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The Best Sports Bras for Physical, Outdoor Labor (And What The Sports Bra Industry Needs to Improve)

Today's guest post is by Stella, a graduate student in forestry, who will be returning to full-time tree care following the completion of her degree later this fall.

Stock photo via iStock

Stock photo via iStock

When I started a job in late April working for a tree care company in a major metropolitan area in the Northeastern U.S., I was told what brand and color of pants to wear, which brands of boots would work well, and given a stack of shirts with the company logo, both short and long sleeve. I was given hats, safety glasses, a helmet, and all kinds of tools. But bras? No such luck. For the simple fact that I would be the only bra-wearer working in the field at the company.

I made a list of my requirements. I wanted a bra able to keep my nipples entirely concealed, even when cold or wet, meaning that it should be padded. The feel of underwire has started bothering me recently, so I wanted to avoid anything with wire (although I did want a bra able to keep my boobs securely in place while climbing trees, pruning, hauling brush, running saws, chippers, bucket trucks, and other machinery).

I decided to look for material that gets minimally hot and smelly, is durable in the washing machine, and is able to go in the dryer - even if the manufacturer recommends against it. Because I have relatively severe scoliosis, I also ruled out anything that wasn’t racerback or t-back. Bras with straight straps tend to fall off my low shoulder, no matter how I adjust them, and I didn’t want a strap suddenly falling across my bicep and limiting my movement. It was also important to me that the bra be available in professionally acceptable colors, such as black or grey, in case straps became visible over the course of the day.

Photo courtesy of author

Photo courtesy of author

Finally, I wanted a bra that would clearly show I have boobs under my uniform. While I thought that the first requirement - being padded - would probably take care of that, it’s something I still considered as a separate requirement in my search. This is because I anticipated (and encountered) surprise that I was able to complete such intense manual labor so competently with the body I inhabit. I wanted to be a visible representative of the fact that doing such work is totally possible with boobs. I didn’t want to smash them down too much.

I was glad I put this on the list: as I’ve seen over the course of doing this work, toddlers who will grow into all kinds of bodies love trucks and are fascinated by the people who are riding in them, and I was glad I was able to leave possibilities open for them. I should mention that the (very infrequent) overt surprise I encountered at my ability to do the work didn’t come from coworkers, but from clients.

When I looked at my current bra collection, I found one bra that maybe met these criteria. Searching for a bra online that met my requirements was not the easiest, but the specificity of the list I was able to make helped me to quickly rule bras in or out. Now, after three months on the job in the summer heat, I have some feedback on the four bras I was able to try for full-time, outdoor work in the summer, with temperatures ranging from 50-90 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes in a single day.

Photo courtesy of author

Photo courtesy of author

Here’s my take, in decreasing order of the frequency with which I wear the bra at work. Right after the bra arrived I would try it on, and take notes on my first impression before wearing it at work. These initial notes are reflected below.

I should mention that I’m a 34C in most brands, or a M or Medium in sports bras that size that way, so definitely in the range of most brands’ core sizing. All brands below I ordered in either 34C or M. I researched and purchased all bras online, with the exception of the Reebok bra which I already owned.

1. Champion Curvy Show-Off Bra - $30.00

champion curvy show off bra

Champion Curvy Show-Off Bra

After the first wear: my first impression of this bra was quite positive, but not as positive as my opinion ultimately came to be. It fit well, but the fabric felt somewhat plastic-y, and it seemed like it might stretch out fairly quickly.

After three months of wear: This bra is super comfortable, and regulates heat well. I wear it in all weathers, and I would wear it every day if that wouldn’t get nasty. The fabric is not an issue, and became way more comfortable after the first wash. I usually wear this bra for at least three days consecutively. As soon as I get home, I take it off and hang it up in a sunlit area to dry and air out overnight. Even when I’ve been soaked with sweat or rain during the day, it’s dry and relatively clean smelling within an hour or so of hanging it up. It doesn’t retain sawdust or stick against my skin or capture debris in the fabric, possibly because of the slick-ish consistency of the material. I wash it in warm or cold and throw it in the dryer on the weekend, and so far it’s holding up great. This is one of my top three favorite bras in my closet right now for when I’m off work, as well. I think it works under a variety of clothes. During the work week, I usually swap it out with the:

2. Danskin Medium Impact Y-Back Seamless Sport Bra - $24.00

Danskin Medium Impact Y-Back Sport Bra

Danskin Medium Impact Y-Back Sport Bra

After the first wear: the cups seemed to be too widely spaced for my body, and the outside of the strap fabric rubbed against the front of my underarm in a very uncomfortable way.

After three months of wear: the outside of the strap wasn’t a big issue. The bra is a very comfortable temperature in most weather, and sweat dries quickly. The straps in back, though, have gotten progressively more scratchy and uncomfortable. I think because the straps are too thin, and also partly because of the material. Wearing this bra actually led to a new criterion for future work-bra purchase: thicker straps are a must. The chest band underneath already seems to be loosening, making the bra less supportive. I’m not sure how long this bra will last, but at the moment it still meets all my criteria. Online reviews suggest it might not be supportive enough for larger cup sizes. I don’t think I’ll buy this bra again (the back straps are just too uncomfortable), but I’ll definitely wear this one until it wears out. It doesn’t seem to be holding up as well in the washer/dryer as the Champion bra either, so I suspect it’ll wear out pretty quickly.

3. Reebok Women’s High-Impact Molded Cup Sports Bra - $48.00

Reebok Women's High Impact Molded Cup Sports Bra

Reebok Women's High Impact Molded Cup Sports Bra

After the first wear: quite honestly I don’t remember it, because this is the bra I bought at a store a few years ago. I wear it pretty frequently when not working, but I was concerned that it would be too hot for summer work.

After three months of wear: it is, in fact, super way too hot for summer work. It might be better in the winter. We’ll see. It’s very supportive and online reviews suggest it might also be a good bet for larger cup sizes. I tend to wear it on colder days. I wouldn’t say it meets all my criteria, largely because it’s so hot and heavy-duty. It also is the only bra of these top three where twig and sawdust entrapment tends to be a big issue. I feel like when I wear this bra to work, I’m constantly having to take a minute to subtly dig sticks and schmutz out of the cups and cleavage. Recently, this bra has gotten super uncomfortable and scratchy in the cleavage area. At first I thought it was lodged sawdust, but even after washing it and wearing it for not-work it’s still been unbearably scratchy. I think it’s something to do with the fabric, and I won’t be buying this bra again.

4. Wacoal Wire-Free Racerback Sports Bra - $52.00

Wacoal Wirefree Racerback Sports Bra

Wacoal Wirefree Racerback Sports Bra

After the first wear: I thought this bra was beautiful, but I was concerned that it might show some nipple.

After three months of wear: this bra was a HUGE disappointment in the field. It was kind of nipple-y, although not as nipple-y as I was concerned about. The main issue was that it was surprisingly hot, especially given all the mesh. I didn’t even wear it in temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and it was already far too hot. As the temperature rose, it became WAY too hot and clingy, and the mesh was incredibly uncomfortable when carrying logs on my shoulder. I wore this once or twice in the field for review purposes and haven’t worn it since. I don’t intend to ever wear it for work in the future. Definitely doesn’t meet my requirements.

Photo courtesy of author

Photo courtesy of author

Here are a couple more bras that seem to meet my criteria, and that I may try in the future:

5. Title Nine Soothe Convertible Bra - $58.00

Title Nine Sooth Convertible Bra - $58.00

Title Nine Sooth Convertible Bra - $58.00

(Given the lessons I learned with the Danskin bra, I think I might find the straps on this bra to be too narrow.)

6. Under Armour High Impact Wire-Free Sports Bra - 54.99

Under Armour High Impact Wirefree Bra - $54.99

Under Armour High Impact Wirefree Bra - $54.99

In conclusion, my original requirements accurately captured my needs in the field, with the exception of strap size, which I didn’t adequately consider. Unless I can find a bra that works just as well as the Champion bra from a more ethical and smaller business or try on a bra in a store that works even better, I’ll continue to rely on the Champion bra. And I'll probably purchase one or two or three more when the Danskin bra wears out.

Stock photo via iStock

Stock photo via iStock

From a marketing, design, and shopping perspective, it’s incredibly challenging to find bras that are both designed and marketed for physical labor. In fact, all of the bras I purchased were designed for dance or exercise, not for work. As I see it, the major difference in activity between short-term exertion and physical labor is that in working out, the main concern of many people is limiting bounce, which can be uncomfortable.

In my line of work, and, I suspect, in many other forms of physical labor, bounce is not such an issue, because rarely am I moving that fast, especially along the vertical axis. Instead, I need the protection that padding can offer - not only for reasons of modesty, but also to protect a sensitive area of my body from protruding twigs on logs that I’m carrying pressed to myself or to supply some padding underneath when the bucket on the bucket truck jerks up against my chest. I see how combining this kind of highly protective padding with fabrics that are designed to stay cool and dry quickly could be a challenge, but it’s one that I’d love to see designers embrace.

It’s also important to me that the top of the cups and the top of the bra be tight against my skin, in order to limit the amount of material that’s able to fall into the cups. Similarly, the chest band, while it should be snug, shouldn’t be as snug as a bra that’s designed to limit bounce, because it needs to enable any material that does enter the bra to fall through without getting lodged (or at least enable me to momentarily pinch the chest band up off my chest to let the twig fall through). Generally, it seems like bras that are not made for physical labor place more importance on the snugness of the chest band than the snugness of the top.

I would also love to see some brands embrace the reality that, realistically, many of us need to throw our bras in the laundry with everything else and make durable padded bras that can stand up to a weekly wash cycle.

Another valuable move on the part of lingerie brands would be to reach out with their products that are designed for physical labor to the online suppliers of clothing for these occupations. For example, the TreeStuff site has an underwear section...with no bras. Similarly, no bras can be found on Arborwear or Sherrilltree, other large sites for the tree care industry (and the former is dedicated to clothing). I’m sure similar sites exist for other occupations, on which the presence of bras might be welcome.

Do you work a job requiring physical outdoor labor? If so, what bras do you rely on? What requirements do you have for those bras?


Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. Author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that everyone who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.

13 Comments on this post

  1. Ella says:

    I’m going to be honest I hate sport bras. I have yet to find any I like. My arms hurt from work and to slip a sports bra over my head is like torture. The zip up one leave me feeling like a have a uni-boob and the zipper curves weird when I work making it digging into my chest. I’m excited to try your suggested bras hoping they work for me! I love the way you evaluated them and addressed a lot of the needs and requirements I look for in a bra!

  2. melissa says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share these thoughts! I’ve been looking for a bra with a similar set of goals in mind (I work in an industrial fabrication shop making furniture) Honestly was gratifying to hear that I was not the only one with “still shows that I have boobs” as a desire in a work bra! Some of these look very promising, and I can’t wait to try one for myself!

  3. J. Thomas says:

    Thanks for this article! I’m an archaeologist who works in all kinds of extreme weather. I need a bra that can withstand sweat, allows me to bend over (or just move around) without my boobs falling out or the straps falling down, hides my nipples in the cold, and doesn’t give me a uniboob. I’ve got big boobs, and pull over bras are horrendously difficult to put on. I thought it was hard enough finding work boots for women. Bras are just downright impossible. I work very hard at my job. Keeping my bra in place should not be one of my daily tasks. This article brought up points I hadn’t considered (i.e. preventing debris from falling in). Thanks again!

  4. Lori says:

    Thanks for writing about this. I’m planning some fieldwork this summer to a hot place (>100F every day), and I’ll be both the lead and the only woman on the team. So I want to be clearly female while also appearing effortlessly practical, and that means finding a machine-washable bra that works in the heat day after day w/o squishing down my boobs. I’ll report back with my success after our campaign.

  5. Anna says:

    Currently I’m not doing heavy labor outdoor with work, but for seven years I was a Highway maintenance worker. So yes I did a little bit of tree trimming and chipping. I find as I’ve gotten older the support I need changes. I was wondering if you have tried Title Nine bras? I’ve thought about going to Chicago to get a fitting. My needs now are for outdoor work at home or exercise.

  6. Pam Morrison says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article! As an exterminator I spend a lot of time outdoors and crawling under houses. I normally wear my Victoria’s secret push up bras because of the padded protection and also still wanting to show that yes, I am a woman killing your creepy crawlies. Everything you said was right on point. I will definitely have to try some of your suggestions out. And again, thank you for being a voice to our non-conventional cause!

  7. Cone says:

    Have you looked into wool bras? I’m not sure how easy it is to get a padded one, but a brand like Smartwool, Icebreaker, or Arcteryx might have something to meet your criteria. Their wool blends are soft, washable, and don’t get stinky.

  8. avice says:

    I’m loyal to my Under Armour wireless sports bra, although I’ve got a totally different set of priorities when it comes to bras, the first thing being that I either wear my sports bra or no bra. I like presenting more masculine and I have small boobs so it works. Good things about the UA bra: no seams, definitely washable, comfortable (if, again, like me, you have small boobs) and not sweaty or itchy after many hours of physical labor OR dancing. The straps could definitely be wider though, and I’m on the lookout for a sports bra that a) actually functions as a sports bra and not a fashion accessory, and b) has a cool looking elastic band like the ones on my boxer briefs.

    Now you’re probably wondering why I read this blog if I will never buy or wear corsets or bras or panties or sheer mesh dresses, and although you guys do occasionally do articles on masculine and/or queer underwear, the main reason is just that I think fancy feminine underwear is really cool looking and I love reading about how all the details of how things are made. Lingerie is so much more complicated than regular fashion – everything has to be engineered in order to fit perfectly and perform its function. It’s so cool. I love you guys.

  9. Ashley C says:

    Have you tried the panache sports bra? There is a wireless version and it has a j-hook.

  10. Laura says:

    I don’t like that most of the ones that fit my smaller chest (34B) are so tiny that I have to wrestle my poor shoulders to get them on. I have a shoulder injury, so it’s not a fun game for me. But when I found a front-close sports bra, which was super exciting, I was ultimately completely let down because the outer sides of the cups dug into my skin unbearably. I agree about wider straps, but honestly I just wish I could find a comfortable sports bra that I didn’t have to wrestle myself into.

  11. Trish says:

    My absolute favorite work bra is the Freya epic. It has under wires but they are pretty flexible and don’t dig in. It has a j-hook but the bottom elastic does cut in a little. Check out Brooks Moviing Comfort, they might have something that fits your criteria. I have one of the Vixen. Both of those are padded. The Moving Comfort has held up to washing, the Freya is newer, so I can’t say. I really loved this and hope to see similar themes in the future.

  12. Alexandra Perrier says:

    My all-time favorite sports bra for working outdoors is the simple Champion racerback stretch bra from Target. It lends the breast absolutely no form and if you are cold everyone will know it, but it is the kind of bra you forget you are wearing. I am also size 34C, and for running I wear 2 XS or S bras layered on top of each other. A friend of mine has 32DD breasts, and she follows this system as well. It is amazing the bounce control you can achieve using this method.

  13. i have found the chantelle athletic bras work for heavy lifting. the back has a j hook to use or not, i like that as the straps can be just a bit looser ,nice wide straps, separate cups, no squishing and a fairly flat to the body fit, also no over the head twisting to try and hook. wore when working outside can take down over head branches,clear brush,and haul stuff without it shifting.
    i also use them when working in the studios on the days of heavy duty work and no problems. bought them originally as they go up to an H cup and to use for hiking, then just used them for all the other heavy duty jobs. i do not look for padding but these are a couple of heavy layers thick, nothing shows.
    my one quibble is i have a shorter torso so at times the underband chafes,usually only when hiking ,probably the pack shifting on my back? started putting glide on and that took care of the rubbing. i do machine wash and hang dry- they are dry by the next day. have found the bands true to size but size up in cup. stays fairly cool, but i am a fair weather heavy duty yard wrangler so not sure 90′ days.
    i usually purchase at the off saks 5th sale site or nordstrom as last year’s colours are up to 50% off.

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