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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced earlier this month that people who have been fully vaccinated no longer have to wear a mask outside or inside in most cases, which means you could be looking to spend much more time out of your house. That might mean spending less time in your at-home gym — whether with an exercise bike, treadmill, jump rope or otherwise — and getting more fresh air during your workout. And if you’re going to see people when you workout again, you may want to consider an updated fitness wardrobe, including new sports shoes or leggings.
SKIP AHEAD Best sports bras to get this year
One piece of fitness wear you don’t want to take lightly is your sports bra. Despite what some may think, a sports bra sometimes has the power to make or break a workout. As those who’ve tried running in the wrong bra know, these are so much more than just “athletic lingerie” made to look cute. But it’s not just about finding the right sports bra for your body type. It’s equally important to get the right sports bra for your intended exercise. Since many shoppers aren’t aware of the importance of both elements, it makes it even easier to end up in the wrong bra — without realizing it. So what are the best sports bras? As is often the case, it depends on your body, your preferences, and your routines.
“I’ve definitely had workouts ruined because I wasn’t wearing the right bra,” said Lindsey Ottesen, a coach at Orangetheory Fitness. “Trying to do a more high impact activity with a low support bra gets really uncomfortable really fast, while, on the other side, a too-tight sports bra can get distracting and feel restrictive while exercising.”
When you wear the wrong size in a sports bra and go for a run, you greatly increase the likelihood of breast pain and chafing.
Laura Tempesta, Founder, Bravolution
What is a sports bra?
A sports bra is an essential component of athletic apparel that doesn’t always get the credit or attention it deserves. In the short term, generally speaking, when you wear the wrong size in an everyday bra, you may experience some discomfort, but there are likely no other major consequences, explained Laura Tempesta, a former sports bra innovation director at Nike and founder of Bravolution. “However, when you wear the wrong size in a sports bra and go for a run, you greatly increase the likelihood of breast pain and chafing,” Tempesta added.
The purpose of a sports bra is to protect the breasts by controlling movement. Unfortunately, many women end up in the wrong fit and are deterred from working out entirely because of their breast size, explained Molly T. O’Connor, founder of sports bra company Molly T. “Studies have shown that breast discomfort is a leading reason why women stop participating in sports, and one in five women decide to forgo the gym due to lack of support,” said O'Connor. She’s referencing a 2013 study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health that found “the breast was a barrier to physical activity participation” for nearly 20 percent of its 249 respondents.
“Put as much effort into finding the right sports bra size as you would finding the right pair of running shoes,” advised Tempesta.
When we have the proper equipment, it makes the experience not only more pleasant, it makes us better at it.
Lisa Lindahl, Co-Inventor, Jogbra, and author of ‘Unleash The Girls'
Is wearing a sports bra every day bad?
While casual bras can ebb and flow in quality, the experts we consulted agreed there’s good reason to find and invest in a sports bra that’s right for your body and your activities. Not only can neck and back pain come from working out in a sports bra that doesn’t fit or isn’t the right support level, but it can also cause skin irritation.
So is wearing a sports bra every day bad? If you get the right one, no.
Sherry McAllister, DC, president of the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress, said a common problem she’s seen among female patients is ill-fitting sports bras— meaning the cup size is too small and the band too big. “When the band is too loose, it rides up on the back, causing the weight of the breasts to roll the shoulders forward, creating increased tension on the upper back muscles and eventually causing back pain and other postural issues,” she explained. On the other hand, a sports bra that is too tight can dig into the shoulders and tighten the upper back muscles, causing restriction of proper movement of the spine. “The spine is designed to bend and flex with daily activity,” McAllister pointed out. “And when restrictions occur, back pain begins.”
Generally, picking a bra based on impact level is key.
Molly T. O'Connor, Founder, Molly T.
Sports bras: Support levels
The same sports bra type isn’t ideal for every workout, either, Ottesen explained. Why? Lower impact activities don’t require as much compression while higher impact activities need bras with more constrictive support. When it comes to shopping for the best sports bra, then, you’ll find they’re generally separated by support level, explained Kim Brennecke, vice president of active design at Old Navy. Although there’s no “industry standard” for each level, many retailers break activities into these groups and recommend specific workouts for each bra. “Sports bra styles run the gamut, from cross-backed and front-closed to racerback and wide-strapped, but generally, picking a bra based on impact level is key,” O'Connor said.
- Low impact bras are made from lighter materials ideal for walking, yoga, stretching and lounging. “Usually, the lower support bras will be less built-out with narrow or decorative straps,” said Brennecke. “These bras are best for activities that don’t have a lot of sudden movements, such as barre, pilates and yoga.”
- Medium impact bras are great for slightly more intense workouts or activities including cycling, skiing, cross-training and weight training.
- High impact bras are ideal for high-intensity movements like running, jumping and horseback riding. Just remember, “the more bounce, the more support needed,” O'Connor said. Bras that fall within this category will also have more moving parts built into them. “They have more coverage, either through wider straps or a higher neckline with the intent to offer the most resistance to sudden movement, which is great for HIIT [an acronym for high-intensity interval training] or jogging,” said Brennecke.
Since different exercises put unique demands on the body, they require different equipment. “Would we wear high heels to play basketball? Go for a run in clogs?” said Lisa Lindahl, co-inventor of the first sports bra and author of “Unleash The Girls.” “When we have the proper equipment, it makes the experience not only more pleasant, it makes us better at it — and the proper equipment can also make the activity safer.”
What are the best sports bras?
Remember, there isn’t a single bra on the market that works well for all wearers. “The vast array of body types and running gaits means that even ‘5-star’ sports bras have customers who won’t rate it highly because it won’t fit their particular body well,” Tempesta told us. When deciding on the final option, keep in mind that a sports bra should feel supportive but not like it is strangling you, added Elyse Kaye, founder of Bloom Bras. “It should feel like a lift, not a squish,” she said.
Best sports bras: Low impact
This light support sports bra is designed for bra cup sizes A-C and ranges in sizes 2 to 14. The Flow Y Bra uses the brand’s patented Nulu fabric that’s designed to be breathable and sweat-wicking, — while being able to support stretching and maintain the bra's shape through sports lycra fibre. It currently comes in 10 colors, including solids Black, Pink Puff, Blue Borealis, Grape Thistle and White and patterns Le Tigre Camo and Space Nimbus Battleship. The sports bra also features interior pockets for removable cups.
This bestselling Old Navy sports bra features a racerback and scoop neck breathable mesh detail at the shoulder straps. The seamless jersey material is designed to help prevent chafing. The bra also uses the brand’s proprietary Go-Dry moisture-wicking technology that is meant to keep you dry and comfortable during a workout. There are also removable cups inside of the sports bra.
This Lululemon light impact sports bra is meant to be ideal for yoga and is best suited for C or D cup sizes, ranging in sizes 2 to 14 . The Free To Be Serene Bra features the brand’s Luxtreme fabric, which is supposed to provide slick and low friction support while feeling cool to the touch. It currently comes in 12 colors, including Icing Blue, Pink Mist, Dark Red, Cafe Au Lait, Camo Deep Coal and more.
The Exhale Bra in Powervita is designed for A to C cup wearers, ranging in sizes XXS to XL,and sports a mid-rise neckline with a V-strap design on the back. The Powervita fabric is meant to be breathable, sweat-wicking and quick-drying. It also has a UPF rating of 50+ for your outdoor workouts. There are 8 color options available, including Bali Green, Hearth Rose, Opaque Lilac, Orchid Pink, Grey Heather and more.
Athleta’s Conscious Crop sports bra is best suited for cup sizes D to DD and comes in the brand’s highest cut neckline available for maximum coverage. You can choose between sizes XXS to 3X. It sports the same Powervita fabric as the above Exhale sports bra, but is made from recycled polyester and lycra. There are seven colors available, but only three are fully in stock in all sizes including Just Dance Black/Grey, Black Camo and Just Dance Ballerina Gown.
Best sports bras: Medium impact
This Old Navy sports bra provides medium support for A to C cup sizes and only light support for D or DD sizes. It’s available in sizes XS to XXL. The brand’s Powersoft fabric is meant to provide light compression and a smooth feel, with 4-way stretch to move around in. There’s also a mesh lining to provide ventilation and breathability during your workout. It comes in six colors at the moment, including White Zebra, Inky Marbled and Black Jack.
Equipped with the brand’s signature moisture-wicking material, this sports bra is designed to keep you cool and dry while working out. It’s available in sizes XS to 6X. For those who don’t need maximum support, the Flex is a viable option as the seam-free cups allow you to move freely. Uniquely, the sports bra molds the cups to fit all body types with its patented Zip. Cinch. Lift technology. There are five colors available: Black, Blush, Aloud, Buff and Onyx.
Old Navy offers another sports bra that provides medium support for A to C cups and ranges in sizes XS to XXL. With its wide shoulder straps and cross-back design, it is ideal for spin class and strength sessions. Like other models above, it features moisture-wicking technology to keep you comfortable and dry. The bra is available in six colorways, including Khaki Cheetah and Gray Camo.
If you enjoy higher impact activities like running and boxing, this Lululemon sports bra is a good option for B to D cups and comes in sizes 2 to 14. The bra comes with light, removable cups designed to provide low-friction support. With its added Lycra fibre for stretch and shape retention, it’s meant to keep everything in without being constricting. It currently comes in 12 colors, including Dew Green, Wild Mint, Golden Apricot and more.
This medium support bra is meant for both C and D cups and comes in sizes 2 to 12. It features minimal seams in order to reduce the chance of chafing — it’s made with a moisture-wicking, four-way stretch fabric. There are interior pockets for optional cups. It currently comes in five colors, including Dew Green and Smoked Spruce.
Best sports bras: High impact
11. Molly T Sports Bra (limited availability)
Molly T’s sports bra is customizable to fit your body and workout routine. Rather than pulling the bra over your head, you can create the perfect fit by pulling the adjustable strap across your chest. The fit allows for custom compression directly over your body — you can switch between low and high impact without switching your sports bra. The versatile bra equips classic sports bra features like a fabric designed to be sweat-wicking and antimicrobial as well as soft cups.
This criss-cross sports bra from Fabletics has more than 3,300 ratings,earning an average 4.5-star rating. It’s available in sizes XXS to 4X. It’s equipped with adjustable straps and an adjustable closure. The sports bra is available in Black, Brick/Ochre and Electric Violet/Sky Purple.
For more support during high impact workouts, this bestselling Old Navy sports bra is designed with wide shoulder straps and an elasticized hem. It’s available in sizes XS to XL. The bra includes a keyhole cutout at the back as well. It currently comes in four colors, including Black Jack and Violet Howl.
Shefit’s highest impact bra is made to provide maximum support for all shapes and sizes, ranging from cup size A to I and letter sizes XS to 6X. This sports bra is ideal for high-intensity workouts — it has a front zipper for a fully adjustable, comfortable fit with little to no bouncing as you work out. The 2-way wear step configuration (X-back or H-back) allows for individualized comfort and support. It’s available in colors like Black, White, Sandstorm and more.
The padded straps, soft underband and crossable strap of this Lululemon bra make it ideal for avid runners with cup sizes B to E. Sizes range from 32B to 40DD. With its perforated paneling and sweat-wicking fabric, it is designed to give you support, separation and coverage for all things high-intensity, from running to HIIT and beyond. The high support bra is available in the following colors: True Navy, Black, Smoked Spruce, Red Merlot and Rhino Grey
This high impact option from Athleta goes from 32B up to a size 40DD. Designed for high impact workouts, the molded cups provide encapsulation support to keep everything in place. The bra also has a hook-and-eye closure to make it easy to slip on and off. While it’s a criss-cross back, the straps are fully adjustable for a customized fit. It’s available in six colors, including Agate Purple, White and Orchid Pink.
Sports bras: Compression, encapsulation and combination
Within each of the sports bra support levels we outlined above, there’s a variety of styles and design features. But, in general, there are three main types you’ll encounter: compression sports bras, encapsulation sports bras and combination sports bras.
Compression sports bras
This is the quintessential sports bra that you pull over your head, ideal for higher-impact activities. It doesn’t have individual cups, but rather controls movement by compressing breast tissue close to the body and distributing the weight across your chest. “The idea is it essentially squishes or ‘compresses’ your boobs together, holding them in one place to keep them from bouncing up and down,” said Danielle Cote, Pure Barre’s director of training operations.
Encapsulation sports bras
Recommended for lower-impact workouts, the encapsulated style lifts and separates. Like everyday bras, this type features two separate cups that control movement, equally distributing the weight within each cup — they tend to offer less overall support. “A lot of women, especially larger-busted women or those with very heavy breasts, prefer this style,” Cote said. She also noted how much easier it is than getting that “compression-style on and off when your skin is sticky and sweaty.”
Combination sports bras
Bringing key features from both compression and encapsulation sports bras, the combination bra offers maximum support and is ideal for high impact activities — these are good sports bras for big busts. This type of bra has the molded cups of an encapsulation-style sports bra, along with compression properties. “These push your breasts against your body and keep them fixed in the space of the individual cups,” Cote explained.
Sports bras: Features to shop and what to avoid
With your basic sports bra types in mind, here are some features to mind as you’re scrolling through your options.
- An adjustable sports bra could allow you to change things up for multiple exercises.
- Don’t confuse adjustability with stretchability, though. “If you reach around and pull the under band away from your back, you shouldn’t be able to stretch it out more than an inch,” said Tempesta. “The shoulder straps shouldn’t be able to be pulled up away from the top of your shoulders more than a half inch.”
- Removable cups or inserts can be polarizing — many women have a strong preference for or against them. While Ottesen doesn’t love them (she feels like they inevitably bunch up), Brennecke appreciates the flexibility they offer.
- Molded cups offer subtle shaping and support without removable cups — and mean less seams covering the breast tissue, which can reduce chafing. However, they are more likely to absorb sweat instead of drying quickly.
- Be on the lookout for moisture-wicking materials and check the tag to make sure it’s labeled as a moisture-wicking fabric.
Sports bras: Misconceptions and mistakes
- Chest size doesn’t determine support levels. The idea that smaller-chested ladies don’t need high impact bras and those with large breasts should stay away from low impact options are completely wrong. All boob sizes will benefit from support fit for various activities. It’s also incorrect because each woman’s body has a different composition of breast tissue, shape, and muscle, which impacts the weight and level of support they need. “I’m fairly small-chested but I do a lot of high impact workout activities that need a more compressive sports bra,” said Ottesen.
- You might be underestimating how much you’re actually moving. According to Julia Breitwieser, the bras and swim design director at Athleta, most women are moving more than they realize in their sports bras. “A bra cup can be quite firm and supportive, but if you are in the wrong size, your breast may be moving inside the cup without the right support,” said Breitwieser. “This isn’t just an aesthetic or modesty concern since breast tissue can stretch and cause pain over time”.
- Don’t overly rely on straps. Another misconception is that a majority of the support in a sports bra comes from the straps. “While straps are an important component, the chest band and cup provide the critical foundation for your bra,” said Breitwieser. “Proper support in these areas will prevent pressure from being held in your shoulders.”
- Sports bras don’t necessarily expire. “Your sports bra’s lifespan depends on how you care for it,” noted Breitwieser. Since heat deteriorates the spandex in your sports bra, she recommended always machine washing them on cold and hanging them to dry. Tempesta agreed, adding that dryers also make elastics wear out very quickly. “And stay away from any type of fabric softener, “ she said. “They prevent the fabrics from wicking sweat.”
- Sports bras aren’t all expensive. You don’t always have to spend more to get one with a perfect fit. “I’ve [got] some sports bras I spent $45 [on] that I love, and I have some that I got for $9 that I love just as much,” said Ottesen. “Once you find what you like in terms of fit and style, don’t be afraid to look at different brands.”
- Jogging isn’t necessarily low impact and running isn’t necessarily high impact. It’s important to note that jogging is actually one of the highest-impact activities on the breast, even more so than a sprint, noted Brennecke. “And the slower the jog, the more bounce you will need to solve for,” she added. A runner may need a medium support bra — and not always high support. A jogger will likely need additional support in their sports bra.
- Everyday bras and sports bras have different sizes. You can’t assume your usual bra size will translate in the world of sports bras and the sizing even varies within a brand. Differences in the under band fabrics’ stretch contributes to this sizing inconsistency. “For cup volume, there isn’t an industry standard for how much volume cups should hold,” said Tempesta. “This is exacerbated in sports bras because they are generally made with compressed cups and tighter under bands so it makes the likelihood of your usual size fitting you even less likely.”