Women with larger breasts can find exercise painful or embarrassing. Excessive movement from inadequate support can leave breasts sore after exercising, and over time can permanently affect supporting ligaments and skin.
Many women, especially younger women and adolescents, are self-conscious about their breasts attracting unwanted attention and remarks from others, which can turn them off exercise, often for good.
A well-fitting, supportive bra can go a long way to reducing physical and psychological discomfort
A well-fitting, supportive sports bra can go a long way to reducing physical and psychological discomfort. Reducing bounce, and for larger breasts reducing the apparent size, without feeling over-constrictive, may be the booster needed to get busty women exercising.
But with so many sports bras on the market, how do you choose a good one? We look at some of the features worth considering.
Materials and design
Sports bras are typically more rigid than other bras with stiffer, less yielding materials and higher strength elasticity, though there are some softer styles. Good sports bras cover the top of the breast tissue and sometimes higher to prevent tissue from bouncing up. The underband is also wider on sports bras than regular bras, providing a stronger base for support.
The shoulder straps tend to be wider, and may be padded or have non-slip features. Conventional bras have shoulder straps that go vertically over the shoulder from the cup to the back. Sports bras may come like this, with the option to swap the straps over to make a cross-back, or clip them together to make a racer back. A fixed racer back is another option, although more difficult to get into.
The level of support provided varies among sports bras, and they're usually tailored to different types of sport. A bra designed for running will give more support than one for cycling, which in turn gives more support than one for yoga.
Compression vs encapsulation
Compressive sports bras and crop tops provide support by squashing the breasts close to the chest wall, reducing projection and movement. Bras with cups that encapsulate each breast give support of each breast independently. Studies suggest encapsulation bras give better support, and may be more comfortable, with better separation.
Some sports bras (for example, the Freya Active Crop Top Sports Bra and Berlei Ultimate) comprise cups that encapsulate with an additional crop-top-like cover, so you get the best of both worlds. One DIY option, which many women choose, is an encapsulation sports bra with a crop top over it.
Wireless or underwire?
As long as they're well designed, wireless bras can be just as supportive as underwire bras, and may be more comfortable for some activities. Underwire bras provide better separation and shape than wireless bras, especially for larger sizes.
Fit and support
Fit is everything – if you can't get professionally fitted, there are things you can do to check the fit yourself. Jump up and down, wave your arms around, run on the spot in front of the change-room mirror – front on and side on. Check for bounce, including movement of flesh above and at the sides of the bra. Movement should at least be minimised, and breasts should move with your torso, not by themselves.
For people with shoulder pain, rotator cuff issues, limited range of arm movement and/or reduced strength, sports bras can pose a challenge. If this is you, it's important to try putting the bra on and taking it off without the help of a shop assistant when you buy it – realising you can't do it after you've taken it home may be too late (for hygiene reasons, many stores don't accept returns).
Getting a fixed racer back bra on can involve contortions beyond many people, and getting it off would have even the great Houdini struggling. So conventional (vertical) straps may be your best bet.
Also an issue is the high elasticity of sports bras used to get a good firm fit – it can be difficult to pull against the stretch to do the bra up.
Test volunteers Chris, Connie, Elise and Elizabeth.
In 2016, we had four volunteers and a CHOICE staffer, all of whom generally wear D cup or bigger, put a variety of sports bras to the test. We deliberately targeted the larger cup sizes, not only because they're increasingly common, but because they're more difficult to fit and support – so it was a tough test.
All bras except the Target bra were fitted professionally instore, and included sizes ranging from 10DD to 16F and ranging in price from $30 to $120. The bras were rated 'high' or 'maximum' intensity, and considered suitable for at least jogging.
Triallists and bras were put through their paces on treadmills in a purpose-designed setup at a Melbourne specialist sports-bra shop
The triallists and bras were put through their paces on treadmills in a purpose-designed setup at Melbourne specialist sports-bra shop, She Science. The women were videoed while jogging, with markers in place to allow breast movement to be assessed.
The assessors then used motion analysis software as well as a visual examination to determine the amount and direction of breast movement. Bras were also rated for comfort, ease of putting on and taking off, coverage and shape. Models of bras that weren't suitable for a particular woman due to poor fit weren't tested.
While the sports bras we chose are no longer the latest models available in stores, the results are a useful guide of what to look for.
Although some of the sports bras we tested performed well on more triallists than others, there's no such thing as the 'best' sports bra. It all comes down to how well it fits you.
Another complicating factor is shape: the shape of your breasts and where they sit can affect whether a particular style of bra will suit. You may find none in a particular model will fit you, no matter what size you try. And your age and weight also come into it – younger skin and a lean body are a lot more forgiving than older skin or looser flesh.
Because fit is so important, we recommend you go into a store to try the bra on – preferably a shop with a qualified fitter
Because fit is so important, we recommend you go into a store to try the bra on – preferably a shop with a qualified fitter.
If shopping online is your only realistic option, look for a good returns policy. Staff at specialist lingerie and sportswear shops can discuss your needs and your measurements over the phone, and suggest a good size to start with.
Thank you to She Science, Melbourne
CHOICE would like to thank Tish and Angela from She Science in Melbourne for their expertise and use of equipment in carrying out this test.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.