How to Choose Sports Bras

 Laydown of various styles of sports bras
Choosing the right sports bra is essential for women of any size, shape or activity level. While most women athletes wear a sports bra for support and comfort, many are likely wearing the wrong size. This can result in breast pain and even soft tissue damage. It’s important to make sure you have adequate support so you can lead an active lifestyle without unnecessary discomfort. 

Sports Bra Support

For the best performance and comfort, it’s important to match sports bra support with the type of activity you’re doing. Sports bras are designed to provide three levels of support: low, medium and high support for use in low-, medium- and high-impact sports:





moderate hiking





strength training

road cycling

mountain biking

If you participate in many different activities, it's smart to equip yourself with several different styles of sports bras—ones with more support for high-impact activities and some less constrictive ones for low-impact activities.



Sports Bra Construction

assortment of sports bras illustrating encapsulation, compression, and combination encapsulation/compression constructions
Sports bras minimize breast movement through several approaches.

Encapsulation sports bras: These bras use individual cups to surround and support each breast separately. There is no compression in these bras (most everyday bras are encapsulation bras) making them generally best for low-impact activities. Encapsulation bras provide a more natural shape than compression bras.

Compression sports bras: These bras typically pull over your head and compress the breasts against the chest wall to restrict movement. They do not have cups built into the design. Compression sports bras tend to work best for low- to medium-impact activities.

Compression/encapsulation sports bras: Many sports bras combine the above methods into a supportive and comfortable style. These bras offer more support than compression or encapsulation alone, making them generally best for high-impact activities.



Sports Bra Features

Band: The primary source of support comes from the band, which forms the foundation of a sports bra. The band should be snug around your rib cage, but not too tight. If you can fit two fingers between your body and the band (but not more) that’s the sign of a good fit. Wide bands tend to be more supportive than narrow bands.

Shoulder straps should feel secure and provide minimal stretch to reduce up-and-down movement. As with the band, you should be able to fit two fingers between your shoulders and the strap (but not more). Wide straps better disperse the weight and offer greater comfort than narrow ones. Straps should not slip off or dig into your shoulders during high-impact activities.

Adjustable straps offer the most customizable fit and are often found on encapsulation style sports bras.

Back closure: While most sports bras are pulled on over your head, some have a back closure with hooks. In addition to being easier to get on and off, this type of sports bra allows you to further adjust the fit. When fitting a new sports bra, use the furthest hook. That way, when the bra inevitably stretches out, you can use the closer hook.

Underwire: The benefit of underwire in a sports bra is that it supports each breast individually and can help to minimize movement. The underwire should lay flat against your rib cage, below the breast tissue, and should not poke or pinch.

Wicking fabrics move moisture away from your skin and keep you comfortable. The more supportive a sports bra is, the less effective it will be at wicking away moisture because of its sturdier fabric and construction.


Sports Bra Strap Type

Examples of crisscross, tank top, and racerback sports bra straps
Crisscross: These straps crisscross in back and usually provide good support. The straps are often adjustable so you can fine-tune the fit. Depending on the style, crisscross straps can hide nicely underneath a sporty tank top or make their own fashion statement. 

Tank top: This strap style is most similar to an everyday bra. The straps are often adjustable so you can fine-tune the fit. Bras with tank top straps often have a back closure, which offers additional adjustment. Some tank top bras are designed to allow the straps to be crisscrossed for versatility.

Racerback: Sports bras with a racerback have shoulder straps that come together between your shoulder blades to create a Y-shape. Racerback bras provide good support for medium- to high-impact activities, but they are typically not adjustable so it’s important to size the bra correctly. Racerback straps hide well underneath a racerback tank top.

Regardless of the strap type you choose, keep in mind that thin straps generally provide less support than wider straps, but thin straps are easier to conceal.

Find Your Sports Bra Size

Sports bra fitting is not an exact science, but this fit guide can help you find your basic size. Since each body is different in its proportions, you may need additional fine-tuning using adjustable straps and back closures, or trying out different styles and brands until you find the right one for your body.

Measuring the rib cage just below the bustStep 1: Rib cage measurement. Measure around your rib cage, just under your breasts. The tape measure should be snug but not so tight that it interferes with normal breathing. Round down to the nearest inch.

Step 2: Band size. Using the measurement guidelines below, find your corresponding band size based on your rib cage measurement.






25" - 27"


27" - 29"


29" - 31"


31" - 33"


33" - 35"


35" - 37"


37" - 39"


39" - 41"



Measuring the bust


Step 3: Bust size. Measure around the fullest part of the breast. Be sure the tape stays straight across your back. Round up to the nearest inch.

Step 4: Cup size. Subtract your rib cage measurement (step 1) from your bust measurement (step 3). The difference in inches is your suggested cup size. If you’re between sizes, round up.




















Measurement guidelines provided by Brooks. 


Perfecting Sports Bra Fit

Now that you’ve found your size, try on the sports bra and test the fit. It should fit slightly tighter than a regular bra, but you should be able to breathe deeply and comfortably. Check the following factors:

Chafing: Make sure there is no chafing around the armholes, shoulder straps or seams. If the bra has hooks or snaps, make sure those don't chafe, either.

Straps: You should be able to fit two fingers between the straps and your shoulders. It’s vital that the straps are secure and comfortable. If they’re too tight, they will dig in. If they’re too loose, they will not provide the correct amount of support and will move around or slip off your shoulders.

Band: Raise your hands over your head. If the band rides up, it may be too big. Try adjusting the straps or back closure. If that doesn’t work, try a smaller band size.

Cup: Your breasts should be centered and fully contained in the cups. Scoop them in and center them. Wrinkles or puckers in the fabric indicate the cup is too big. If breast tissue is pressed outside of the bra, that means the cup is too small, or that the style of bra is the wrong cut for your breast type.

Support: Test the bra's support by jumping or running in place. Your breasts should feel secure and supported. If there’s too much movement up and down or side to side, keep looking for a better-fitting bra.  





How helpful was this article? Click a star to rate.

35 votes so far - average rating 4.5

Contributing Experts

Marissa McCroskey
Marissa McCroskey

REI employee Marissa McCroskey works on the sales floor in Seattle, Wash. When she’s not helping customers find the right clothing and footwear for their adventures, she’s likely running or hiking with her dogs Ziggy and Zowie.