Finding the Right Sports Bra

Woman in sports bra
Getty Images/Klaus Vedfelt

When you think of things that can make or break your workout, the right sports bra may not make it very high on your list. However, if you've ever worn the wrong one, you've experienced the drawbacks firsthand (chafing, squeezing, sagging, digging and general discomfort). Whether you're small chested or large chested, whether you're doing yoga or running a marathon, you can find the perfect sports bra for both comfort and support. Use these tips to choose the right sports bra.

The ABCs of Finding the Right Sports Bra

Haidee Johnstone of Leading Lady, a company that specializes in lingerie for mothers-to-be, new moms, and full-figured women, says "Fit, support, and comfort are the three most important words when choosing a sports bra." The three other things you'll need: Time, patience, and an iron will. Like finding the right jeans or bathing suit, shopping for sports bras can be taxing on the body and soul, but it's worth it to find the perfect one.

A good place to start is by visiting local sporting goods stores and setting aside plenty of time to try on a variety of bras. Practice some of the movements you'll be doing to make sure you're covered and supported. If there isn't a great selection, online shopping is your next best bet, and you'll find some of the most popular bras at Moving Comfort and Champion. Bounce from Title Nine Sports is another great resource for sports bras. Before you buy anything, check the return policy to make sure you can return anything that doesn't fit.

Full Figure Sports Bras

If you have a fuller figure — generally, a cup size greater than D (e.g., DD, E, DDD, F, etc.) and a band size greater than 36 inches — getting the right fit, support, and comfort is crucial. As Haidee puts it, "Wearing your correct size is vital. Wearing a 'dream size' is not as important as the health of your breasts." Haidee suggests the following tips for choosing the right bra:

  • Fit:
    • If you see any part of your breasts coming out around the underarm or neckline, that's a sign the cup is too small.
    • A bra cup that sags or is wrinkled indicates you've gone too big.
    • Make sure the bra you choose sits down on both the front and the back. If it pulls up as you move, the band may not be the right size for your frame.
  • Support:
    • Consider your activity: High impact activities like running will require more support than activities like yoga or stretching. The Enell Sports Bra is a favorite for running, providing so much support that there's almost no bounce, even for the large-chested.
    • Breasts should look supported and sit centered on your chest when wearing a properly fitting sports bra.
    • Remember, breasts move in all directions — up and down, side to side. You'll need more support for fuller figures and higher impact activities. A good choice here would be the Moving Comfort Calli Sports Bra, which offers separation and comfort with a padded underwire and wide, adjustable straps. 
    • Look for a sports bra that encapsulates the entire breast, yet offers enough compression to prevent too much bouncing. As Haidee suggests, "Encapsulating and compressing the breasts will cause less strain and sag, but be sure you still have a full range of motion for your desired activity." The Moving Comfort Luna Bra is another great choice here, providing both encapsulating and compressing in a comfortable, supportive bra.
    • If you're pregnant or nursing, look for comfortable, seamless bras to avoid chafing if your breasts are sensitive. The Enell Sports Bra would work well for nursing exercisers, and pregnant exercisers also recommend the Bravado Supreme Sports Bra.
  • Comfort:
    • The key to comfort is on the shoulder straps. Make sure they stay in place when you move around and don't dig into your shoulders. Look for bras with adjustable straps so you can get the perfect fit. The Champion Powersleek offers maximum support for C and D cups with adjustable straps.
    • Choose a sports bra made of sweat-wicking fabric rather than cotton. These fabrics will keep your skin dry so there are less chafing and irritation.
    • For maternity or nursing bras, Haidee recommends wider, padded shoulder straps to disperse the weight more evenly and adjustable straps so you can adjust your bra throughout your pregnancy.

Mid to Small Chested Sports Bras

Mid to smaller chests (around an A-C cup) have different needs, but still need the right kind of support for exercise. The most popular type of sports bra for smaller busts is the compression bra. This is usually something you pull over your head and the tight fabric pulls the breasts in to minimize bounce. The downside is, first, what you pull on must be wrestled off later (and I do mean 'wrestle') and, second, it can create an annoying uni-boob look that may not be very flattering.

There are other choices out there, but these tips will help you find the right fit:

  • Fit
    • Make sure the straps are snug, but not so tight that they dig into your shoulders. I got a great tip from a bra-fit specialist once who suggested that you should be able to slide your fingers under the straps from front to back. If you can't even fit your fingers in there, the straps are too tight.
    • Make sure the band is also snug and doesn't ride up. Like the straps, the band shouldn't dig into your ribcage or make it hard to breathe. Once again, making sure you can slide a finger under there is a simple way to check the fit of the band.
    • Make sure the cup is the right size for your breasts. If anything is bulging out or if the cup sags, you'll know you need to try a different size.
  • Support: If you're smaller in the chest, some of the things to consider are:
    • Type of Activity — You'll want more support for high impact activities and, as mentioned above, a good overall compression bra will give you support for almost anything. One of my favorites is the Champion Shape T-Back Sports Bra, which offers padded support and comfort.
    • Padding — Many bras, particularly those geared towards small-chested women, offer padding, which is a great way to get support while avoiding the flat uni-boob look. Your best choice here is the Moving Comfort Alexis Sports Bra, which offers light padding for support and adjustable straps.
    • Long or Short — You also have a choice between regular sports bras and long tops with a built-in bra. Long tops offer coverage and can be very flattering. The downside is that getting them on and off can be a workout in itself and they don't offer as much support, so may be better suited to low impact activities. This Nike Seamless Sports Top offers both coverage and lighter support.
  • Comfort:
    • Remember, a sweat-wicking fabric will keep your skin dry, thus avoiding chafing and irritation.
    • When trying on sports bras, go through some of the movements you'll be doing (e.g., jogging or a downward dog) to make sure you can move freely without exposing anything.