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Sports Bras and Briefs: Choosing Good Athletic Support

Bryant Stamford, PhD


Sports underwear for both men and women has gained more visibility of late, both figuratively and literally. Not only has technology produced bras and briefs that gain attention for their improved support, sports underwear now often serves as outerwear—or it peeks out from underneath gym shorts.

This recent prominence, though, might make choosing a bra or brief a bit more complicated as the options expand. Here are some tips on choosing the right accessory for your active body.

For Women Only

Physical activity causes the breasts to bounce. The more vigorous the activity, the greater the bounce. Skin and ligaments (elastic connective tissue) provide a fragile support structure for the breasts that can be compromised by too much bouncing and stretching, and sagging can result. Larger breasts are more vulnerable, of course, because they are heavier.

Unfortunately, the everyday bra, especially an all-elastic one, won't stop the bouncing. The answer is the much-maligned sports bra. This garment once was as welcome as an albatross around the neck—and about as attractive. Because it was tailored only for small-breasted women, it flattened the breasts and provided all the comfort of a boa constrictor.

But sports bras have come a long way. Recently, high-tech engineering has fashioned bras that are not only comfortable and functional, but stylish and fashionable as well. In fact, many sports bras can be worn as outerwear and come in a variety of colors and styles. Some have the convenience of a front tie that can be adjusted for varying degrees of support.

Try looking for the model of your choice at sporting goods stores or the intimate apparel section of department stores. Large-breasted women can often find a good bra in the maternity section.

But be wary of advertising hype, especially if you have large breasts. Many bras that claim to be sports bras offer little real support for size-C or larger breasts. Variety may be limited, too, but with some effort you should be able to find one that will satisfy. Here's what to look for:

Fit. Overwhelmingly, fit is important. The bra should fit firmly enough to control breast motion, but not so tightly as to interfere with breathing. During vigorous movements, the entire upper body should move as one unit, with limited bouncing of the breasts. Give the bra the jumping-jack test to be sure it meets these criteria.

Support. Minimal movement of the breasts within the bra is important to reduce chafing. Sports bras come in two basic types: the encapsulation type, which has molded cups and offers firm support, and the compression type, which tends to flatten the breasts against the body. Larger-breasted women will probably be more satisfied with molded cups.

For maximum support, look for minimal vertical (neck to navel) stretch in the fabric. Horizontal stretch is necessary to get the bra off and on easily and not interfere with breathing.

Fabric. Because you sweat when you exercise, you need to prevent moisture from accumulating. The bra should be a blend at of least 50% cotton and a "breathable" material such as Lycra mesh to help evaporate sweat and keep odor in check. Cotton provides more comfort than synthetic materials, reduced stretch, and greater support. The bra also should be lined under the breasts and under the arms with material like CoolMax that removes moisture from the skin by "wicking" the sweat outward.

Seams and such. Watch out for seams and hardware. Poorly placed seams can irritate the nipples. (Many women—and men—wear adhesive bandages over their nipples when doing long-distance bicycling or running.) Cups should be seamless or at least have covered seams. Hardware like hooks or fasteners must be covered with fabric and should be cushioned for maximum protection.

Straps. Bra straps are a terrible nuisance when they slip. Choose wide, nonstretch straps for best results. In addition, a wide "Y-back" panel can help increase support. Some sports bras offer a two-hook back for an adjustable fit.

Mobility. Many sports bras are shaped like halter tops. Be certain the armholes allow ample room for the unrestricted arm movements necessary during exercise and for freedom from chafing.

For Men Only

Although legend has it that athletes in ancient times competed nude, today's exercisers opt for the comfort and security of supportive clothing. At one time, coverage of the groin was the exclusive province of the jockstrap, or athletic supporter. Nowadays, however, only 2% of Olympic athletes in noncontact sports still use the jockstrap. It still has a role in sports underwear, but more comfortable alternatives are coming to the fore.

Sports underwear provides support and some protection by keeping the genitals close to the body. Good athletic underwear also can keep sweat from building up and minimize chafing. Different styles offer different options:

The jockstrap may be a dinosaur for most noncontact activities, but what about guys who compete in contact sports like football, boxing, and ice hockey? Isn't direct impact potentially devastating? Yes, but the jockstrap alone does little to protect the genitals from impact. Rather, it serves as a holder for a plastic cup that does protect the penis and testicles. This use as a cup holder in contact sports is the main reason the jockstrap is still around.

Everyday cotton briefs provide fine support and comfort until they get wet from sweat. Cotton holds water, and the briefs become soggy. A blend of 50% cotton and 50% synthetic works better.

Compression shorts have replaced the jockstrap in many sports and activities. Made of nylon and spandex, compression shorts come in a variety of fits and models and are usually worn under baggy gym shorts. They stretch as you move and breathe better than plain cotton briefs.

Runner's shorts have two layers sewn into one garment. They can help you stay cool in warm weather, but the flimsy material offers little protection from the cold. This is an important consideration because frostbite of the penis is fairly common but can be avoided by wearing extra layers over the groin.

Racing-style swimsuits resemble a high-tech jockstrap. Adjustable with a drawstring, they offer the gripping support of a jockstrap, but without the rubbing and chafing. They are popular among athletes like volleyball players who leap and dive repeatedly during competition.

Underwear Awareness

Whether you wear your sports underwear discreetly or on display, you'll benefit from taking the time to make a wise selection. After all, the phrase "Feel the burn" isn't supposed to refer to chafing and binding!

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. Before starting an exercise program, consult a physician.

Dr Stamford is director of the Health Promotion and Wellness Center and professor of exercise physiology in the School of Education at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. He is also an editorial board member of The Physician and Sportsmedicine.