I spent many years working out in ill-fitting cotton leggings and ratty yoga pants before I realized that what I wore to exercise in had a palpable effect on how much I enjoyed the process.
Oh, I can hear you already, naysayers, bellowing IT’S A GYM, NOT A FASHION SHOW at me. Sue me, I give a fuck about my clothes, and by that I mean all my clothes, even the ones I wear to work out in and sweat all over. The honest truth is that if I hate what I'm wearing, I am much less thrilled to be exercising than if I have activewear that I really, genuinely like and feel good in.
I don’t think this is that unusual either; exercising in public with a fat body takes guts to start with. Doing so in clothes you hate -- or worse, clothes that make you feel worse about your body and/or yourself -- is unlikely to bolster your motivation to work out. It’s equally fine not to care! It’s fine to not mind that 99% of what is available over a size 16 only comes in black or grey. Rock on, black and grey lovers. Whatever makes you happy.
But this is about those of us who do. Thus, I went on a comprehensive expedition in search of interesting and comfortable plus size activewear, and this is what I learned.
I’m going to start with the most boring -- but often absolutely necessary -- apparel: sports bras. For this section I had to rely on independent research and the thoughtful recommendations of others, because I do not personally have the sort of bosom that requires a lot of carefully planned support.
I’ve got to admit, I was shocked to learn that it’s pretty common for many of you who do have significant breastage to contend with to simply wear two sports bras at once, which -- shit, folks, it is freaking ridiculous that sports bras that fit and adequately harness big boobs on big bodies are so hard to find, and/or are so shockingly expensive.
For myself, I tend to just wear the same bra to work out in that I wear to do everything else. Which is just as well, since sports bras in small cup sizes and large band sizes are not super plentiful anyway.
For the small-bosomed but big-bodied, Glamorise offers the widest selection of sizes I could find, and most of their bras are priced between $40-$45. The Ultimate Full Figure Sport Bra comes in band sizes 34-48 and cup sizes B to F, including the elusive 48B, so this might be a good option for those of you fruitlessly searching for a large band/small cup combination. The Magic Lift Plus Active Support Bra also comes in a 50B, but that was the biggest band and smallest cup I could find. (Also, if you need a band just a couple inches larger than this, remember that bra extenders exist.)
To listen to my well-endowed active friends, the Enell Sport ($64-$66) is basically the HG of sports bras. Their largest size fits a bust measurement of 56”-60” and a ribcage measurement of 49”-53”. Like many sports bra manufacturers, they don’t do cup sizes, as their whole purpose is to mash those puppies down and keep them immobile throughout your workout, so if you’re unsure whether your individual breasts will fit, it might be smart to email them and ask.
For middle-of-the-road boob/band sizes, Champion makes sports bras that are affordable -- like this wicking compression bra, currently on sale for $22.49 and available in sizes 1X-4X -- and functional. Target also carries Champion in plus sizes, like this zip-front compression bra ($21.99). On a personal note, I’ve had a few Champion sports bras over the years and thought they did the job, but then, as a B-cup, the job I’m asking them to do is not that challenging.
If you’d rather not have your sports bra crush your bazooms into oblivion, Juno Active offers a “soft control” sports bra ($44.95) intended more for yoga than for triathalons. They also have a full-coverage bra top ($39.95-$44.95) which, thankfully, comes in loads of fun colors and prints. Both of these are available in sizes 1X-6X.
Moving on to the actual clothes: I should note before we go any further that you absolutely do not require specialized workout apparel in order to be active. You can be active in whatever clothes you like, be they old concert tees and sweatpants, or a dress, my own preferred garment for hiking. Never let a lack of "appropriate" garb prevent you from moving, if you want to.
Torrid has a new-ish online-only 0X-4X activewear line and it’s very Health Goth, insofar as it is mostly black and involves mesh panels and some “slashed” sleeves. There’s also leopard print, and a pair of leggings with an attached skirt, which I don’t entirely understand even while I own one of these two-in-one garments myself. Every time I wear it I spend the whole time yanking the skirt down when it rides up and bunches around my waist, which is exceptionally annoying.
I do like those mesh panels though.
Target has a small but sometimes cute selection of workout wear up to a 4X, and it’s pretty affordable, although it’s rare to find cute prints or anything not black or grey. But every once in awhile you’ll find something unexpected, like these running shorts in several bright patterns.
If you’re going EW SHORTS ARE YOU MAD, consider that you can always pop these over a pair of tights or leggings, just for fun -- or in case you’re not entirely comfortable with putting your leggings-clad VBO* right out there in the world.
Lane Bryant has long carried activewear, but late last year they launched a distinct brand of “lifestyle-inspired” apparel, called Livi Active. As the rest of Lane Bryant, it comes in sizes from 14/16 to 26/28 and it’s a sort of hybrid active/loungewear line that looks pretty comfortable on paper, and to their credit it’s not all black and grey (although a good portion of it is). There is something called a “cooling legging” with “cool-touch fabric” that I am curious about, but the really nifty thing is that the same leggings have 50+ UPF sun protection, which is pretty swell for folks who prefer to exercise outdoors.
I have such a love-hate relationship with Old Navy, but even acknowledging that, I confess that I have relied on their reasonably priced and fairly well made plus size activewear for years and years. Sure, their “compression” fabric doesn’t really compress at all, and their capri length hits me precisely at the knee when I’d prefer it to be mid-calf (although this is good news for shorter folks out there), and their sizing (which goes to a 4X) is wildly inconsistent, but their stuff is comfortable and in my experience, it lasts a surprisingly long time, even being so inexpensive (the only exception I've run into is the mostly-cotton yoga pants -- they do get ratty kinda quick).
I am compelled to mention them for this reason, but even I have to admit that their offerings are pretty dull. Every once in awhile you’ll get a cool print (like these capri leggings) but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule. If you prefer drapey pants and tops to snug stuff, though, Old Navy is great for joggers, yoga pants and loose tops.
Kohl’s is a recent find for me -- I’ve still never been in an actual store, but I recently discovered their huge selection of activewear online and ordered a few things to check them out. I’ve fallen in absolute love with these Fila Sport Maui Skimmer Capris, and not just because of the 1980s-esque print -- the fabric is sturdy and comfortable, and they feel a lot more expensive than they are. The downside? They run large. Part of the problem might be that I want my exercise leggings to be very snug, but still, even the 2X was too big, and I usually wear a 3X. Their Tek Gear leggings are also great, run truer to size, and come in a bunch of prints and colors.
Kohl’s also has a variety of tops that are not black or grey, which can be hard to find. You can find loudly colorblocked wicking tees and graphic tees with “motivational” expressions like “Find Your Strong” and “Sweat is the Best Accessory” if you enjoy commenting on your own workout without saying a word. (No hate there -- I wear ancient Morrissey tees to work out in sometimes so I’ve got no room to talk.)
I mentioned Juno Active above in the sports bra section, but they’re worth noting again specifically because they are the only activewear company I know that makes all of their of garments in extended sizes -- all the way up to 6X. Exercising while fat can be frustrating for lots of reasons, but getting sized out of activewear before you even begin is especially discouraging.
Moving into the realm of premium leggings, Lineagewear is legendary on Instagram for their incredible prints and are widely beloved by practically every yoga-practicing person I know. Which is understandable, as these leggings are gorgeous to look at. At $59 a pair, they come in three lengths from capri to mid-foot, and in sizes from XS up to a 3X, but they tend to sell out quickly so if you see a pair you like, don’t wait. The reason for this is that unlike pretty much everything else I’ve listed so far, Lineagewear is made entirely in the US with carefully selected fabrics, and with a focus on maintaining a small carbon footprint.
Fractal 9 is another small business making plus sized premium leggings in three lengths, plus shorts, in gorgeous prints. Their sizes go up to a 5X (or a 57”-60” hip). Their prints are equally mesmerizing, and all the leggings are designed with a 6” waistband that can be worn unfolded as a high-waisted style, or folded down for a lower rise. They run about $63 a pair, but Christine Ravel, who makes them, will customize them to your measurements at no extra charge -- a serious gift for those with proportions that defy standard sizing.
So that’s my report from the plus-size activewear trenches. Did I miss your favorite resource? Share your tips and favorites in comments.
* Visible Belly Outline, obvs.