Home Fit Gear Reviews Sports Bras: The Ultimate Guide to Ta-Ta Protection

Sports Bras: The Ultimate Guide to Ta-Ta Protection

by Erika Nicole Kendall
What kind of sports bra do YOU need?


Let’s talk sports bras, shall we?

Table of Contents

The active life for you Chesty McBreastersons out there – pardon me, that’s just my inner flat-chested hater talking – is a brutal one. Activities that require lots of bouncing and jumping all run the risk of you causing immense pain at best, and injuring yourself at worst. All of that movement in the chest area slows you down – partially because you’re slowing yourself down to avoid the pain of the jiggle, but doubly because energy that would otherwise be spent on the activity also has to be spent bracing yourself for the ‘reverb’ of the bouncing. It’s a rough world out there for the particularly busty.

That being said, it’s a rough world out there for all of us. There’s nothing wrong with wanting your workout gear to be cute and, dare I say it, stylish, but at what cost? What should we be looking for when it comes to a sports bra that’s going to hold us down… literally? And what about those of us who have alternate concerns, like back issues, or breastfeeding?

As always, you know I’ve got your back. And front. In a totally platonic way, of course.

Here’s what you need to know about sports bras, and what combination of features are necessary for you to get the fit of your dreams:

Consider your activity first

Before you buy your bra, you have to consider the activity. Consider the amount of impact – is it high impact, like running or sports or cycling? Is it moderate impact, like spin or kickboxing or strength training? Is it a low-impact activity? Like, say, yoga, pilates, or walking the dogs? Impact affects things like the straps, the way the back of the sports bra is structured, and the texture found on the inside of the bra that meets with your areola and nipple. If you engage in a lot of activities that are all over the place, get different kinda of bras for each activity group, if you can. If not – and no worries if you can’t, trust me – then go with the highest impact level necessary for you. So, say, if you’re a yoga practitioner and a runner, get a sports bra that accommodates the runner in you as opposed to your outer yogi.

As the overwhelming majority of sports bras are thought of in those three categories – low, moderate, high impact – it’s common to see them all carry multiple traits across multiple brands:

What is a low-impact bra?

Low-impact sports bras are marked by a few common characteristics:


the ‘Renew’ bra from Athleta, available in sides xs-xl; click to view it on the Athleta website!


These sports bras are most likely to have thin straps, reduced back support, and thinner fabric much like this Renew bra from Athleta. These bras aren’t built for friction, and are intended for providing the minimum coverage necessary to allow for as much bendy and twisty movement as possible. They’re likely very low-fuss when it comes to putting them on and getting them off, and they’re as minimal as it can get when it comes to cup accommodation – rarely will you find a molded cup or any padding to help with modesty in the areola area. Because low-impact bras expect you to encounter little to no hopping or jumping, there is rarely any compression effect, so the bra might stay put while your entire body shifts around. These bras are usually measured in letters, from extra small and onward.

What is a high-impact bra?

The Marathon Bra from Champion

The Marathon Bra from Champion, available in sizes xs-xl; click to view

A high-impact bra is, basically, the armored vest of sports bras. The back of the sports bra is usually heavily reinforced – usually a racerback, like above, because it’s one of the best ways to center the pressure of the impact away from your shoulders and more onto the actual band strap (the band is the bottom-most part of the bra that wraps around your body.) You’ll often find back clasps – yes, like a regular every-day wear bra – and, depending on the size, there might be more than one. You’ll also often find them with massive straps, often an inch wide or more. There’s often tons of compression in these kinds of bras, because the first line of defense against the war on bouncing is compression. And, where there’s compression, you’re likely to find molded cups to allow for some form of comfort.

Make no mistake about it, these bras are full coverage. Wide in the front, and wide in the back, so that the fabric can support the compression necessary to keep the girls in place, and often has molded cups for each breast, preventing one breast from encroaching upon the other’s territory. (If you’ve never had to do that very public boob shift, consider yourself lucky.) Because sports bra experts know that there’s no way a fully elastic bra can actually provide high-impact compression in the face of high-impact activity, expect these bras to be a little more fit according to your actual bra size and cup, not just whether you’re extra small or extra large. There’s also a much more reinforced form of fabric – usually multiple layers of a spandex blend, and more mindful brands are careful to put a softer fabric on the inside of the bra and on the outermost-parts of the armholes so as to not cause painful friction and burns. Sizing is usually accommodating by your actual bra size – 34B, 36C, and so on – as opposed to letters, here, although letters aren’t a rarity, as seen in this Marathon Bra from Champion.

What is a moderate impact bra?

the Nike Pro Rival bra, available in sizes 30B to a 38E; click to view

the Nike Pro Rival bra, click to view

Moderate sports bras are, expectedly, a safe middle between the two. The straps are usually far thinner, but this is where the super-cute sports bras with the ultra-creative strappy designs in the back tend to fall.

the 'Bonded Bra' from lululemon; click to view

the ‘Bonded Bra’ from lululemon; click to view

The body of the bra is wider from top to bottom than the low-impact bra, but it’s still sized in letters and not according to your actual everyday bra size. These bras are usually made of a thinner, more stretchy fabric, but with multiple layers and usually offer an insert to offer extra padding to assist with modestly covering the areola.

Keep in mind that what one company might consider “high impact,” I might not. Sometimes, the fabric is lacking just a tad bit too much, or the strength and stretch of the straps doesn’t seem like it’d truly be able to hold you down (pun intended) in a set of jumping jacks, let alone a half hour of training. So, don’t be surprised when you see me call a “high-impact bra” a “moderate” one.

One person’s high impact is another person’s moderate

Consider your own boobage… I mean… baggage…. no, boobage is right. For some women, no matter the activity, a low-impact sports bra isn’t going to cut it. The straps are too small, the material is too flimsy, it isn’t made with a large enough breast pad on the inside — whatever the case may be, there are some breast sizes for whom a low-impact bra will feel like trolling, and that’s okay. For women hovering around D cups and above, a “moderate-impact bra” will likely be your low-impact bra. And, for women hovering around a B cup and below, a moderate-impact bra will also likely feel like a tank to you. And both of those are okay.

Let’s talk larger sized sports bras for a moment, shall we?

The size of your breasts impacts the amount of pressure your back has to stand; the strength of your back’s muscles will determine how that pressure affects you. Some women with larger breasts can withstand the stress of an inappropriate sports bra. Others? Well, they need that support.

the Enell 'Sport' bra, in sizes from 32' bust to a 60' bust; click here to view

the Enell ‘Sport’ bra, in sizes from 32′ bust to a 60′ bust; click here to view

Mechanisms like stronger band reinforcement, thicker straps drawn into a racerback style instead of going straight back and down like most regular bras, and a wider front bust area help lessen some of that pressure, so it’s paramount to find a sports bra that utilizes all of that… especially if we’re referring to a sedentary body with an underdeveloped or undertrained back. If that’s you, go with something that has an intense amount of back support, like the Enell Sport bra, here. A heavily reinforced band, an intensely supported back, and large straps to evenly distribute the pressure of hoisting up the girls without major digging into your shoulder… this is what you want.

Sports bras for breastfeeding mamas

the "Juno" from Moving Comfort, available in sizes 30C to 40E; click to view

the “Juno” from Moving Comfort, available in sizes 30C to 40E; click to view

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about what my needs will be as a breastfeeding mama, and instead of simply windmilling into the ether, I talked to a few of my favorite breastfeeding advocates about what works in a good everyday wear nursing bra, in order to get a sense of the lay of the land. To my surprise, I found a sports bra that came pretty darned close to what makes a good nursing bra. And, whereas I usually avoided making particular recommendations for any one kind of sports bra, I genuinely feel like the “Juno” bra from Moving Comfort is easily the best sports bra for the nursing body, hands down.

A good sports bra for someone who is nursing is going to have allllll of the components of a high-impact bra, because when you’re nursing and sore, all impact is high impact. It’s going to have a wide band around the torso, and an even wider front as a means of keeping your breasts as firmly planted as possible. Because comfort can be a major issue, you will ideally have cup moldings that won’t smash your chest in, but will also have the compression component neatly positioned around and outside of the most sore areas. The bra will be sufficiently thick in terms of fabric choices and layering, and will also have slots for removable padding that can help with any leakage that might occur during the day.

What makes this particular bra so special is in the straps. Should you choose to get dressed for the gym, get sidetracked getting things together before you leave, and have to stop to nurse the baby before you head out, guess what?

The front straps are adjustable and – get this – removable.

the "Juno" sports bra from Moving Comfort; click to view

In this demo that showcases all of the ways the bra hooks and unhooks, you see that the front straps of the bra are adjustable, yes, but also removable, allowing for easy removal and access to what you need to feed your little one!

In other words, I draw pictures of this bra with little hearts around it because my girls love it so much.

How to find the proper fit for your sports bra

There’s a study floating around that says something like “70% of all women are wearing the wrong size bra.” And, every time that stat is trotted out, women all “ooh” and “ahh” and “wow” over it.

Don’t. Trust me. (I worked at a Victoria’s Secret for long enough to realize the reality behind this.)

The reason why women wear what could be considered the “wrong” bra size is because every bra isn’t made for every boob. If your breasts might sag a tad but then round out into a full bulb, a balconette-style bra might not be made for you, but if you find the style cute and a smaller cup size might give you the fullness you’re after, then you, too, will buy the wrong size. If you’re a C cup with a bit of a sag, and a B cup with a push up gives you the va-voom you’re looking for in that dress, or that blouse, then guess what? You, too, will cop the wrong size. And, if you measure a 34 but a 36 gives you fewer back rolls? You, too, might wear a 36 instead of that 34. With everyday bras, it’s not accuracy that matters – it’s the look and how you feel when you wear it.

However, with sports bras, this cannot be the case. If you’re squeezing your larges into medium shirts because it gives you more of a vivacious curve, it might not be the best move for you to do this with your sports bra. A sports bra that’s too tight restricts your movement in ways that will impede your training. You still need to be able to move your arms, rotate your torso, and expand your chest cavity widely enough to inhale deeply. (Not being able to inhale deeply when your body outright demands it results in you fainting. This ain’t what you want. Trust me.)

With lettered sizes – xs through xxxl and so on – start with the size of t-shirt you wear, and then adjust from there. With numbered sizes, however, it’s another story entirely.

When sports bras are sold in sizes that correlate with actual everyday bra sizes – 34B, 42E, and so on – they do so because the band is more fitted than what you’d normally expect from a sports bra. That being said, it’s important for you to make sure you measure properly.

a graphic from movingcomfort.com on how to measure your breasts

a graphic from movingcomfort.com on how to measure your breasts

Using measuring tape, take a deep inhale, and then take a measurement of your rib cage directly underneath the fold of your breast. You may get a number like 36, which will be our example number. (It could be far higher, or far lower. No matter.) Write that number down. (If you get an odd number, round up.)

Then, exhale. Of course.

Inhale again, and take a measurement of the widest part of your bust. You may get a number like 39. (Again, it could be far higher, or far lower. No biggie.) (Here, if you get an odd number, it doesn’t matter.)

You will now subtract the higher number from the lower number, which means subtracting the rib cage number from the bustline number. So, for us, 39-36 = 3.

If the difference between the two numbers for you is 1, then you’re an A cup.

2, B cup.

3 inches? Then Congrats! You’re a C cup. And so on.

If you’re one of millions of women who have two differently-sized breasts, fear not – depending upon the size difference between the two, you may choose to either 1) find a sports bra that is the size between both breasts, or 2) find a sports bra that best accommodates the smaller breast. Ultimately, what you’re going for here is both comfort and security, and depending on the circumstances, you may have to forego everything you see here and go with what works best for you. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

How to be sure it’s the right bra for you

First, when it comes to finding the perfect sports bra line for you, don’t be afraid to try it on. If you’re a yogi, try on that sports bra – over your own bra, preferably – and do a few kidney-draining twists in it to see if it’s what you need. If you’re into moderate or high impact activity, do a few jumping jacks in the sports bra to see how secure it feels.

I’m serious. If I don’t see you jumping in that store, I’m gonna be upset.

Most importantly, shop at stores with forgiving return policies. If it’s not the right garment for you, and it takes you getting home and getting it on and training in it for you to figure that out, then a store shouldn’t penalize you for it. Luckily, nowadays, most stores don’t.

Before you try it on, there’s a couple of things you can do: 1) put the front of the bra in both hands, and tug on the fabric nearest the breasts. If there’s a lot of give, it’s not a compression bra and likely not ideal for a moderate- to high-impact athlete with larger breasts. 2) Hold opposite ends of the same strap, and pull. If there’s a lot of give here, then the same goes for women with larger breasts.

How to care for your sports bra

Never dry it, especially at full heat. The excessive heat from the dryer wears down on the fabric used in the bra, ultimately fraying the elastic and causing it to give out before its time. Wash it in a gentle cycle – or soak/wash it by hand – and hang it out to dry in your bathroom. Use milder detergents – never bleach – and be careful with how you store it. Avoid spaces and places where the fabric could snag on something sharp.

All in all, if you pay special attention to the details I’ve shared here, you – and your breasts – should be extra comfy, ultra cozy, and ready for war…let alone training.

See? I told ya I had your back and your front! In a totally platonic way, of course!

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What kind of sports bra do YOU need?

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Dawn February 28, 2015 - 5:11 PM

Great information because you have to protect the girls. Finding the right sports bra is important because I’ve had bras that rub and leave burns really bad so you have to be careful in finding the right one.

Naa-Dei February 28, 2015 - 8:04 PM

Thank you for this post. I am a 32JJ (UK Sizing) in most bras. My usual go to for sports bras are the following:
Panache Wired Sports Bra
Shock Absorber Active Multi Sports Support Bra
Shock Absorber Ultimate Run Sports Bra
Freya Active Sports Bra
Freya Active Underwired Sports Bra
Elomi Energise Sports Bra

These bras range and can fit many different breast sizes. You can get them from a few websites like: http://www.brastop.com, http://www.figleaves.com, http://www.bravissimo.com

Michelle March 1, 2015 - 7:41 PM

Thank you for sharing. I am a 38G and it is really hard to find sports bras in my size. I just purchased one from Lane Bryant and it’s pretty comfortable. But I will have to check out other sites as well. Thank you.

Milaxx March 1, 2015 - 1:18 AM

Another thing I came across is the swim suit bra. I take water aerobics 4 days a week, My current swim suit has a good built in bra but because I’m loosing pretty steady I’ve been looking for compression features in my workout wear. I’ve ordered a unitard swimsuit but because I’m unsure of the bra support I ordered the swim bra.

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