Your chest should be the last thing on your mind when you're supposed to be kicking your workout's butt. But if you're wearing a sports bra that pinches, pokes, squeezes, or lacks the support your girls need, you'll be focusing more on your boobs than your burpees. Plus, for well-endowed women in particular, a poorly fitting sports bra can cause neck and back pain that lingers long after a workout. “Things that pinch, poke, jiggle and squeeze in all the wrong places can be a real workout killer when you're trying to stay motivated about getting and staying in shape,” says LaJean Lawson, PhD, an exercise science professor at Oregon State University who has studied breast motion for over 25 years. “A poorly fitting sports bra can also create unnecessary and painful chafing and rob you of the high-level support you need to kick it hard in the gym or on the field.” If your go-to bra has any of the following characteristics, it's time to go shopping for a new one.
The chest band is too loose
The chest band should lay flat and fit snugly at the base of your breasts, and should be tighter than your everyday bra. “A sports bra needs to be snugger in that area than a normal bra and should stay in place even when you move your shoulders up and down,” says Lawson. At the same time, your sports bra shouldn’t feel as if it’s suffocating you like a corset.
The straps are too short or thin
Properly fitting straps decrease pressure on neck and shoulders and prevent uncomfortable chafing. Be sure they're wide enough; the bigger your chest, the wider the straps should be, Lawson says. Thicker straps support the weight of larger breasts and evenly distribute that weight across the wearer’s shoulders. Even if you aren’t well endowed, Lawson says thick straps are a great feature. “Wide or crossed-strap styles can’t fall off, even if you have sloping shoulders,” she says.
You should also watch out bras that constantly ride up in the front or back, which could be a sign the straps are too short and can put extra strain on your neck muscles. If your halter measure (the distance from your nipple, around your neck, to the other nipple) is shorter or longer than average, a bra with adjustable straps may be your best bet.
The cups don’t hold you in place
Sports bras typically have one of two cup styles: compression or encapsulation, says Lawson. The type you should buy depends on your breast size. “The larger your size, the harder it is to wear a compression bra,” says Lawson. “It ends up smashing your boobs together and causing uni-boob because of the flat, elastic style.” If your cup size is between A and C, Lawson says a compression bra can work for you because the elasticity and of the bra is enough to hold the girls in place and provide support for low- and medium-impact activities.
If your breasts are larger than a C cup, Lawson recommends an encapsulation-style sports bra, which features two separate molded or sewn-in cups. “This is what I like to call the divide-and-conquer bra,” explains Lawson. Encapsulation-style cups provide the under-the-boob support larger breasts need while also preventing any movement toward the center of the bra, which can lead to that uncomfortable squished-in feeling. (As a general rule, Lawson says to minimize cleavage as much as possible.) Another plus for big-breasted ladies: bras with two separate cups often have higher necklines to prevent spillage during high-intensity jumping and running workouts. “Breasts fly up more than they sag down when in motion, so adequate coverage in front is important,” says Lawson. Even if you have an A or B cup, an encapsulation bra could be the one for you if you prefer long runs, CrossFit, or other high-intensity workouts.
It's stretched out
Stretchy, pull-over-the-head sports bras tend to be the most common and affordable options in the market, but this style might not give your chest the lift it needs—especially if you've had it for a while. “This style stretches out as it goes over your head and shoulders so it might not retain the shape you need for breast compression and support,” says Lawson. She recommends anyone with larger than a C cup to opt for a sports bra with hook closures. These designs are easier to remove when sweaty (no wrestling a sticky bra over your head!) and relieve tension on your back thanks to the adjustable hooks that ensure your bra will stay snug and in place throughout your workout. Lucky for you, many modern hook-closure bras have trendy zipper details to conceal the hook element and add an extra sporty edge to your workout ensemble.
It soaks up sweat like a sponge
A breathable, sweat-wicking fabric can make a world of difference when it comes to picking a sports bra. “You’re going to be sweaty no matter what, but it’s what the bra does with that sweat that matters,” says Lawson. If your bra isn’t advertised as having a wicking fabric, you should probably steer clear. Lawson says you can look for mesh inserts on your bra, which are not only trendy but also provide another way for heat and moisture to escape while you’re going hard in spin class. She says to especially keep an eye out for mesh details on the back center of the bra.
In the end, finding what does and doesn’t work for you sports bra-wise comes down to trial and error. Lawson says you should get measured to be sure of your true size and try on a range of styles and sizes, since all brands vary. Shop the best sports bras of 2017, and when you’ve found the one for you, buy it in every color and wear it proudly—your boobs will thank you.