Valley executives, and it's right for everyplace from the business casual office to a weekend lunch with friends. Really, it's appropriate for any occasion when you just want to be comfortable.

The proof is in the popularity of the trend. Athleisure is the everyday incorporation of comfort into your wardrobe, and it's a liberating way to toss out the antiquated idea that beauty is pain. And who's not on board with that?

While classic athletic brands like Nike, Adidas and Lululemon are constantly evolving their product lines to include new and different styles, colors and designs, the fun of athleticwear is how limitless it is. Yes, we all love a solid pair of black leggings — but often the more colorful, the more edgy and the more different, the better. That's where these six brands come in.

We've sorted through a massive amount of activewear available online for women, from more established brands to newer direct-to-consumer brands. Each offers something a bit different stylewise, so we've broken them up by workout "personality" types. Some other things to keep in mind: The type of activity or exercise you prefer will affect which brand is best suited to your lifestyle. Other factors we took into account when testing were how sweatproof the material was, what type of support it offered, size inclusivity, versatility and overall style.

Alo Yoga: For the woman dedicated to her yoga or barre class, and wants activewear that's as comfortable as it's gorgeous

Alo Yoga was created in 2007 as an activewear brand specifically for yoga lovers, but has since evolved into a brand beloved by everyone from barre-goers and Pilates loyalists to celebrities as a street style option. And there's a really good reason for that.

The brand's super soft and comfortable activewear is probably the most luxurious-feeling gym clothing I've ever worn. It's probably not the best option for someone who runs marathons or works with heavy weights, but it provides a little luxury if you prefer lower-impact exercises like yoga or barre. When it comes to the leggings, both the High-Waist Airbrush Legging ($82; aloyoga.com) and the High-Waist Airlift Legging ($118; aloyoga.com) are extremely soft, comfortable and flattering.

The High-Waist Airbrush Legging is probably Alo Yoga's most classic legging. There are no side seams, and it's made from Alo Yoga's signature Airbrush fabric that features moisture-wicking antimicrobial technology. It's the perfect option to take you from the gym to just about anywhere and has been spotted on celebrities like Gigi Hadid. The High-Waist Airlift Leggings feel like a second skin -- they're buttery and sleek while still supportive. They're super high-waisted, making them a great choice to pair with a whole range of adorable crop tops or sports bras.

The tops I tried out have a truly delicate, elegant touch. The Arch Long Sleeve Top ($88; aloyoga.com) features a built-in bra and stunning cutout neckline and hits perfectly at the midline to complement any of the brand's high-waisted leggings. The Barre Long Sleeve ($68; aloyoga.com) is a sheer, long-sleeved top that features a wrap design that you can tie either in the front or in the back, and the Amelia Long Sleeve Crop ($60; aloyoga.com) is a reversible option made from a superfine knit material that's insanely soft.All three top options are simultaneously warm and lightweight, making them perfect for any exercise you might be doing during the colder months.

Working out in these pieces, and Alo Yoga's products in general, definitely feels a little more special than in your typical tank top. And though they're probably not the most supportive workout options on the market, I can guarantee that they'll garner tons of compliments both outside and inside the studio.

Girlfriend Collective: For the woman who wants her activewear to be sustainable, inclusive and in a great selection of colors

You may have not heard of Girlfriend Collective yet, but you're about to see the brand's clothing everywhere. Girlfriend Collective is creating some of the most all-around fantastic activewear available on the market right now, and I've been spreading the word far and wide ever since I started testing out their signature set.

To start, they're prioritizing slow fashion -- which means investing time and energy -- to produce clothing that's more ethical and easier on the planet. Take the Compressive High-Rise Legging, for example, Girlfriend's signature legging. It's made from 25 recycled water bottles. And though many synthetic fabrics (like nylon and polyester) are made from plastic, Girlfriend chooses materials "that would otherwise clog landfills and threaten wildlife."

But you're not sacrificing quality when you shop at Girlfriend. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The Compressive High-Rise Legging ($68; girlfriend.com) and Paloma Bra ($38; girlfriend.com) are some of the most inexpensive options on this list, which makes their super high-quality feel that much more impressive.

The Compressive High-Rise Leggings are super slimming and flattering and really do some incredible work when it comes to lifting your backside. They're also extremely high-waisted, which is great if you don't want to worry about pulling up your leggings during a workout. Both the leggings and the Paloma Bra are sweat-resistant and comfortable in hotter environments, though they're not the most lightweight, which I actually prefer for everyday wear.

The Paloma Bra is fairly long as well, so if you're buying these two pieces together — which I highly recommend, because everyone will be asking where you got your adorable set — your whole stomach won't be exposed. Another interesting element is the lack of visible branding. There are no loud logos on the back of the leggings, which is rare to see. I thought it was really refreshing, and I felt like I was part of a secret club when I complimented somebody wearing her Girlfriend set during a recent dance class.

The best part is the customization you're able to do, both in terms of fit and style. The Paloma Bra is available in sizes XS through XXXL, and the Compressive High-Rise Legging runs from sizes XXS to 6XL, with the additional option of choosing between three different inseam lengths. Yes for inclusivity! When it comes to the colors, there's absolutely something for everyone. All the options are simultaneously sleek, on-trend and fun, and I could easily see myself owning one of each.

One of my favorite elements of Girlfriend's better-for-the-planet philosophy is exemplified in the ReGirlfriend program, which encourages you to send in old Compressive bras, leggings and shorts for a $15 store credit. Girlfriend then recycles the old materials into new ones, which helps close the loop on creating more waste. So maybe there isn't any harm in ordering a piece in every single color!

FP Movement: For the woman with a diverse set of workouts and prefers her wardrobe to be fun and different

Free People's activewear collection features a uniquely boho style that sets it apart from other brands. From the wide range of distinctive colors to the stretchier, looser fabrics and cuts, the little details in the brand's pieces make them a super fun step up from your typical athleisure basics.

The playful element of the brand's aesthetic is definitely apparent in its Good Karma set, which includes the Square Neck Good Karma Bra ($48; freepeople.com) and High-Rise 7/8 Length Good Karma Legging ($78; freepeople.com). Both pieces are available in a huge range of colors, from wardrobe-necessary neutrals to bolder, brighter options like neon yellow, tropical pink and a super bright blue.

They're made from a combination of spandex and nylon, and as a result they're incredibly stretchy and body-hugging — which is important since the pieces are available in only two sizes. While the pieces held up well during my workout classes, I found myself turning to them outside of exercising as well. They really double perfectly as clothing for every day, and the wider waistband on the leggings have a slightly more dressed-up look to them.

When it comes to special little touches, the High-Rise 7/8 Length You're A Peach Legging ($98; freepeople.com) absolutely won my heart. To start, they're the perfect leggings to work out in. They're thick enough to be completely squat-proof -- no need to worry about your underwear showing through -- and made of the type of reliable material that you're never going to worry about ripping.

The 7/8 length is perfect even for petite women like me, and the ruched detail makes for a fun touch. The leggings are the perfect degree of high-waisted, and the real show stopper is the light reflective accents that both keep you visible if you're working out at night, and really accentuate your natural curves in a flattering way. These are the type of leggings I would absolutely stock up on, in every color.

And finally, the piece that both my sister and mother continually try to steal from me: the Hit The Slopes Fleece Jacket ($148; freepeople.com). It's a unique and stylish take on a typical fleece jacket. It's cropped enough to be flattering, and just long enough to keep your midsection warm. The button snaps are really high quality, and the multiple zippered pockets mean you never have to bring a bag or purse to the gym again, which I'm a huge fan of. All in all, its practicality and comfort will make it a beloved staple in any woman's wardrobe.

Carbon38: For the woman who considers herself a trendsetter and doesn't mind turning heads in her group class

Carbon38 both curates super stylish activewear and creates its own line of products. And when it comes to head-turning, high-fashion-inspired pieces that will have the trendy women in your life in awe of a cropped sweater, Carbon38 is absolutely your destination.

The signature High Rise 7/8 Takara Legging ($105; carbon38.com) is something I haven't really seen before. The material is sleek, with a glossy finish that isn't quite as dramatic as it looks in pictures on the site (so no worries if it looks a bit intimidating in the image -- it's gorgeous but not totally liquidy). I paired it with the Cami Bra ($58; carbon38.com) which matches perfectly, for probably the most fashionable workout set I've ever seen, let alone tried on.

The material is compressive and slimming, and the large waistband on the High Rise 7/8 Takara Leggings is super comfortable. Again, this might not be the activewear you run a marathon in, but it's my first choice if I know I'm meeting friends for lunch after a class. I also wore the set out one night to a friend's housewarming party, paired with black booties and crop top. Not only did I get compliments on the outfit, nobody mentioned that it actually looked like gym clothing. And that's what distinguishes Carbon38 to me as an activewear brand — it's really a fashion brand that uses activewear as a way to incorporate comfortable yet trendy pieces into your everyday life, and your nights out.

Two other pieces are definitely worth mentioning. The Crop Tank ($39; carbon38.com) is, simply put, one of the softest tank tops I've ever tried. It's super comfortable, the perfect amount of cropped to pair with high-waisted leggings, and just sheer enough to show off whatever cute sports bra you have on.

The Metal Mesh Hoodie ($158; carbon38.com) exemplifies the Carbon38 style to me. Yes, you can work out in this piece, or wear it to the gym. But for the price, you can also wear it anywhere from brunch to a party. It's an absolutely stunning piece that will hold a special place in your wardrobe, whether you put it next to your workout clothes or your special occasion tops.

Sweaty Betty: For the woman who loves a challenge, embraces the sweat and wants slimming workout gear that can keep up

When it comes to totally sweatproof activewear for the woman who loves a good workout, Sweaty Betty is the winner in my book. The brand has been around for over 20 years now, and in that time has absolutely nailed activewear that is both ideal for the studio or gym and perfect for everyday wear.

The Power Mesh 7/8 Workout Leggings ($120; sweatybetty.com) are made from a sleek, slimming fabric that feels like it's optimized for performance. It's extremely sweatproof, and the material almost gets more comfortable as you work out. It sticks to your body and holds you in as you work out. Of all the leggings I tried, these would be the ones I would choose for a super sweaty cardio session.

Something to note, however, is that the Power Mesh 7/8 Workout Leggings aren't high-waisted, which makes them a great option if you prefer to wear leggings with a longer tank top as opposed to a sports bra or crop top.The mesh paneling is a subtle but perfect elevation of the classic black legging, and I'm a big fan of the back zip pocket which (though it didn't fit my iPhone XR) is the perfect size for keys, a credit card and some cash.

I paired these leggings with the Athlete Seamless Workout Tank ($45; sweatybetty.com) and the Stamina Sports Bra ($50; sweatybetty.com). The Athlete Seamless Workout Tank is exactly what it sounds like, a super versatile tank perfect for just about any activity I can think of. It's super sweat-wicking and flattering and works perfectly with the Power Mesh 7/8 Workout Leggings.

While some gym clothes sort of hug your curves and accentuate them, I found that all the Sweaty Betty products were more slimming and really held everything in. For this reason, I imagine the leggings and tank top would be great for runners, boxers and people who prefer some higher-impact workouts.

The Stamina Sports Bra is designed to offer medium support up to a C cup, and I think it definitely is aimed for lower-impact activity. That being said, it's a sports bra you can definitely wear to the gym and keep on all day long, because it's so comfortable. It's not restrictive or bulky, and it worked perfectly with the Athlete Seamless Workout Tank. The three pieces together were extremely flattering, and I found myself continually going back to them, even though I'm typically a high-waisted leggings and cropped sports bra type of girl. They performed so well during sweaty workouts and still felt clean and lightweight once I was done working out.

Outdoor Voices: For the woman who's constantly on the go and experiments with different types of activity

Outdoor Voices is a brand that has completely embraced all things athleisure as a lifestyle. It stresses the idea of "freeing fitness from performance" and believes activity can be a part of anyone's everyday life.

And its activewear reflects that. Outdoor Voices carries a wide range of activewear for different types of activity, but all of it has a super cute and lighthearted feel to it. My absolute favorite piece from the collection is the Exercise Dress ($100; outdoorvoices.com), which I've written about in depth before. And in many ways, it exemplifies everything that Outdoor Voices has nailed as an activewear brand. It's super versatile, great for activity that intertwines with your everyday life (like hiking, jogging, walking with friends or biking), and brings something playful, simple and unique to the activewear space.

A similar product is the brand's MegaFleece Half-Zip Hoodie ($135; outdoorvoices.com). While it achieves something completely different from the Exercise Dress, it's a perfect option for everyday life or a post-gym staple, due to its unique material (a blend of recycled wool and synthetic fibers that is thermoregulating, anti-odor and sweat-wicking) and its clearly thought-through design (from a wind- and water-resistant hood to zippered pockets on the jacket sleeve). The colors are simple but fun, and like the Exercise Dress, it's a really incredible gift option for someone, regardless of how often she may or may not go to the gym.

In true Outdoor Voices fashion, it's not about performance — it's about comfortable, functional pieces that work with whatever your lifestyle is.

When it came to more traditional workout gear, I tested out the TechSweat 7/8 Zoom Leggings ($95; outdoorvoices.com) and the Doing Things Bra ($65; outdoorvoices.com). The TechSweat 7/8 Zoom Leggings ran a little small at the waist (I'm typically an extra small, but would order a small next time around), so the waistband did sort of cut into my waist in a way that wasn't the most flattering to my shape. But these absolutely will keep up in any class where you're jumping up and down, because of how body-hugging they are. They're extremely lightweight and provide a great amount of compression.

The Doing Things Bra is very comfortable and supportive, but it wasn't completely sweatproof in my experience. During a barre class, I had some sweat gather in the middle of the sports bra and show through. So I would definitely recommend this for outdoor, more casual activity where you won't be sweating heavily.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.