I see this question a lot. The answer is you certainly can. But hopefully you shouldn’t have to. Chances are if you feel the need to double up and wear a normal bra under a sports bra, then your sports but is not doing its job. Nobody can blame you for wanting to add in extra protection. Unsupported breast movement can cause pain during activity as well as afterwards, and really strains your Cooper’s ligaments, the ligaments that help to support the breasts. Thankfully though, there are many options that exist for those of us who need a high level of support.
I came of age during a time when sports bras like the one pictured above (compression bra) were pretty much my only option. Back then, I used to play rugby and was involved in track and field. To get any level of support, I felt that I had to wear two bras.
Fortunately though, times have changed and manufacturers have realized that women are happy to pay for sports bras that will effectively keep breasts in place during a range of athletic activities.
The benefits of wearing a supportive sports bra go beyond just the health of your breasts. Studies show that embarrassment due to breast movement during exercise and lack of support is one of the top five reasons women give for not participating in exercise.
Reducing breast movement
Go for a jog and it’s pretty plain to see that your boobs move up and down. But did you know that they also move from side to side as well as in and out?
Depending on the type of sport or activity you’re doing, your breasts will also move in different ways. Most of the motion from running, as we know, is up-and-down. For activities that involve a bigger range of movements, like tennis, your breasts will need support on the sides as well as protection from up-down movement.
The right bra, especially in larger cup sizes will not eliminate all movement. The goal here is to minimize the overall movement. When it comes to the business of reducing bounce in sports bras, there are two main options: the encapsulation bra and the compression bra.
How does a compression bra work?
This is the type of sports bra that most of us are familiar with. Back in my rugby playing days, I was wearing one of these bras with a regular underwire bra to try and get as much support as possible.
Compression sports bras work just the way their name denotes, by limiting the movement of your breasts by compressing them against your trunk or against your chest.
Are compression bras effective?
To a certain extent, yes. Remember that breasts move in all directions during exercise. Compression bras, by flattening your breasts, mostly work by reducing the in and out motion of your boobs while you exercise. There is not much support going on in terms of reducing side movement and up and down movement.
Compression bras are great for low impact activities, and women with smaller breasts can get a lot of mileage out of them. If you intend to run or do similar types of vigorous activity, this type bra will not provide enough support.
How does an encapsulation bra work?
Think of an encapsulation bra as a ‘regular’ bra made of sturdier, reinforced material. An encapsulation sports bra is a sports bra that usually has underwire and encapsulates each breast separately. Because each breast is surrounded by underwire and a supportive cup, breast movement will be limited from all directions much more effectively than with a compression bra.
For women who need a lot of support for very vigorous activity, the combination bra is for you. This is basically the effect most women are after when they start wearing a bra under a sports bra.
Combining the snugness of a compression bra with the encapsulation provided by underwire, these bras offer unprecedented levels of support.
So which bra is best?
It really depends on your level of activity. While women who wear smaller cup sizes can get away with compression bras, the better option for everyone is the encapsulation bra, due to its increased level of all-around support. For women with bigger breasts, bra-sized encapsulation bras are the only way to go.
For the ultimate level of support, look for a bra that has combination of compression features as well encapsulation.
My personal preference is the combination bra, since as an F/G cup, I need all the support I can get. If you’re not sure where to start, here’s a review of my three favorite sports bras by Freya. Because sports bras can be on the expensive side, I’ve also dug up three less expensive sports bras that I think are good value for money. Check them out!
What should I be looking for in a sports bra?
Whichever type of bra you choose, here are some handy tips to make sure it fits right.
Find a sports bra made by a company that produces bras for big breasts.
I know, I know, Nike bras come in some awesome colors and styles and it would be nice to have a matching workout outfit. So far though, I have yet to find a bra from any of the major sports brands that comes in my size and provides good encapsulation and support. This might change in the future, but for now I rely on Freya, Panache and Enell.
Make sure it fits snugly.
A good sports bra will feel slightly more snug than your every day bras, but should not fit so tightly that your movement is restricted and you find it hard to breathe.
Find a bra with wide comfortable straps.
Look for padded straps that are wide and made of soft material. This is going to help keep shoulder digging to a minimum, and allow you to feel comfortable in the bra for much longer. The straps should neither be too loose, nor too tight.
Find a bra that contains your entire breast.
The cup of the bra should be big enough so that your entire breast is encased in the cup. There shouldn’t be any flesh coming out of the top of the cup, or on the sides, near your arm.
Conversely, there shouldn’t be any fabric wrinkles in the cup either. If your breast doesn’t fill out the cup, the bra won’t be able to fully support it.
Check the underwire (if it has one).
The underwire needs to fit your breast shape. Some people have narrow-rooted, or narrowly-spaced breasts, while others have the opposite issue. Make sure that the no part of the underwire cuts off your breast, and that your breast sits comfortably within the underwire.
Find a bra that has a back closure.
Avoid bras that you can pull over your head. Also, if you can, avoid bras that fasten in the front. Over time, a bra will eventually lose its elasticity, and when this starts to happen, a back closure with a range of hooks will allow you to fit the bra more snugly and continue to provide adequate support.
That said, there are exceptions to the rule. Bras like the Enell sports bra use really rigid, minimal-stretch material. If the bra is properly fitted, you will get a lot of mileage out of one set of front hooks.
Make sure your bra has a good band.
The band of the bra should ideally be made of strong material with a little bit of stretch in it. When you try the bra on, it should stay in place, and the band should be snug enough that it does not ride up your back.
An easy way to check this when you’re trying on the bra is by raising your hands above your head. A band should fit snugly on the loosest hook when you buy it (to allow for stretching as it ages), and should not ride up your ribcage.
Consider the fabric.
Sports are a sweaty business. Look for a bra that has breathable material that actually wicks moisture away from the body.
Test it out!
I have made it a habit to jump up and down in the change room to check the level of support of most of the bras I buy. You should definitely do this with a sports bra as well. Remember, if you intend to use the bra for more than just running, it’s definitely worth practicing those movements as well.
Back to the original question: do you wear a bra under a sports bra?
Nowadays, there are so many supportive options out there that I would say no, you don’t need to anymore. For the vast majority of active women including myself, this is probably true. There will be some women who still don’t feel comfortable physically with the amount of bounce that happens even in the best of sports bras.
For some women, the level of support they want might only be achieved by combining two bras. I would only say that this should be an option of last resort, if nothing else is working for you.