The Science of a Sports Bra: Why This Piece of Kit Is Key to Your Best Possible Workout (2024)

Women’s Health has partnered with leading sports brand Under Armour to launch the #itstartswithabra campaign in a bid to boost physical activity and confidence levels amongst women who are less likely to exercise, partly through the donation of 2,000 sports bras to groups working to help reduce health and fitness inequalities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Here, learn the science behind why a properly supportive and expert tested sports bra is so vital to any woman who likes to sweat.

There was a time (before 1977, to be precise) when sports bras as you know them didn’t exist at all. That was before Lisa Lindahl, then a student at the University of Vermont, came up with the idea of sewing two jockstraps together to make a sport- specific bra after taking up jogging.

A high-tech solution? Not so much. But she was on to something – these days, the market for sports bras stands at an estimated £10billion globally.

Why is it important to wear sports bras?

There’s no denying the importance of making sure your assets are cared for while you exercise – that part of your body needs a heavy dose of TLC. A 2018 study from Portsmouth University found that breasts can move up to 14cm during exercise if left unsupported.

There are no muscles within the breasts – they’re essentially a collection of fat and tissue held to the body by ligaments and skin – and the issue is that neither of these is especially strong.

The connective tissue that holds the breast to the chest is comprised of Cooper’s ligaments, which naturally extend with age and over time – but exercise without supporting them properly and they could stretch up to 2cm during high-intensity workouts. Contrary to how your breasts may appear to move up and down as you run, burpee or push press, they actually swing in a figure of eight.

What happens if you don't wear a sports bra?

'When you exercise and play sport, the force going through your breast is increased and so your breasts move more vigorously,' explains Joanna Wakefield-Scurr, Professor in Biomechanics and Head of the Research Group in Breast Health at Portsmouth University, who has worked with Under Armour on the development of their most innovative women's products for the past few years.

'As such, you have the potential for negative consequences, such as pain, as well as stretching the skin of the breast [which can cause sagging] if the breasts are not supported enough.'

What makes a good sports bra?

A good sports bra aims to deliver on two counts: comfort and performance. Movement aside, breast tissue sits on top of the pectoral muscles, so it stands to reason that any clothing that supports that area will have an impact on the activity of these muscles.

And it’s true – another Portsmouth University study conducted on female runners found that wearing a proper sports bra (so, not a tight crop top which doesn't actually support each breast) can reduce the activity of your pectoral muscles by 55% during exercise.

'Wearing a proper sports bra can reduce the activity of your pectoral muscles by 55%'

So? Well, this translates to less muscular fatigue and, as a result, more fuel in your pecs’ tank to go harder for longer in any movement that engages those muscles, from jogging and Pilates to CrossFit-style training.

So how do you design a solid sports bra?

If crafting a supportive sports bra with high performance is crucial, how then do you go about creating one that's up to standard?

'Research and development are really important for understanding if the bra itself provides enough support to prevent pain and skin stretching,' says Professor Scurr.

'Research and development is really important'

Because this is such a novel area of research – scientific work in this sphere began in the eighties but only got going in earnest post the year 2,000 – investment in gathering more and more data is key.

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Hot on this is Under Armour. 'Companies like Under Armour invest considerable sums in research and product development. As a scientific research group, we're interested in everything from the fundamental principles of how the breast moves, through to cup volume in bras – a real range of data is needed.

'Under Armour is investing in the fundamental research through to final product validation. It's so important to build that evidence base as it's not really out there, at the moment.'

In doing this, sports bras can be created that work to provide the support necessary to prevent pain and skin stretching, no matter if a woman is playing tennis, jogging or hitting a sweaty strength training session.

So, what does sports bra development look like?

Take the UA Infinity Bra. Launched in 2020, Professor Scurr and Under Armour pressure tested it at the University of Portsmouth to create a seamless fit which works with women's bodies in a novel way. Typically, a sports bra would be crafted by cutting two breast-shaped cups from a piece of flat padding, before laying on foam.

Here, Under Armour's design team instead liquid-injected the foam. The upshot? A more natural shape that moves with your breasts, plus a lighter feel.

These flexible cups offset the impact of exercise, from HIIT to yoga, and mould to your body, even as the size of your breasts changes, as you go through your cycle. As such, it means you get the right level of support, all without sacrificing comfort and breathability: you can go as hard as you want, without concern about pain or the distraction of your breasts moving around.

It's clear that taking the time to craft sports bras that can truly deliver on supporting women is at the core of making sweating a fully enjoyable activity – and that is precisely what is going on here.

The takeaway? Take time to consider your next sports bra purchase. Check out the specs, ensure it has been properly tested and do not be tempted for support-free tight crop tops.

Only the breast for you, hey?

The Science of a Sports Bra: Why This Piece of Kit Is Key to Your Best Possible Workout (2024)
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