How To Work Out With Big Boobs

Illustration by Lindsay Hattrick

It’s all about that sports bra

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.

Stay Cool
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.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds



Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.