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Sports bras part three - choosing the right bra

In News

Welcome to part three of the sports bra series! 

If you haven't already, check out our previous posts on breast biology and biomechanics and the history, designs, and materials in sports bras

Now, the juicy part you've all been waiting for - how to choose a sports bra for you! 

Choosing a Sports Bra - no numbers necessary

Your priority is choosing a sports bra is this: 

  • to minimize your physical and social discomfort
  • to maximize your ability to perform

So, how do you do that? First, you ignore the numbers and letters that you see on labels, and that you have absorbed into your head. Every single brand of bra, even different lines of bras, will fit you differently. You are not a 38 C. You may wear that size in one particular style of bra but it is NOT universal. 

Instead, come at it from the perspective of first knowing your body and what you need. 

  • What is your ribcage measurement, just below your breasts? 
  • What is your full bust measurement, around the widest part of your breasts? 
  • What is the state of your skin and connective tissues? Are your breasts perky and self-supporting, or do they droop? Is your skin thin, papery and sensitive? 
  • Do you have scars, or skin conditions? 
  • Do you have narrow or wide shoulders? Do you find certain styles of straps dig in to your shoulders and neck, or fall off entirely?
  • How much movement can you have in your breasts before you have physical discomfort? Social discomfort?

Choosing the correct bra for the job

There will not be one universal sports bra that will work for all the different sports out there in the world. When you're shopping for a bra, consider the types of activities you do, and how often you do them. 

Low to medium impact sports bras are great for activities that don't have a lot of walking, running, or jumping movements. If you're looking for a sports bra for yoga, low impact cardio, stretching, Pilates, or cleaning the house, these are great options. Generally speaking, your breasts are okay to move around a bit when you're doing these activities, because you aren't generating enough force to cause pain or damage. 

What you want to consider is how much coverage you need to ensure you aren't falling out of the bra, how long you'll be wearing it, if there are components that might cause friction, those sorts of things. 

Medium to high impact sports bras are for activities that really get you moving. Walking, running, aerobics, or sports where you have sudden movements such as volleyball or baseball, are all the types of activities where you need more support to minimize movement. 

How do I know the bra fits?

It wasn't until I became a custom bra maker that I realized so many of us don't actually know what a properly fitted bra should feel like on our body. This applies to sports bras, too! 

The band of the bra should be snug on your body and, once you heat up with exercise, it shouldn't slide around. It should not be so tight that its seams are visibly stressed, that it digs into your body, or it stops you from taking a full breath easily.  Exercise is hard enough, you don't need to make it even harder to breathe! 

The straps should rest comfortably on your shoulders without falling off, and without cutting into your trapezius muscle (the bit muscle that goes from the back of your neck down to your shoulder.) The higher impact your activity, the more sturdy the straps should be, and the less stretchy they should be. 

The cups/front band of the bra fit differently, depending on whether it is a compression style or not. In either case, however, the bra should cover your breast in a way that doesn't cause you to fall out of the top, side, or bottom when you do your activity. 

A compression bra that fits you will hold your breasts firmly to your chest wall without discomfort or breathing difficulties. You won't be able to see breast tissue below the bottom band of the bra. 

Wherever your nipple happens to be when you aren't wearing a sports bra, in order for you to be supported, it should be above the line where the bottom of your breasts meets your chest when you have the bra on. If it isn't, you probably should be wearing an encapsulation style bra for your physical activities. 

When your encapsulation style bra fits you, your entire breast is contained within the bra - no flopping out. You need to get both LIFT and SUPPORT from this style. If your nipples are below that line around your body where you breast meets your chest, you need to look for a different fit or style. 

It isn't Large vs Small, it's About Support

You might have heard that women with larger breasts should wear no bounce bras and encapsulation styles, and women with smaller breasts can wear compression styles. That isn't entirely true. 

What you need to choose is the type of support you need to relieve your physical and social discomfort.

You can have large breasts that are self supporting (those nipples stay up above our imaginary line already mentioned above) so all those dainty strapped, medium or low support bras might work for you, because the extra motion isn't causing you discomfort.

You can also have smaller breasts that require more support, and experience a lot of discomfort when you try to exercise in a bra that doesn't keep you locked in. 

I've slowly switched my running bras from high impact, encapsulation style bras to medium to high impact hybrid bras. The main reason is my physical discomfort not from bounce, but from friction. I find the "full lock down" style, on long runs, tends to cause chafing and friction burns. This is my comfort zone. 

This means you're going to have to do some trial and error to find what you need, and you will need to wear your bra for a workout to see if it truly works for you. That means you likely won't be able to return it. If you can't, try reaching out to your local women's shelter to see if they accept donations. 

Sports Bra recommendations

I know you all want me to tell you what that magical bra is that will meet all your needs. I also suspect that you think the answer to this question is...a custom bra. But that isn't my answer!

Unless you have a specific, unique fit need that isn't met by the current bras on the market (such as moderate to severe asymmetry) there are great products out there. As a custom bra maker, it is extremely difficult for me to replicate the seamless, high-tech designs that mass manufactured sports bras have. That doesn't mean I can't make you a bra, but I do encourage you to look beyond the aisles of your local bra store and move to online specialists that might be able to provide you with what you need at a lower cost. 

Most importantly, you need to recognize where your own, optimal physical and social comfort begins and ends. You may be avoiding bras that would suit you well because you've bought into the notion that you need to have absolutely no breast movement when you exercise. 

But on to the recommendations! 

If the difference between your full bust measurement and your rib cage measurement is greater than 5", I strongly recommend you seek out a sports bra that is sized by band/cup, just like underwire bras. The small/medium/large sizing differential is not going to work well for you. 

If you have a ready to wear underwire bra that you love, check with that company to see if they also make sports bras. One of my favourite companies, Prima Donna Lingerie, has wired, wireless, and padded sports bras in a diverse range of sizes. (not an affliate link, I just like this company!) Then ask your favourite local bra store if they can order them in, if they don't already carry them.

Another great company is SheFit, which lets you change the tightness of your bra with adjustable straps and band. Again, no affiliation, I just like the bras!

For those of you who like to sew your own, I highly recommend Greenstyle Creations patterns. Not only are they easy to follow, there is a great community of people who will help you with any issues you encounter. The Endurance is my all time, go-to pattern. 

The most inclusive size range pattern I've found is the Christina bra by Porcelynne. It goes from 28 A to 52 N! It has some great options to make it truly yours, and I like that there are few seams for friction issues. 


If you'd like to chat about choosing a sports bra, just reach out!