What the Hell Are Performance Pants?

Breaking down the most buzzwordy bottoms

August 25, 2023 12:23 pm
a collage of the best mens performance pants
The best performance pants claim to be the next big thing in menswear. But what makes them any different?
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In an era of late-stage-capitalism-induced corporate speak, we’ve adopted some…questionable lingo. Meetings are no longer meetings — they’re strategic brainstorming linkups. C-Suite do-nothing media types have similarly been rebranded under titles like executive producer and creative director. It’s enough to make our heads spin in a manner we can only assume is what Boomers experience after hearing their first slay, queen! So when it comes to the newest in-demand subset of men’s apparel, we just have to ask: what the hell are performance pants?

So Really, What Are Performance Pants?

Unfortunately, given the relative recency of the whole category and the ambiguity surrounding its buzzwordy moniker, there’s no definitive way to classify what even qualifies as a performance pant, as opposed to something like an easier-defined lightweight pant. Therein lies the immediate problem. Even the best performance pants hover under something of a false mantle because there is no real mantle. All pants perform. They’re pants. By nature, they do things. Hold stuff, cover your chicken legs, what have you. Sure, you can point to movement-ready styles borne from the activewear movement or travel-specific clothing festooned with pockets, but really, performance pants are just the newest rebrand for what guys wear every single day.

But given that there’s so much intrigue with the idea of an especially functional pair of pants and given our investiture in the world of trou, we’ve taken the liberty of loosely defining performance pants as styles specifically designed or outfitted to stretch, breathe, repel and survive outside the standard operating capacity of the average pant. A pair of jeans that won’t fall down on a bumpy subway ride? Those are just jeans, bro. But a DWR-treated stretch chino that’ll take you straight from the corner cubby to the gym when you forget your Baggies? Now we’re talking.

What to Look For When Buying Performance Pants

To simplify the process of understanding and subsequently purchasing a pair of teched-out trousers, we’ve dumbed down the specs you should be inspecting to two simple categories: fit and materials.

Fit: The utmost differentiator when it comes to serious improvements in the functionality game here. We’re not just talking about a true 32×32 here — keep your eyes peeled for indicators that the pants have been better constructed to move with you, like a four-way stretch, specific seamage along the knees and backside, etc.

Material: Likewise, 100% cotton, while perfectly cozy, does little in the way of spill-resistance or 90-degree stretch. Though we don’t often recommend nylon and polyester synthetics, this specific category is one where they shine, and hardwearing twill or corduroy with touches of these artificial fabrics are the benchmark for any good performance pant. Keep your eyes peeled for a weatherproof DWR coating, as well — this should stop everything from city grime to red wine in its tracks.

To help you best determine which fake pant is right for you, we’ve created a comprehensive list of bottoms that we think wear exceptionally well in specific situations based on months of wear-test research and a fair bit of trial and error. Each is more comfortable, stretchy and ready to overcome whatever chino-busting tasks you have on your to-do for the day, and spans a variety of brands, from athletic leaning labels like lululemon to proper outdoor gear from Western Rise. Below, the best performance pants for men.

The Best Performance Pants for Men:

Along with brands like lululemon (we’ll get to that), Rhone’s Commuter Pants are one of the OG performance styles that started the whole movement in the first place and a good example to point when describing how they stand out from your average chino. Made from a Japanese stretch fabric that’s got a touch of polyester and water-repellant properties, they look like a normal office chino but can survive a Citibike ride or rainy commute without so much as a scratch. Can your Dockers do that?

When you get down to the Ps&Qs of it all, the utility of your typical performance pants closely mirrors that of a standard sweatpant — better stretch through the leg, a drawstring or elastic waist and enhanced comfort. If you’re in the PP (performance pant, naturally) game for what is functionally a nicer-looking jogger, look no further than Public Rec’s All Day Every Day Pant. It’s essentially just that…but, you won’t get made fun of at the golf course.

Travel pants are a specific type of performance pants, and as far as they go, Mack Weldon’s Radius Flex Jogger is your best option. It’s not the dressiest option on the list, but we’ve found its combo of sweat-wicking properties, anti-stink silver blend, bounty of pockets and weather-resistant blend the perfect cocktail for a pleasant flying experience. A couple of actualy cocktails help too, though.

Perhaps the most logical place for performancewear is on the trail, and we’re itching to get out there in the brand-new Mountain Hardwear AP Active Pants. Specifically designed for outdoor activity, these trousers contain all the little detailing — lightweight nylon-elastane twill, articulated knees, a knife pocket — that you could possibly ask for.

Right off the bat, we’ll admit that we’re not keen on the idea of performance denim. It’s a bridge too far for our selvedge-obsessed hearts and minds, and we firmly believe that you’re better served with classic, well-fitting non-stretch jeans. That being said, we don’t yuck yums here, and of all the stretch-infused denim we’ve tested, DUER’s performance joints were far and away the most successful. Chalk it up to a dedication to gear and a perfected blend of cotton-spandex.

Okay, so there’s nothing actually particularly performance-y about Uniqlo’s Cotton Relaxed Ankle Pants, but seeing as how it’s a made-up category anyway, we’ll run with it. As we’ve admitted before, we swear by these perfected (and often on sale) bottoms, and until you can give us a five-way stretch super pant, we’re sticking with them.

More Performance Pants We Recommend:

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