Working out is challenging enough in the best of circumstances. That’s the whole point, right? But what about when you want to work out, but every time you try, you end up with backaches, weird chafing, and a general feeling of discomfort during and after? Recently, a friend of mine started running, after spending a few months walking and slowly building up stamina. Her transformation as she started to hit the trails almost daily was incredible: She looked better—not from weight loss, but from adding muscle—and her skin cleared up. Her posture went from hunched to open. She felt better—her digestive issues cleared, blood pressure dropped, and pre-diabetic warning signs disappeared.
In short, a few weeks changed her life. So why hadn’t she done it years ago?
Her boobs, she explained. As a bigger-chested girl since puberty, she found any kind of intense activity to be incredibly uncomfortable, physically and emotionally, and so she adopted a thoroughly stationary lifestyle. It took a recommendation of a solid sports bra, plus months of slow buildup, before her confidence grew enough for her to hit the trails. Hearing her story made me wonder just how many women are dropping out of regular workouts or sports they loved as kids thanks to a chest that—for whatever reason—is getting in the way. So I turned to my athletic friends with DDDs (and bigger) to figure out how they handle working out with (ahem) the big girls.
A side note: If you have a bigger bra size and you’re already crushing CrossFit, keep doing what you’re doing! This advice is primarily for women who are struggling with bra size as a hurdle.
Big Boobs Don’t Mean Slow Pace
I quickly learned that big boobs may mean a lack of great aerodynamics on a bike ride, but that hasn’t stopped a ton of really, really fast women. In fact, plenty of bigger busted women are out there getting rad and going hard every day. So know that boobage shouldn’t be holding you back—you might just need to modify what your flat-chested friends are doing to make it work for you.
Comfort is Key
By comfort, I don’t just mean physical. Emotional comfort was actually one of the major sticking points in my informal survey of my athletically inclined clients and friends. It’s hard to feel great working out (and isn’t that the whole point?) when you feel like you’re bouncing all over the place, or your chest is attracting unwanted attention. Adding to that, the physical discomfort isn’t just in your head: the bouncing motion spurred on by running or jumping can cause serious strain on your pecs (the muscles behind your boobs) and the fatty tissue that makes them up.
Find Your Sports Bra
This is the most important step on your way to a comfortable workout, but it’s also a bit like the quest for the holy grail: It may take a while before you find just the right one. Don’t assume that sports bras are created equal, or that the brand that your friend uses will work for you! Bigger-breasted women will likely prefer sports bras that feature added support, even underwire, plus thicker elastic and slight compression. But you don’t want your bra to feel like a corset—make sure you can breathe comfortably in it. (My personal favorite piece of advice comes from the American Council of Exercise, which suggests, “When trying on a bra, jump around and try to mimic as best you can the activity you’ll be doing while wearing the bra.”) Try on plenty of different brands and even try changing sizes—sometimes, your regular size won’t correspond to the sports bra size. If you don’t have a big bra budget, a few women recommended doubling up on sports bras for a more compressive feel—that’s certainly an option, though rarely the most comfortable.
Swap High-Impact for High-Intensity
Running is the classic “I’m going to start working out” workout. But really, for women coming from a sedentary or low-activity level, running isn’t a great place to start—at any bra size. It’s especially tough on women with bigger breasts though, because the high-impact constant pounding of the pavement can cause some serious bounce-related discomfort, not to mention unpleasant chafing. Start with low-impact activities like walking, or if you’re ready for some high-intensity, it’s easy to do low-impact, high-intensity training by opting for a spin class or even swimming. Your upper body won’t be bouncing as much, so you can get the same caloric burn as a run without the pain afterward.
Add Weight Training
It may sound counterintuitive, but adding some strength training to your back and chest can make every other workout, from running to cycling to SUPing, a lot more pleasant. Yep, we do want to work out those chest muscles, even if you’re not hoping to increase bust size. That’s because your pecs, back, and shoulders are working hard to balance your boobs, and if we can strengthen them, you’ll be able to comfortably stand with great posture for longer. That helps in everyday life and makes activities like running a lot more pleasant.
… Plus Flexibility
Even if yoga classes aren’t your thing, spend a few minutes before and after workouts doing some mobility and flexibility work. Your back is working much harder to counterbalance your chest, compared to your flatter friends, so keeping your spine supple becomes even more important. Using a foam roller and rolling up and down your back, or even lying with it resting horizontally where the bottom of your sports bra hits, in order to open up your heart and chest area and counteract the pull of your breasts, can be a huge help. Avoid popping anti-inflammatories or pain relievers before or after workouts—that’s only masking the problem.
Choose Gear Wisely
It’s not just about the bra. All of your gear should be selected with comfort for your girls in mind. That means looking for a swimsuit with a built-in bra, hiking hydration packs with very good adjustability, and sports-specific tops like cycling jerseys or running jackets with a diagonal zip versus an up-and-down one, or avoiding tops that have awkward seams where your sports bra hits you.
Unfortunately, most women with larger breasts are wearing heavier sports bras that are more compressive, plus the demands on the body caused by the tissue in your breasts can make you feel a lot hotter a lot faster. And that can mean a run or ride on a hot day will feel even hotter, especially as you start to breathe harder and sweat more. So make sure that you’re paying close attention to your hydration, and don’t be afraid to slow down to let yourself cool off more.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you’re truly experiencing a ton of discomfort even in everyday life and with simple activities like walking, consult your doctor. A few recreational athletes I interviewed elected to have breast reduction surgeries to improve their emotional and physical well-being. "I don’t think there’s a word in the English language that can describe the freedom and self-esteem it has given me,” one woman explained. "The amount of time, energy, and money I wasted because of my chest probably took a year off my life. I couldn’t swim, run, or jump because my boobs were too heavy and painful and my neck hurt all the time.” Now, she’s happily moving almost every day.
Dropped Weight? Keep Compressing
If you’ve dropped a few bra sizes through a reduction or through exercise, take steps to avoid sagging caused by exercise. Breasts are essentially just fatty tissue that is held in place by ligaments that go from the skin through fat to muscles underneath the breast. That fatty tissue does best when it’s held in place during a workout. If a woman has large breasts and loses weight through exercise, the fat in the breast tissue may be lost as well, which can lead to the appearance of sagging. But you can mitigate this with a good sports bra. (Sagging won’t cause medical issues for your breasts or anything drastic, but it makes things a bit less comfortable.) If you’re concerned about keeping the girls perky as long as possible, wearing a supportive sports bra is probably the number one strategy to employ, no matter what workout you’re doing.