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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.
IN THIS ARTICLE What is a sports bra? | Is wearing a sports bra everyday bad? | Support levels | Compression, encapsulation and combination | Features to shop | Misconceptions and mistakes | Best sports bras: Low impact | Medium impact | High impact
“I’ve definitely had workouts ruined because I wasn’t wearing the right bra,” says 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. Generally speaking and in the short term, when you wear the wrong size in an everyday bra, you may experience some discomfort but there are likely no other major consequences, explains 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,” says Tempesta.
The purpose of a sports bra is to protect the breasts by controlling movement. Molly T. founder Molly T. O'Connor points out that, unfortunately, many women end up in the wrong fit and are deterred from working out entirely because of their breast size. “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,” says 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,” advises 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 everyday 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 everyday bad? If you get the right one, no.
Sherry McAllister, DC, executive vice president of the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress, told NBC News Shopping a common problem she’s seen among female patients is ill-fitting sports bras: The cup size is too small and the band is 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, 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 points 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 work out, either, Ottesen explains. 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, explains Kim Brennecke, the head of Old Navy Active. 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,” says O'Connor.
- 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,” says Brennecke. “These bras are best for activities that don’t have a lot of sudden movement, 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,” says O'Connor. Bras that fall within this category will also have the most components built into it. “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 or jogging,” says 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?” says 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.”
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,” says 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,” says Cote. She also notes 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,” explains Cote.
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 find change things up for multiple exercises.
- Don’t confuse adjustability with stretchability, though. “If you reach around and pull the underband away from your back, you shouldn’t be able to stretch it out more than an inch,” says 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.
It should feel like a lift, not a squish.
Elyse Kaye, Founder, Bloom Bras
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,” says Tempesta. When deciding on the final option, keep in mind that a sports bra should feel supportive but not like it is strangling you, adds Kaye. “It should feel like a lift, not a squish,” she says.
Best sports bras: Low impact
The crossover construction not only gives this low-impact bra a unique look but it also sports a breathable feel. The double criss-cross back and removable cups are added perks.
Described as “buttery-soft,” this sports bra’s sweat-wicking Nulu fabric is constructed with optimal cups as well as minimal seams — this bra is all about comfort.
A seamless, jersey material gives this racerback sports bra a soft feel and reduces the chances of chafing while working out. Mesh detailing enhances breathability.
This bra gives you the supportive coverage in the front with six cool straps in the back. Designed for yoga and a full range of motion, its cool-feeling fabric will come in handy this summer.
Designed for training, this sports bra is breathable, moisture-wicking and stretches four ways. (Athleta offers a Give-it-a-Workout Guarantee, which lets you buy a bra, try it out during your workout or class and return it if it doesn’t suit your needs.)
This longline sports bra offers support for up to DD cup size and is personal trainer Lisa Yee’s go-to choice for spin classes. “This bra has a high neck and, in spin class, you are constantly leaning forward. If you don’t want to be throwing your cleavage around, then this is the bra for you,” she says. “Plus, it’s longer so if you pair it with high-waisted spin shorts, you don’t have to add another shirt layer to cover the mid-section.”
Best sports bras: Medium impact
Come for the chevron pattern, stay for the support. Not only does this seamless sports bra have a racerback design and removable cups, but the compressed stretch of the moisture-wicking material makes it feel effortless.
This moisture-wicking sports bra has the classic sports bra look in the front (complete with removable cups) and some surprise strap action in the back that adds an unexpected element to the racerback design.
One of my personal favorites, this compression bra with molded cups and smooth Powersoft fabric has straps that are adjustable in the front — it’s easy to customize or tweak during a workout without having to take the bra off.
With molded, seamless cups and a smooth moisture-wicking material, this medium-impact sports bra offers lightweight combination compression that is all about keeping you comfortable. The padded shoulder strapsand customizable features make it a stand-out option.
There are two things I love about this sports bra: the soft and quick-drying material as well as the double cross-back straps. But my body equally appreciates the flat-lock seams that help prevent chafing and scoop necklines for supportive coverage.
This longline sports bra has both style and comfort with a tag-free label to avoid skin irritation. There are also wide straps to stabilize weight with a plush band that stays in place while working out.
This is Yee’s go-to weight training sports bra, thanks to the criss cross straps that diffuse the weight. “Plus, those straps make it super easy to move and bend and flex without feeling pinched or constricted,” she says.
14. Movement Bra
Yee is also a huge fan of how many brands are now offering cropped tanks that can serve as a tank or bra option at the same time, and especially loves this longline style from Alo.
Best sports bras: High impact
Frustrated with having to wear doubled-up bras and other tricks to get support, O'Connor created a wrap-like design for diverse support needs that “mimics the way we bring our breasts closer to our body with our hands — think what you do when you run down the stairs not wearing a bra to keep the bounce in check.” The sports bra allows for customizable compression directly over the breasts, allowing you to switch between low and high-impact without switching your sports bra.
This combination bra offers support for high-impact activities through wide, adjustable straps, removable cups and a clasp back. Plus, the straps are interchangeable, giving it the ability to transform into a criss-cross back depending on your support needs and personal preferences.
Don’t let the rose gold straps fool you, this isn’t just a “pretty” option. From the high support, adjustable, criss-cross straps to the breathable cut outs and material, this bra is worthy of intense workouts.
With a breathable mesh overlay and strappy back, this high-impact sports bra will have you both looking and feeling cool throughout your workout. Plus, it has removable cups and a supportive band for added comfort.
This racerback style has molded cups with built-in foam padding, adjustability in the band and padded straps and breathable mesh details.
Look no further for a high-impact sports bra that offers you the ability to both personalize the fit as well as the level of support. This bra was designed to give maximum support to diverse body types, all within an adjustable construct.
Designed with Lululemon’s Ultralu fabric, this sweat-wicking and smooth material retains its shape and is both lightweight and supportive. The built-in cups were made to “soften bounce” and you don’t have to worry about constriction from the underband.
For high support while running, check out this combination bra designed with separation and coverage for cups B-E.
23. Advance Bra
For my sweatier workouts that involve lots of cardio, I’m all about this bra. The compression design gives me the support I need for high-impact activities, while the adjustable band and straps allows me to customize the fit.
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 she needs. “I’m fairly small chested but I do a lot of high impact workout activities that need a more compressive sports bra,”says 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,” says 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,” says Breitwieser. “Proper support in these areas will prevent pressure being held in your shoulders.”
- Sports bras don’t necessarily expire. “Your sports bra’s lifespan depends on how you care for it,” says Breitwieser. Since heat deteriorates the spandex in your sports bra, she recommends always machine-washing them on cold and hanging them to dry. Tempesta agrees, adding that dryers also make elastics wear out very quickly. “And stay away from any type of fabric softener, “ she says. “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 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,” says 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, notes Brennecke. “And the slower the jog, the more bounce you will need to solve for,” she says. 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 underband fabrics’ stretch contributes to this sizing inconsistency. “For cup volume, there isn’t an industry standard for how much volume cups should hold,” says Tempesta. “This is exacerbated in sports bras because they are generally made with compressed cups and tighter underbands so it makes the likelihood of your usual size fitting you even less likely.”
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