How to tell if you're wearing the wrong sports bra

Banu Ibrahim
November 6, 2017

Story highlights

  • If you wear the same sports bra for all of your workouts, whether it be hiking, HIIT classes or yoga, you're likely not doing your breasts any favors.

If you've been wearing the same bra for all of your workouts, whether it be hiking, HIIT classes or restorative yoga, you're likely not doing your breasts any favors. That's because for every workout there's a type of bra best suited for your body to ensure full support. This is crucial as the wrong bra could strain the ligaments in the breast, resulting in soreness and a loss of elasticity.

And while there are plenty of design iterations of the activewear available, most women tend to only opt for a compression bra, or the basic sports bra that lacks supportive cups or padding. This isn't a real surprise when you note that compression bras have become synonymous with the rising athleisure trend. Their designs can feature intricate meshwork, cut outs and geometric details—like this strappy pick from Reebok ($50; reebok.com).

However, just because these statement bras are comfortable and fashion-forward doesn't mean they're functional for high-intensity activity. In fact, compression bras don't help limit overall breast movement.

A study by sports scientist Joanna Wakefield-Scurr and fellow researchers at the University of Portsmouth in England showed that breasts actually move in three directions: up and down, side to side, and in and out. Scurr's results also showed that compressions bras can't hold up to more rigorous training, regardless of your cup size.

A typical sports bralette can keep you covered on the first of those three movements, but not the latter two. Their design is optimal for low-impact activities like Pilates and yoga, but will end up being a real pain if you try and sport them on the track.

If you're now beginning to realize you've been wearing the wrong sports bra, remember you're not alone. To help make your new bra shopping search easier and best suited to your active lifestyle, we've paired up popular exercises and the type of bra that's sure to be a perfect fit.

Low-impact exercise: yoga, Pilates, walking, strength training

Bandier's Stella Top

Like we mentioned before, for low-impact exercise, compression bras are an easy-win. Compression bras are typically the ones you pull over your head and flatten breasts against your chest. And because these only hold the breast tissue back, they're ideal for lower-impact workouts like yoga or walking, which only requires limiting up and down movement.

For the feeling of more coverage during these activities, opt for a high-neck option like Avia's Seamless Sports Bra ($9.96; walmart.com). But if you're seeking a statement piece, we're also a fan of Bandier's reversible Stella Top ($29.97, originally $70; bandier.com) which features a plunge neckline and geometric open-back design.

Regardless of the style, you'll want to opt for bras made of water and sweat-resistant fabrics. For example, Zella Body's budget-friendly Flex Sports Bra ($39; nordstrom.com) features moisture-wicking material, which transfers perspiration from your body to the bra so it can evaporate more easily. This helps makes sure that your bras are comfortable and breathable when you're breaking a sweat.

Medium-impact exercise: spinning, road cycling, skiing, moderate hiking

Brooks Running's Maia Sports Bra

Certain compression bras will work for medium-impact exercise, but ideally with greater movement you should be sporting an encapsulation bra with greater support. This is especially true if you have a sport a size D or above.

Encapsulation bras, or padded bras, support each breast individually to contain jiggling. According to Scurr's research, these bras have greater effectiveness for overall support than a traditional compression one, since they limit that crossover movement. It's a feature that compression bras can't handle. And in general, they're better suited for women with bigger breasts because they provide more coverage. If you have a larger bust size of DD and over, be sure to consider designs set with wide straps, which help distribute weight more evenly. Options like the Maia Sports Bra with gel-padded straps ($58; brooksrunning.com) and Bali's Active Foam Wireless Sports Bra ($19.99, originally $42; macys.com) fit the bill.

That being said, even women with a small bust should still opt for an encapsulation bra; just because you may be an A cup doesn't mean you aren't prone to damaged ligaments.

High-impact exercise: running, high-intensity interval training, mountain biking

Nike's Pro Rival Sports Bra

Last but certainly not least is high-impact bras. These designs make it possible to run, mountain bike, and train intensely with complete ease. Most of these picks are actually a combination of compression and encapsulation sports bras, as a means to offer more coverage than either of the designs alone.

For even more support, opt for a racerback, since the straps reinforce the bra closer to the body. In this design, there are adjustable versions like Nike's Pro Rival with Dri-FIT technology that wicks away sweat ($70; nike.com) or Sweaty Betty's Ultra Run Bra ($65; sweatybetty.com) which comes in up to an F cup and features a back clasp. Clasps are a great addition as they let you tighten the band (the bulk of a bra's support comes from the band). It gives you more control over the fit and coverage of your bra, so you can stay comfortable and protected while on your long-distance runs, tackling challenging terrain on a bike and burning major calories at the gym.

Note: The prices reflect the listed retailer's price on the date this article was published