Dear Swole Woman,
This may not give you enough meat to really sink your Swole Woman patriarchy-busting chops into (and the answer could just be on IG and not in your real column) but: What are good pants for working out that are not leggings or the lil booty shorts? Like, track pants? Joggers? Any recommendations or links to stylish lifting women's IG accounts welcome. Thank you for your column, you are the reason I can nearly deadlift my body weight!
It’s hard to overstate how self-conscious I felt about the way I looked when I first started lifting. I wore literal layers to the gym, shorts on top of leggings, in the hope of drawing as little attention to myself as possible. After a while I came to realize no one really cared what I was wearing, and as we know, no amount of clothing will deter people who have a will to harass you (also, harassment happened almost never, and it turns out I was basically invisible to other people at the gym, which was all I could have ever dreamed of!). Now I am one of the monsters going around in leggings and a sports bra.
BUT. But. I want to just quickly point out some of the practical reasons people who lift do commonly wear these garments that just so happen to also make butts look great—not to argue with you, but just to illustrate some of what I have learned in my years of iterating on gymwear.
While loose clothing is comfy, it’s easier to get it caught or tangled in barbells, pulleys, plates, clips, and so forth that you find in a weight room. Loose clothing conceals your body, which makes it harder to see if your form is correct. In the case of, say, a baggy shirt, it is hard to look down and see what your lower body is doing during a deadlift. The fact that you can see sort of everything in more form-fitting, stretchy clothes actually has a functional payoff there. Second, even if clothing is loose, it has the potential to bunch and restrict in all the wrong places during certain movements. Squatting in loose sweatpants that can’t move with you and bind up in your hip creases or restrict your butt can actually be more uncomfortable than squatting in a pair of stretchy leggings. On the same note, if the clothing is fairly fitted but not stretchy, like a pair of cotton joggers, lifting may tend to stretch it out in weird ways.
Lastly, wearing stretchy, close-fitting clothing means there is no chance of a leg hole hanging open while you’re, say, lying down on a bench, so you end up accidentally flashing someone. This isn’t even about being in somewhat compromising positions; in many gyms there are mirrors everywhere, and people can end up seeing weird visual angles they aren’t even looking for (this happened to me once wearing loose Sofi-style shorts on a leg press. Never again!).
Further, thanks to all those points above, there are always a fair number of dudes at my own gym (which is, to be fair, more sport- than aesthetics-oriented) who are working out in compression pants and shorts with no other coverage right alongside me. I do not think they are trying to show off their dickprints (necessarily); stretchy fitted pieces just do truly make a lot of the practical elements of lifting easier for everyone, regardless of your biology or geometry, and I do think many people end up making this transition not out of narcissism, but rather out of a kind of necessity. We are a stretchy-garment-loving people, and we come in peace.
Now, back to your actual question: There for sure are alternatives! For the reasons stated above, I would advocate against non-stretchy track pants and joggers, at least if you’re doing anything with your legs. Stereotypically “men’s” gym wear is a good place to start for inspiration; no reason to restrict ourselves to women’s wear. To the relative modesty point above, if you want to wear loose shorts, I’d suggest looking for mid-length ones that are stretchy, preferably with one of those underwear-like net linings. Honestly I would cop some of these from Nike, or these from Mizuno. It’s a bit trickier to find lined or dual-layer short shorts but they are out there; I would suggest something like these cute ones from Lululemon.
You could also put this together yourself and do a loose short on top of a fitted booty short, but then you’re paying for two of your own shorts. One way around this would be to actually invest in mostly booty shorts, since they are closest to your body and thus probably in the need of more frequent washing, and one loose short to throw over them when you go to work out. You may prefer longer-inseam fitted workout shorts that will never do the sausage-leg effect that comes from short shorts rolling up into your crotch; these or these look comfy. Always be careful to look for a gusset in any fitted bottom garment and buy in the right size to avoid camel toe discomfort. See-through fabric in the butt area can be a problem with training shorts and leggings, but if you’re wearing a covering garment, you shouldn’t have to worry about this. There are a handful of options that should fit your needs here and a bunch more fitted shorts here.
In the same vein, if you’re going with pants, even loose ones, look for fabric that stretches; here is such a pair from A7, and another option from Target. You can throw a rock on fitness Instagram and hit like 10 athleisure brands; being a staunch leggings person, I haven’t tried any of these particular kinds of products personally. I would caution that many of them tend to run small/lack extended sizing, disappointingly, and also to just be careful to look for stretchy, ideally four-way-stretch fabric, and a bit of length in loose shorts and/or inside lining so it’s harder for them to hang open to all the world.
Now, as a sidebar footnote for my fellow leggings/spandex shorts fans: some of my favorite inexpensive training wear finds have been from just Old Navy and Target, with a smattering of random Amazon finds. Target’s Joylab has a plus-size line, and Old Navy carries plus sizes as well. Having now had pieces from both for years I find them to be pretty high quality for the price: gusseted, and no show-through in the butt during squats. While I do have some fancier gym wear and lifting isn’t quite a contact sport, all the metal bits you might be around can pose a threat to your Lulus or Alos. So particularly when you are planning to do something like deadlifts, which involves literally running a knurled barbell against your (covered, not bare) shins, I would use caution when bringing your nice-ish stuff into the gym; at minimum, wear some knee socks or something over any nicer leggings in order to avoid dragging the fabric.
Casey Johnston is the editor of the Future section at The Outline and a competitive powerlifter with a degree in applied physics. She writes the column Ask a Swole Woman for SELF. You can find her on Twitter: @caseyjohnston.
Letters to AASW are edited for length and context, and the content of each AASW column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of SELF or SELF editors.