Ultimate Guide to Women's Leggings

The Ultimate Guide to Leggings (Part 2): Women’s Leggings

Now that you’re a pro at reading fabric labels, let’s dive into how fabric is cut and sewn together to make a pair of leggings! From there, you will be able to distinguish between good-fitting and ill-fitting leggings and understand why certain pairs are more flattering and functional than others.

The Ultimate Guide to Women’s Leggings

By: Brooke Haubenstricker

This article is the second in a three-part series from Coach Brooke. Part One covered all you need to know about legging fabrics. And Part Three will tackle men’s. Stay tuned for the rest of the series, or check back here.  And to get more from Coach Brooke, check out her bio here.

Before you read this article, please read the previous article on fabric first. Cut, construction, and fabric are all equally important in determining the quality of a garment. Missing out on one of those will leave you much less knowledgeable when it comes to making smart purchasing decisions and caring for your leggings, so they last as long as possible!

Now that you’re a pro at reading fabric labels, let’s dive into how fabric is cut and sewn together to make a pair of leggings! From there, you will be able to distinguish between good-fitting and ill-fitting leggings and understand why certain pairs are more flattering and functional than others.

The Anatomy of Leggings

Very simply, leggings are made of two leg pieces and a waistband. Each pant leg can be made with one or more pieces, with the most common construction having a front and back piece. Waistbands can be made with one or more pieces as well. These pieces of fabric are sewn together with thread, and those attachment points are called seams.

If you look at a pair of leggings, you will see at least five seams: one going down the inside of each pant leg to give them that tubular shape (called the inseams), a center seam running from the front to the back of the leggings to sew both leg tubes together, a seam on the waistband to make it a tube-shape to fit around the waist or hips, and finally, one seam attaching the waistband to the pant leg pieces. You’ll commonly see seams running down the outside of the legs as well if they were made with two pieces per leg or if fancy side panels or pockets are included in the design. The waistband may also have additional seams—commonly side seams to line up with the pant side seams and a less visible seam at the very top that helps the band hold its shape better. You may also see a funky extra piece of fabric sewn into the crotch area. This is called a gusset, and we’ll talk about that in further detail in the next section.

Note that seams typically have little to no stretch. This is important because the fabric that’s used to make leggings has a lot of stretch due to its elastane content. The thread that’s used to sew seams has no stretch (there are exceptions, but they’re uncommon). Some types of stitching can give a seam the ability to stretch somewhat, but it will be minimal compared to how much the fabric can stretch. This is why people tend to blow out their pants at the crotch when they squat. The fabric stretches to accommodate their booty, but more tension is being placed on that non-stretchy seam, causing either the seam to pop or the fabric to rip right next to it. If there’s a blow-out that’s not near a seam, it was likely due to the fabric previously being worn down in that area, and those fibers reached their breaking point on that rep.

Leggings Basic PatternHere’s a very basic pants pattern (without the waistband). Two of these pieces would be cut out of fabric—one for each leg. The long blue and yellow lines would be sewn together, giving each pant leg its tubular shape. That joining seam, called the inseam, will run along the inside of each leg. The funky blue and red lines at the top that curve out into a point are the back and front crotch curves, respectively. (The back curve is longer because it has to curve around the butt, which usually sticks out more than the front.) When sewing both pant legs together, the front crotch curves would be matched up to each other, and the same would happen with the back crotch curves. They will make the center seam. These curves are incredibly important because they determine how the fabric will lay against the curves of the body. Too deep or too shallow of a curve can cause major fitting problems. More on that later!

Gussets

The basic leggings construction mentioned above can be improved upon in one big way: adding a gusset. In pants, a gusset is a piece of fabric that’s inserted into the crotch area, where the front seam and inseams meet. They redistribute stress that is placed on those seams, allowing for greater durability and movement. Traditionally, gussets are triangular or diamond-shaped, but they can come in many different shapes and sizes. It’s common for modern legging gussets to be long pieces of fabric that arc down the inside of the thighs, sometimes going all the way to the leg opening.

There is absolutely no downside to having a gusset. It’s a pure win, especially for sports that require the legs to move out to the sides, like when we push our knees out as we squat. Don’t worry about the shape or size; just make sure all of your leggings have one!

Leggings Triangular Gusset

A triangular gusset. The intersection of the front crotch seam with the inseams is at the top of the image. The bottom tip of the triangle merges into the back center seam.


Leggings Diamond Gusset

A diamond gusset. It’s common for these gussets to have two rounded corners on the sides that intersect with the center seam.

Fit and Camel Toe

How leggings should fit is pretty straightforward. They should feel snug and secure. More specifically, they shouldn’t be so tight that they’re uncomfortable, cut into you, or restrict your mobility, and they shouldn’t be so loose that they sag or constantly slide down during your workout. Ideally, the waistband and leg opening should hit where intended and stay there, and the hip and crotch area should be shaped in such a way that it’s flattering for you to wear. You should feel comfortable wearing these leggings for hours and confident while performing all of your exercises.

Now, let’s get right to business. What’s up with camel toes?

Camel toe occurs when the front seam on a pair of leggings unflatteringly pushes up against a woman’s pubic area, causing the labia to become more pronounced. You’ll be relieved to know that this is considered a fit issue and not an issue with having big lady bits. (Although, do keep in mind that women aren’t perfectly smooth down there, so don’t beat yourself up if you have a little definition when wearing skin-tight clothes.)

There are four main fit issues that can cause camel toe:

1. The center front seam isn’t curved enough.

This is number one on my list because of its high prevalence and simultaneous neglect in the camel toe conversation. It is a well-known fit issue with non-stretchy pants, but it seems to be ignored when it comes to leggings—possibly because the fabric is stretchy, so it’s easier to get away with poor construction. However, despite the stretch, we still need the garment to accommodate the shape of our bodies, so that crotch curve is still important.

Let’s go back to our leggings diagram. This time, we’re going to split the pattern in half. That new split will run down the side of the hip, creating the outseams. In order to save money on fabric, manufacturers may shave some width off the hip. This straightens the outside hip curve so more pattern pieces can be fit onto a bolt (a roll, in layman’s terms) of fabric. However, in order for the waist and hip measurements to remain the same, that fabric has to be put somewhere. So it’s kicked over to the center seam.

Leggings TailoringWhen you add width to the front center seam, it does a few things: it adds fabric to the crotch area, it straightens out the crotch curve, and it shortens the crotch curve. Wham! One adjustment, three big impacts to the fit. The result is you have a center seam that’s more likely to dig into you because it’s not curved enough, plus it’s pulling up on you because it’s not long enough, and you’ll frequently see excess fabric in that region.

The only solution with this type of camel toe is to buy a different pair of leggings. When you’re shopping for leggings, fold the leggings vertically (stacking the pant legs) and pull out the center seam. If the center seam is fairly straight, be wary. If you’re a curvier lady, you need to be especially careful with that crotch curve because you’ll need a bigger curve to accommodate your shape.

2. The rise is too short.

The rise is the vertical distance between the top of the waistband to the bottom of the crotch. We mostly think of rise as indicating where the waistband is supposed to hit on our trunk (e.g., “high-rise” means the waistband should sit on the waist), but it’s also a body measurement.

Someone with a long torso will need a greater rise on their pants than someone who’s petite. In this camel-toe scenario, the fabric may stretch into place, but because the seams don’t have nearly the same amount of stretch, pulling up on the fabric will cause the seam to yank up on your crotch. If you feel like you have to choose between the waistband sitting where it’s supposed to and not having a camel toe, it could be that you need a higher rise on your leggings.

3. It’s too tight around the hips.

This should go without saying, but if the leggings are too tight all over your hips, then you have to go up a size. If the waistband fits beautifully but everything else is tight, then you have to switch leggings styles or brands. Depending on your body type, that may mean you have to spend some time searching for a better leggings brand for your body. It can be a frustrating process, but it’s worth it. You spend many hours in the gym every week and should be able to complete your workouts without fear of camel toe or busting open a seam.

4. It’s too loose around the hips.

This is not as common of a leggings fit issue, but if you have too much looseness in the fabric around the hips, then that can give the appearance of camel toe. With this type, the fabric sags and hangs lower on the legs, while the center seam sits closer to the crotch but doesn’t feel like it’s cutting into the crotch. Similar to the previous diagnosis, the solution is either to go down a size or to switch to a different leggings style or brand.

If you’ve ever Googled solutions for camel toe, you’ve undoubtedly seen suggestions to switch to leggings that don’t have a center seam. No center seam, no problem, right? Well, not quite. In order to construct leggings without a center seam, the entire front of the pant legs has to be combined. The front panels are merged together and cut out of one piece of fabric.

The result is that you have one flat piece. There’s no curve to follow the natural curves on the front of your body, which can result in the fabric pulling around the crotch area as it tries to stretch around your curves. For some women, camel toe can still appear when wearing these leggings. Furthermore, because there’s no center seam to distract the eye, it can make the classic camel toe dragline more obvious. Even among the women who can wear this style without any fit issues, some still don’t like them because they feel the lack of a center seam outlines their labia region or wearing these leggings makes them feel like “naked Barbie.” While these leggings can be a viable solution, they aren’t a cure-all for everyone.

One last word on camel toe: Please don’t compare yourself to what you see on social media. Influencers are known to wear panty liners, thick or multiple pairs of underwear, special camel toe concealers, or even cut small pieces of foam to stick in their underwear in order to achieve a flawlessly smooth crotch in their pictures. It does the job, but it tends to be impractical for us performance-minded athletes, and I personally don’t think it’s healthy to obsess over changing completely normal parts of our bodies. Low-ab fat, hip dips, armpit hair, cellulite, and yes, a crotch that isn’t perfectly flat are all part of our beautiful biology. While you can make whatever changes you’d like with your body, I would encourage you not to make those decisions based on shame or pressure from arbitrary societal beauty standards.

Luckily, camel toe is the most complicated fit issue with leggings. If you have a basic understanding of camel toe, you’re leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else who’s buying leggings.

The other common fit issues associated with leggings are straightforward: pant legs are the wrong length, or calves/thighs/butt are too tight or loose. A common dilemma for lifters is having to choose between the hips and the waistband fitting properly. In those situations, the only solution is to look for leggings made specifically for lifters or curvier people.

In summary, if a pair of leggings doesn’t fit you properly, you have to look for a different pair of leggings. I know that sounds silly. “Duh, I’m not going to buy something if it doesn’t fit.” But that’s not necessarily the case with everyday clothes. If you buy slacks that fit great but the waist is a little too big, you can get them tailored. You can’t really tailor leggings.

There are a few reasons for this. Leggings are commonly sewn with a type of seam called a flatlock, which means deconstructing those leggings and putting them back together again looking nice can be a beast of a task. Fixing crotch issues will be impossible due to the already skin-tight nature of leggings. While there are some tailors who are moving into the athleticwear realm (formalwear still makes up the bulk of tailoring), their services may be limited and costly. If you want to do more than hem your leggings, it could cost a pretty penny. In some instances, it may literally be cheaper and easier to have a custom pair of leggings made than try to tailor a pair of ill-fitting ones. So in most instances, it’s going to be a better use of your time and money to shop around for something that fits well off the rack.

Effective Shopping

Finding leggings that fit you well doesn’t have to be a shot in the dark. There are reliable ways to steer yourself in the right direction, whether you’re shopping in-person or online.

1. Know your measurements.

Shopping based on your body and garment measurements is much more reliable than basing your purchases on sticker sizes. Not just because of size variation between brands, but even the same pair of leggings made by the same brand could have wildly different fits if the company doesn’t have sufficient quality control checks.

  1. For in-person shopping, I would recommend knowing the average waist measurement of leggings (laying flat) that fit you well already. If you have longer or shorter legs than average, you should know your inseam. If you have a long or short torso, you should know your rise or front center seam measurement. To save time and limit frustration, shop with a tape measure so you can quickly check leggings’ waist measurements before bringing them into the fitting room.
  2. For online shopping, you’ll need your waist and hip measurements, plus your rise if you have a longer torso and your inseam measurement if you need longer- or shorter-than-average leggings. When you’re ready to buy a pair of leggings, check out their size charts to make sure you purchase the right size based on your waist and hip measurements. If your waist and hip measurements fall under different sizes, that’s a sign that this brand of leggings may not be a good fit for you. If your size difference is only one deviation (e.g., medium waist, large hips) and you still want to give them a chance, I’d recommend purchasing based on your waist measurement to start.

Leggings Shopping Diagram2. Choose brands wisely.

You should gravitate toward brands whose models mirror your body type the closest. Businesses strategically choose models based on their target demographics. Generally, brands that use predominantly slim models are going to look best on slender or boxy bodies, whereas brands that use thick models are going to have cuts that work better for women with thicker hips and thighs relative to their waist. If their models are shown performing barbell movements, all the better. It means they made their leggings knowing their customers may be using free weights. Doing heavy squats to depth is a very different movement pattern from long-distance running outside, and that can sometimes be reflected in the legging’s fabric and fit.

3. Analyze the fit.

If you’re having trouble getting the leggings on, or if they’re uncomfortable to wear when you’re not even doing anything, then you may want to pass them up. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself:

  1. Are these a complete pain in the butt to put on, to the point where I may neglect to wear them entirely? Did any seams pop during this process?
  2. Is the waistband sitting where it should? Is it digging in or gaping?
  3. Do the hips, thighs, and calves fit comfortably? Not too tight or too loose?
  4. Is there camel toe?
  5. Is the inseam a length that’s acceptable to me?
  6. Do they look flattering on me, from the front and back? Would I feel comfortable wearing these in public?
  7. And lastly: Are these minor issues that I can deal with, or will they affect me physically/mentally during my workouts or cause me to leave these leggings in my dresser drawer?

4. Test out the leggings.

Perform the movements you’re going to be doing when you wear these leggings to make sure they will function well for your purposes. Squat, deadlift, clean, jump, sprint, lunge, high knees. Be sure to do a variety of movements. Then ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do they stay up or slink down? Does it feel like the size is too big, or is the fabric not hugging tightly enough?
  2. Are they too tight? Does the fabric feel like it’s getting concerningly tight and may rip during these movements, especially at the butt? Did any seams pop?
  3. Are they see-through, especially in the bottom squat position? (You can set up your phone and film yourself squatting from behind if you aren’t sure.)
  4. Are they bunching uncomfortably around the knees or waist?
  5. Are they riding up at the crotch or shin?
  6. Again, are these minor issues that I can deal with, or will they affect me physically/mentally during my workouts or cause me to leave these leggings in my dresser drawer?

5. Don’t judge leggings by their price tag alone.

I’ve purchased $25 leggings from Marshall’s that have lasted me 6+ years of intense use, and I’ve purchased $100 pairs of leggings that have lasted one month. While price can be an indicator of quality, there are a lot of variables that are factored into pricing, and quality is only one of them. There are big brand names that make crappy leggings, good brands that occasionally have flops, and winning leggings that may come from surprising places. Stay open-minded, and remember to judge the quality of leggings from what you’ve learned in these articles about fabric and fit.

Leggings Recommendations

Because everyone is shaped so differently and has different fit and performance needs, it is not possible for me to give a list of the “best” leggings for you to purchase. However, here are some recommendations from our diverse coaches who have years of experience wearing leggings for barbell training!

Coach: Brooke Haubenstricker (me!)

Height: 5’5”

Size type: Regular

Body type: Hourglass

Brand: MPG Sport

Leggings: Explore

Pros: Unsurprisingly, I’m a fabric snob, and I haven’t come across a pair of leggings that are as thick and durable as these MPG Sport leggings, particularly at this lower price point. It feels like I can run a heavily knurled barbell over them and not risk creating snags or holes. Plus, the fabric is compressive, smoothing, and slimming.

Cons: Not great for super high-impact activities or for lounging in all day. I wouldn’t recommend their regular sizes for highly curvy girls, either. Their calves, in particular, can run small.


Coach: Niki Sims

Height: 5’11”

Size type: Tall

Body type: Long legs, hourglass

Brand: Lululemon

Leggings: Align

Pros: Super soft. Can be worn outside of the gym for the athleisure look. Can be worn all day.

Cons: They’re not very compressive, so they’re not “smoothing,” and I would not recommend them for high-impact activities.

 

 


 

 

Coach: Chrissy Marples

Height: 5’2”

Size type: Petite

Body type: Hourglass

Brand: GymShark

Leggings: Flex High-Waisted

Pros: The material is good quality, and it’s not see-through at all! Sweat-wicking, mostly nylon with a bit of elasticbut they stay up! I think they’d generally be good for anyone. They do a good 3/4 length range that I used to teach aerobic/endurance stuff in. I sweat a lot more teaching that stuff than in lifting sessions. They stay in position and aren’t too thick.

 

Cons: No complaints or critiques.

 

 


Coach: Anna Marie Oakes-Joudy

Height: 5’7”

Size type: Regular

Body type: Long torso, hourglass

Brand: Fabletics

Model: Powerhold

Pros: Thicker material for those no-see-through squat days or incontinence issues on deadlift days. Lots of bold prints and colors. I wear them all day most days. I have big calves and do everything from jiu-jitsu to conditioning to training to hiking in them.

Cons: No complaints or critiques.

 

 


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