Fitness Articles

Are You Wearing the Right Sports Bra?

A Guide for Women of All Shapes and Sizes

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Every active woman, regardless of her breast size, should have a sports bra as a part of her fitness wardrobe. Not only do these specially designed bras offer better support and more comfort than a regular bra, they also help minimize movement during your workout. Exercising in the wrong bra can lead to more than discomfort. A number of issues, including tension in the arms and shoulders and restricted breathing, can occur if the band is too tight.

A woman's breasts are composed primarily of adipose (fatty) tissue, mammary glands, connective tissue, and the Cooper’s ligament, which keeps the breast firm and prevents sagging. Because the underlying chest muscles do not support breast tissue, exercising in anything other than a well-fitted sports bra can stretch the Cooper's ligament, leading to greater sagging and even pain during exercise.

Finding the right sports bra for you can be a daunting task when there are hundreds of styles from which to choose! Don't worry—we've done the homework for you.

Believe it or not, just any old sports bra won't supply the support you need to prevent sagging, stretching or pain related to exercise. One size certainly doesn't fit all.

Studies have shown that between 70% percent and 80 percent of women are wearing the wrong size sports bra, and therefore, they may not be getting the benefits of support and comfort from their fitness wardrobe. Many department stores, including Nordstrom or Macy's, offer free fitting services for customers. But if modesty is a concern, you can take your own measurements before leaving home. Measuring can save you lots of time and aggravation when choosing the right bra.

Below are the steps to take your own measurements.
  1. Use a tailor’s tape or cloth measuring tape when taking your measurements.
     
  2. Stand up straight, preferably in front of a mirror.
     
  3. Wear a normal (non-padded) bra, not a sports bra, when taking your measurements.
     
  4. Find your bust measurement. Wearing a non-padded bra, measure the fullest part of your chest by loosely wrapping the tape measure around your chest, making sure the tape is straight in the back and front. Once you get a number, round to the nearest whole number to get your bust measurement. 
     
  5. Find your band measurement. Measure your ribcage just under your breasts, making sure the tape is snug (not tight) and not lower in the back than in the front. 

    Your Measurement (in inches) 27" 28-30" 31-33" 34-36" 37-38"
    Band Size 30 32 34 36 38

    Past a meaurement of 38 inches, the band size will be the closest even number to your measurement.
     
  6. Find your cup size. Subtract your band measurement (step 5) from your bust measurement (step 4). Use the chart below to determine which letter is your cup size. (However, the chart becomes less accurate once you get past a 4-inch difference.)

     
    Bust – Band difference Cup Size
    1/2" AA
    1" A
    2" B
    3" C
    4" D
    5" DD or E
    6" F
    7" G

     
  7. Put your band size with your cup size and you have your bra size. (But remember, this is just a starting point to help you narrow down which options to actually try on.)
Now that you have your size, there are a few points to consider when choosing the right sports bra for you:
  • For what types of activity are you going to wear this sports bra? High-impact exercises, such as running, step aerobics or hiking require a different style and support construction than you'd need for low-impact workouts like cycling, yoga or Pilates.
     
  • Will you wear your sports bra for outdoor or indoor exercise? While this may be a strange detail to consider, some women prefer to wear a sports bra without a shirt when exercising indoors. In doing so, look for a bra made of wicking, breathable materials as well as nice detailing.
     
  • Does this sports bra fit your individual body structure? Choose a bra that fits your body size and shape. Wearing a bra that doesn't fit for your breast size and/or ribcage measurements may lead to discomfort and chafing.
Next comes style. There are three basic sports bra construction styles:
  1. Compression Sports Bras (the one piece style that you pull on over your head) are by far the most popular sports bra construction. This bra compresses both breasts against your chest allowing for minimal or no-bounce movement. These bras are generally a pullover style without fasteners. This style is most suited for women with small to medium sized breasts (A-B cups). These tend to come in general sizes, such as small, medium and large vs. band/cup sizes. Most major manufacturers, including Champion, Moving Comfort, Under Armour, Reebok and Nike, carry a wide variety of compression sports bras from which to choose.
     
  2. Encapsulated or Natural-Shaping Sports Bras are best suited for larger breasted women, usually a C-cup or larger. These bras look more like a normal bra with fasteners in the front or back, and may come with or without the underwire. This style encapsulates each breast in an individual cup instead of compressing both breasts together as in the previous example. The encapsulated sports bra is the best choice for larger-breasted women (C-cup and up) or plus sized women. One of the most popular manufacturers of this style is Enell. Their bras have received rave reviews from women who require greater support and control. But other manufacturers, including Moving Comfort and CW-X, also provide a nice selection in these sizes.
     
  3. Compression/Encapsulation Sports Bras are a combination of the previous two bras. They encapsulate each breast and compress the breast tissue against the chest. They can be pulled over the head or closed with fasteners. This style is ideal for women with medium to large breasts, usually C through DD cups.
Now you probably have a good idea about the construction style that is best for you. Now comes the fun part—considering the individual features (including colors, styles and design details) of your sports bra. While fit should always trump style, here are some construction details to look for:
  • Moisture-wicking fabrics, such as Dri-FIT and CoolMax, pull sweat away from your skin to help keep you cool and dry (and minimize chafing). Avoid all-cotton bras—especially if you sweat heavily or exercise in hot, humid conditions—because this fabric tends to remain wet and saturated even after your workout is over.
     
  • Minimal seams or covered seams, especially in the cups, to prevent chafing and irritation. Every seam on a sports bra could rub against your skin, so the fewer seams the better.
     
  • Wide straps that do not dig into your shoulders. Many women, especially runners, prefer the popular racerback style since this design allows for greater arm movement and provides greater support. However, a traditional scoop style is a readily available alternative for women who find the razorback style uncomfortable.
     
  • A snug fit around the rib cage allows for minimal movement, but the band should not be so snug as to keep you from getting good lung expansion during your activity. Your sports bra should feel snug—not tight.
     
  • Deep armholes to minimize chafing yet allow for good range of motion.
Finding the Right Fit
It is very important to try on a sports bra before you buy it. Most experts recommend that you take a minimum of three sports bras with you when heading to the fitting room. You should bring the size you measured, along with the next size up and the next size down. Because sizes can vary between manufacturers, it is important to try on many different brands and styles in order to find the optimal fit. You know you've got the right size, style and fit when:
  • The straps fit snug against the skin, but aren't so tight that they dig in to your shoulders. You should be able to slide two fingers underneath the straps—from the front to the back of the straps with ease.
     
  • The band lies snug and flat against around the front, sides, and back of your ribcage. It should not ride up. You should be able to slide one finger easily under the band.
     
  • Your breasts fit within the cups. In other words, any bulging from the top or sides is an indication that the cup size is too small.
     
  • The fabric does not "gather" in the cup, especially on top. Excess fabric bunches are usually an indication that the cup is too big and will not provide adequate support and comfort. This can also cause chafing during activity.
Once you've tried on a bra that fits your requirements, test it out in the fitting room! Do some movement drills such as jumping jacks, running in place, and raising your arms overhead to make certain the bra provides the control, support, and comfort you are looking for without rubbing you the wrong way. But remember, a good sports bra will fit more snugly than a regular bra—just not so snug that you cannot get one finger under the band and slide it easily.

While most experts suggest trying a sports bra on for the first time, some women may have a difficult time finding their true size on the store rack. Luckily, there are a few Websites to guide you along. Many of the sites provide instructions for how to find the right bra for you as well as customer service phone numbers you can call for assistance. The following sites provide a wide variety of sport bra apparel for women of all shapes and sizes: Taking Care of Your Investment
A high-quality sports bra can easily set you back between $25 and $70, but for most women, it's a well-made investment. Depending on the frequency of wear and the care you give to your garments, a single sports bra can last between 6 and 12 months—maybe longer. Therefore, you will want to use extreme care when it comes to laundering your undergarments. Most experts recommend hand washing a sports bra with a mild detergent after every wear. New sports detergents, such as Penguin Sport-Wash or Win High Performance Sport Detergent are good options, too. Not only do these specially designed detergents help to eliminate embedded odors, but they also help retain the wicking properties of your sports apparel. And while it may be tempting, never place your sports bras in the dryer since the heat can break down the elastic, thereby shortening the useful life of your bra.

So how do you know when it is time to say good-bye to your sports bra? While the useful, supportive life of your sports bra depends on many factors, you know it's time to upgrade when:
  • The fabric is losing its shape
  • The bra is no longer offering the support it once did
  • The fabric is pilling, especially under the arms
  • The elastic is stretched out
  • You have lost or gained a significant amount of weight
We've come a very long way since the first sports bras, created by three women who each sewed together two jock straps to give them the support they needed, made its debut in 1977! Today, the sports bra is an integral part of every woman’s workout wardrobe. While finding the right sports bra can take time, once you find one that is perfect for you, you will be amazed how much better you will feel while exercising!

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Member Comments

  • This has helped for my adult daughter and myself. For one of us, the bra size was larger than available at sports stores in our area and we almost had to online order. For the other of us, the T - style was too hard to get on. Then we got lucky and found one department store that had multiple choices in the size needed, different styles that we did not see in sports stores and fitting experts to help! This is much more expensive -- I think - about $60/ $70 per bra, but this store also has a sales area and sometimes we get lucky. Fitting on our own, even after careful measuring was not working very well - and the difference in having personal service in fitting has been fantastic!
  • Oh, I wear basic cheap ones around the house all the time for small stuff and just to prevent my good bras smelling and sticking to me when I'm going to get all sweaty.

    However, the ones I've got won't do me a lick of good out in the real world, especially in my kickboxing and self-defense classes. We do our cardio and warmups--lots of jumping jacks and going up and down fast--and my girls are basically free-floating in the bras I have. They hurt like hell--I have to find something that doesn't strangle me but keeps the girls in and firm so that I'm not having to restrict their movement by putting my gloves against my chest as we do runs and jumps. I'm gonna hurt myself bad without the right size one of these days.

    So I'll figure out which type of bra and get a department storel fitter to help me out--I know most work on commission, but if we find something I like that fits, it'll be worth the peace of mind (and their time) for the expense.
  • Most times they are too expensive to buy that are my size.
  • Interesting - now I am confused again. Was reading the SparkPeople article 12 Sports Bras for All Shapes & Sizes Available on Amazon and when I clicked on the link to one of the bras there was a link for measuring yourself for a bra and their information is completely different on how to properly measure yourself for a bra
  • Thanks So Very Much for this wonderful and extremely informative article. I greatly appreciate it. Finally a way to measure and figure out what size to start looking for. I remember when I got my first "training bra" a woman came and measured me and then brought in the size of bra that would fit and we went from there. That was so many years ago and by the time I was out of "training bras" nobody did that anymore. Going to print out this article and keep it for future reference too!
  • Adore my running bra. I'm a DD cup. I currently am using a Moving Comfot Maia as my bra of choice. I actually bought it at my running shoe store as I could actually try it on.

    I don't like buying clothes that have to fit right online even if online is cheaper usually. My time isn't free and shipping it back is usually not free either. The nice part is that I can go to a store where there are people who can actually help me, too. That's priceless. The running store also put up signs for how to tell if the bra fits well.

    Yes, these are a pricy item yet they will last longer than an every day bra since it's worn for shorter lengths of time. Keeping the girls comfortable matters to me.

    Great article.
  • I really enjoyed this article. However I do not completely agree with the instructions for measuring for bra band size. Only use these tips if you are set on buying an American made sports bra. There are many companies internationally that make bras (including sports bras) that are made to fit women with small rib cages and large breasts - no need to add inches after rounding to an even number. An excellent source on helping you find a bra that fits is an ebook by Liz Kuba titled "How to Find a Bra That Fits". A website that I find very helpful is breakoutbras.com. My band size is 30 inches (nothing added), but my bust size measures around 39 inches (it can go up or down slightly depending on time of month, weight gain, etc.). My bra size is a 30G in the bra style that I wear but may be smaller or larger depending on the brand or style of the bra. Personally (for exercising), I wear an Enell sports bra (enell.com) which happens to be an American company. However, they have a unique sizing system that differs from the typical number followed by a letter or letters. I own 3 Enell sports bras so that I can rotate bras between workouts to increase the lifespan of the bra. I am able to run, walk, as well as dance ballet in my bras with the right amount of support and compression without discomfort. Just a note, I am not associated personally or financially with any of the 3 resources that I referenced. They are simply ones that I use. Thanks for reading.
  • As a member of the IBT club, I too find it difficult at times to find a decent sports bra. Depending on the maker, I am either a small or medium. I have found the best fitted bras from Old Navy but again have had a hit or miss because sometimes I need a small but on a few occasions have had to go down to an extra small. What I take away from this is that this is no different than buying clothing and none of us are a one size fit all type. Thank you for this article.
  • HEIDIE1981
    So I'm a 28K and can't find a decent sports bra. I've found they do exist, however the small choices available just aren't any good. I would love to go for a run to get fit, but unless I opt for an expensive surgery, it's just not happening.
  • Champion is the only brand I have found with a "sports" bra that works for actually playing sports (I play softball). Not many options/colors, but provides the necessary support for 44D/DD size, separation, padded straps and back closure.
  • I just wanted to add that you should never use fabric softener on sports bras, or really any sports clothing. Fabric softener can ruin the sweat-wicking properties.
  • ISTHATME13
    I live in Florida, so sweating is a constant issue with any bra. My doctor recommended i try a sports bra to decrease the under breast moistness and itching, That is why I read this article. I'm sure this is good information for people like the writer, who is a runner and probably not overweight and is in good physical shape. Spark People is for overweight folks - so we need something written by someone like ourselves who understands our issues and what we are going through now on our road to better physical fitness. I can't afford these luxury bras that are 70 and more dollars. I don't even pay full price for my regular everyday bras, but wait until they are on sale. Apparently in the America of today comfortable bras are only for the rich.
  • Not a fan of sports bras, yet I sure appreciate the need to wear one when working out. The "girls" need the support...and I have finally come to understand the work a sports bra does during high impact! Fit is key, I am a fan of Old Navy's high impact line...I purchased one a few months ago. It has quickly become my favorite!
  • My sports bra is a 34F. Why does the article refer to DD as if that is the largest size. What type of bra should large booked women get? Why should small, bosomed women be the only ones who need that information?
  • I'm with MRSFERGU, I can't stand all bras in general... Yet, I usually wear them when I go out. As one person told me in an extremely AC office, she stated that my ASSETS were showing through my shirt (blush)

About The Author

Nancy Howard Nancy Howard
Nancy is an avid runner and health enthusiast. A retired pediatric nurse, she received her bachelor's degree in nursing from Texas Woman's University and is also a certified running coach and ACE-certified personal trainer.