Best Sports Bras
We fell for a bra from Shefit, and passed on an Adidas dud
As a little kid, I loved movement. I was famous (or infamous, depending on my parents’ mood at the time) for my boundless energy and propensity for running, never walking, wherever I went. I was an expert diver and loved to swim. I was a skilled climber at my summer camp climbing gym, scaling the walls as if I’d been born to it; no tree was safe from my discerning eye assessing its suitability for ascent.
And then puberty hit. Suddenly, exercise wasn’t so fun anymore.
It was only once I hit my late twenties that I rediscovered my love for exercise. Part of it was finding movement I enjoyed doing—long, very fast walks around New York City with my dog, yoga that ranged from gentle and meditative to powerful and sweat-inducing—but another was the acknowledgment that most of my life, I’d been wearing the wrong bras. Since I was 13 years old, my breasts had not been properly supported by my clothes. Movement was at best humiliating as I imagined, often correctly, men staring lewdly at my moving bust. At worst, I suffered physical discomfort and reduced athletic performance.
So we hit the mat, hopped on our spin bikes, and heaved some heavy weights to find the all-around best bras. We found some newer companies on the scene whose sports bras offered excellent support, while some “medium impact” options from classic brands were barely more than bralettes. To see how we evaluated them, jump down to the section The Process: How We Evaluated These Bras.
The Results: Which Sports Bra Is Right for You?
Our three evaluators range in bra sizes (30DD, 32A, and 36D) and exercise preferences (power yoga, Pilates, spin, and weightlifting), so we were able to assess these bras from a diversity of perspectives and needs. Still, we agreed on a few favorites, as well as a few we would not want to work out in at all.
Editor’s Choice: Shefit Flex Sports Bra
A Full-Coverage Bra With Comfortable Support: Outdoor Voices Circuit Bra
Where to Buy: Outdoor Voices
Size Range: S to XL band, B to DD cups
Quick Take: This supportive, full-coverage bra separates breasts for a more natural look beneath clothes, but people with smaller breasts may find it visually overwhelming.
The Designer Bra That’s Worth It: Lululemon All Powered Up Bra
The Best Bra for Lighter Impact Workouts: Girlfriend Collective Tommy Cropped Bra
Where to Buy: Girlfriend Collective
Size Range: XXS to 6XL
Quick Take: This super-cute compression bra works well for light-impact workouts like yoga and Pilates, but won’t offer enough support for more demanding workouts.
The Classic Sports Bra: Nike Dri-Fit Swoosh Medium-Support Non-Padded Sports Bra
Where to Buy: Nike, Kohl’s
Size Range: XS to 2XL
Quick take: A comfortable, cute classic style sports bra that offers a surprising amount of support for a wide variety of activities and breast sizes.
The Super Basic Sports Bra: Champion The Everyday Sport Bra
The Lint-Catcher Bra: Under Armour Infinity Mid Sports Bra
The Retro Sports Bra: Adidas Don't Rest Alphaskin Bra
The Lingerie-Look Sports Bra: Panache Medium-Control Wire-Free Sports Bra
The Sexiest Sports Bra: Athleta Solace Bra
The Just-for-Lounging Bra: Calvin Klein Performance Reversible Medium Impact Sports Bra
The Bra That's Better As a Concept: Adidas Powerimpact Luxe Training Medium-Support Bra
The Process: How We Evaluated These Bras
Fit was the most critical factor we considered when evaluating these sports bras. My team of evaluators includes me (I typically wear a 30DD); another evaluator, who usually wears a 32A; and a third evaluator, whose normal bra size is 36D.
We gave higher scores to bras that:
- Fit snugly around the band. A well-fitting sports bra band will fit a bit more closely around the ribs than a typical T-shirt bra, but it shouldn’t constrict breathing. It should not ride up when you lift your arms. You should be able to fit two fingers beneath the band.
- Fit snugly on the shoulders. You should be able to fit two fingers beneath your shoulders and the band. They shouldn’t dig into the shoulders, nor should they slip off.
- Fully cover each breast, with no pinching or spillage—which indicates that the cups are too small. There should be no wrinkling or gaps in the cup; if there is, the cups are too big.
We also considered the following factors.
Support: Though a medium-impact bra doesn’t need to completely freeze all breast movement (that’s what high-impact bras are for), bouncing should be kept to a minimum, and breasts should remain comfortably in place.
Construction and design details: Adjustable bras and those with special features and unique details were given a boost in our evaluation, as long as these actually enhanced a bra’s already satisfactory performance. The Shefit bra, for example, is teeming with features, most of which we utilized and appreciated. The Panache bra, on the other hand, had thoughtful features that nevertheless didn’t make up for our lack of enthusiasm over its comfort and . . .
Appearance: Exercise is often a social activity, and many of us want to look cute while doing it. While it’s more important that a bra fit well than look good, it’s nice when a sports bra does both.
Why You Need a Good Sports Bra
For years, I’ve mostly been wearing very simple black bralettes from Gap. Because of my “odd” bra size—petite but curvy, with frequent weight fluctuations—I declined to engage in the process of finding a good bra of any sort. It was exhausting. It made me feel bad. I wore Gap bralettes because I could buy two different sizes and both would fit me fine, and because I didn’t have to spend much time thinking about it.
But I wasn’t well supported. Not while exercising, not while cleaning my house, not while speed-walking my dog around the park. This doesn’t feel good, and it’s not especially healthy. “Be cautious about breast movement, because it causes stretch on the supporting structures of the breast,” says Joanna Wakefield-Scurr, a professor of biomechanics at England’s University of Portsmouth, whose research focuses on bra science and breast health. The breast only has two supporting structures, both of them weak, she says: the Cooper’s ligaments, fibrous tissue found throughout the breast that connect it to the chest wall; and skin. Skin is the main supporting structure, she says, and while it can withstand some stretch, it does get permanently stretched eventually. “Stretch on breast skin can cause stretch marks, which is permanent scar tissue on the breast,” Wakefield-Scurr says. “This can be related to pain, but not always.”
The right bra can slow down the stretching of the breast tissue, and has other benefits, as well. “Having the right bra has a positive benefit on things like chronic pain, so shoulder pain, back pain, neck pain, posture, et cetera,” Wakefield-Scurr says. Pain caused by breast movement and lack of support can happen among a variety of breast sizes but is more common among D cups and larger.
Why Is It So Hard to Find a Good Sports Bra?
Finding the right sports bra is challenging, not merely because the human body is a complex form, with many different band sizes, breast sizes, breast shapes, and needs. Finding the right sports bra is hard because many American sportswear companies, which make a significant amount of the sports bras available in the U.S., don’t put in the difficult work of making sports bras that will fit and support a wide range of people.
“In the U.K., probably the majority of sports bras are cup- and band-sized, so, the same as an everyday bra,” says Wakefield-Scurr. This means they can accommodate a lot more bra sizes, from someone with a tiny band and a big bust, to someone with a wide band and small breasts, and everyone in between. These bras are designed and manufactured mostly by lingerie brands, which have a deeper knowledge of breast support, considering that’s their entire focus. But in the U.S., sports bra design is driven by sports apparel brands, says Wakefield-Scurr. “Their sizing is more small, medium, large, which makes it really challenging to find something that can accommodate for the variation in band and cup size.”
“Intimate apparel, and bras in particular, have the highest production costs,” says Jaclyn Fredenburg, an adjunct instructor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who specializes in undergarments. “So from a cost perspective, it’s much easier for brands to do small, medium, large. They’re going to make a lot more money.”
This doesn’t make it impossible to find a well-fitting sports bra, but it does make it harder: It’ll take a bit more trial and error to find the best fit for your body.
Types of Sports Bras
There are three primary types of sports bras: encapsulation, compression, and combination.
Encapsulation sports bras work similarly to traditional bras: they use underwire, seamed cups, or molded cups to support the bust by lifting and separating the breasts. “Larger-cup-sized shoppers tend to prefer rib and cup sizes with encapsulated cups, to provide adjustment, to enhance their shape (to lift breast tissue) and prevent breast pain while working out, especially for high-impact sports,” says Susan Sokolowski, a professor of product design at the University of Oregon who specializes in sports product design.
Compression sports bras support the breasts by compressing them against the body. They’re what you might think of when you think of sports bras: “The most popular bra style sold worldwide by almost every sports brand is a compression bra with a racer-back strap construction,” Sokolowski says. It’s stretchy and usually pullover-style, with no adjustment features. “Women like this construction because it is economical, comfortable, and aesthetically versatile. This type of bra is usually low- to medium-support.” You probably won’t want a compression bra to run a marathon, especially if you’re a C cup or higher.
Combination sports bras both lift and separate the breasts, as well as compress them against the body, to create support. These are a great option for a wide range of workouts and body types.
How to Choose the Right Sports Bra for You
Don’t focus on size. This is hard in the era of online shopping because you can’t wriggle into 20 not-yet-purchased bras in a dingy, fluorescently lit fitting room to find one that fits. So if you can swing it, order a couple of sizes and make sure the company you’re ordering from accepts returns for refund and, ideally, pays for return shipping.
Do focus on the fit of the bra’s band, which provides the foundation of a bra’s support. “The most common fitting mistake is that women wear an underband that’s too loose,” Wakefield-Scurr says. The band should fit firmly and snugly around the ribcage, but it shouldn’t leave painful red marks or constrict breathing, either. When you pull at the band, it shouldn’t stretch more than 2 inches away from the body; you can also test the band by the comfort with which you can fit two fingers beneath it. If you can’t fit two fingers beneath the band, it’s too tight. Any more than that, it’s too loose. Nor should a bra ride up in the back, or slide around when you raise your arms, both of which, again, indicate that you need a tighter band. When you purchase a bra, ideally, you should be able to use the loosest hook, as bras stretch out with time, and once that happens, you’ll need to move to the tighter hooks.
Also consider the following.
Shoulder straps are critical, too, especially if you’re doing a workout that includes a lot of arm movement, according to Wakefield-Scurr. Tank-style straps can slip off the shoulders more easily than a racer-back or cross-back style, so they might not be as appropriate for any workouts with a lot of upper body motion. Bra backs that come up higher on the spine offer more support than straps that sit lower on the back. And wider straps, whatever their style, will distribute weight more evenly and thus will offer more support than skimpy straps.
Adjustment features themselves don’t offer support—you can theoretically find a perfect compression-style bra with zero adjustment features—but they do make it more likely that you’ll find a bra that fits you well. Especially if you struggle to find a sports bra that fits you straight off the rack, look for bras with wide, adjustable bands; adjustable straps; convertible straps; and removable cups, to suit your workout style and body type.
Cups should fit smoothly over the breasts. Pinching, bulging, and spillage indicate that the bra is too small in the bust; if you’re trying on a bra with cup sizes, go up a cup size while keeping the same band size. If the cup gaps or wrinkles, it’s too big, and you should try a smaller cup size. Bras sold in straightforward small, medium, and large sizes may be more difficult to accommodate your body if the band fits but the cup doesn’t (or vice versa). And as much as it’s fun and sexy to have low cut sports bras with lots of cleavage, more coverage means more support.
Construction: Loose or crooked seams indicate that a bra is poorly made, so it might not offer long-lasting support. “One of the things I like to do is stretch the cups and the shoulder straps with my hands,” Sokolowski says. “If they are too stretchy, the bra is unlikely to be supportive.” Fine for lounging, but maybe not for spin.
Your workout: When you’re trying on a bra, perform an abbreviated version of your workout. Do a downward dog or a plank, to ensure that your breasts don’t spill from the cups. Do a burpee or a jumping jack, to check that your bust isn’t bouncing uncomfortably, and that the straps stay on your shoulders as you move your upper body.
Washing Your Sports Bra
If you’re getting sweaty in your sports bra, you might want to wash it after each and every wear. When you sweat, your salty perspiration mingles with the bacteria on your skin and transfers to your clothes, and if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, the bacteria chilling on your bra can cause breakouts. It also might make your bra smell bad.
“The types of fabrics used in sports clothing often now are synthetic. Synthetics tend to be a nice ripe home for bacteria to grow,” says James Dickerson, chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports. As for how big of a deal that is? Well, that depends on how clean you are, he says. If you’re just out of the shower and immediately head to yoga in a fresh bra, you can probably wear it a time or two after that.
“But if you had a long day at work, and you didn’t shower, and then you go outside and run for an hour and get sweaty and funky and hang it up to dry, and then tomorrow you didn’t shower and then you wear the bra, probably by the third day it’s going to be very funky,” he says. You could induce irritation or a rash, but mostly, it’s just going to smell bad, Dickerson says.
Not washing it after each wear probably won’t negatively affect the life of the bra itself, though, according to Richard Handel, a Consumer Reports tester. “If it was cotton, the bacteria could affect the natural fibers. Sportswear is made from synthetic fibers, so I wouldn’t think it would be an issue,” he says. However, “depending on your exertion, sportswear can get pretty ripe.”
Most folks don’t need to hand-wash their sports bras, though. “Some of the newer washer machines have active-wear or sportswear cycle settings intended for functional clothing like sports bras,” Handel says. “Absent that, you can use the permanent press cycle, which usually covers synthetic fabrics,” and consider a mesh or lingerie bag, to keep the bra from getting snagged inside the machine, says Li Wang, a Consumer Reports tester.
Hang-dry the bra to prolong its life, because a dryer’s high heat can degrade the elasticity of the fibers, Handel says, or put it in the dryer on the air fluff setting.
This product evaluation is part of Consumer Reports’ Outside the Labs reviews program, which is separate from our laboratory testing and ratings. Our Outside the Labs reviews are performed at home and in other native settings by individuals, including our journalists, with specialized subject matter experience or familiarity and are designed to offer another important perspective for consumers as they shop. While the products or services mentioned in this article might not currently be in CR’s ratings, they could eventually be tested in our laboratories and rated according to an objective, scientific protocol.
Like all CR evaluations of products and services, our Outside the Labs reviews are independent and free from advertising. If you’d like to learn more about the criteria for our lab testing, please go to the CR’s Research & Testing page.