An illustrated guide to what’s wrong with sports bras.

I’m going to address an issue of vital human interest. Further down the page I will be rocking a bath towel and no makeup in the name of science.


I recently bought a sports bra. Brilliant! Woo! Happyface.

And then I wore it for a while, and ended up with a killer headache, and a bit of a trapped nerve on one side of my neck for a few days afterwards. UNbrilliant. Oow. Not happy face.


A normal bra strap is carrying a lot of weight, if you’re anything over a C cup. Ladies gifted in the chestal area tend to develop a little groove in their shoulder, at the outside end of the clavicle, where they habitually put their bra strap. The reason this happens is that the rest of the shoulder is muscle. And if you place a relatively thin strap across a muscle and then put a lot of weight on that strap, what do you think happens to the muscle? Yeah. Blood supply problems. Cramp. Squeezed nerves. Pain. And then the muscles around it start trying to support it, and before you know what’s happening – KAPOW! Killer head ache / upper back pain / neck pain.

It may not be anatomically brilliant to balance the weight of your boob on the end of your clavicle, but this is the reality of women with humungous badongas: we need to rest that weight somewhere. There just isn’t anywhere else to put it. The only workable alternative to the bra strap is a properly boned and fitted corset, and while those are exquisitely comfortable for most applications, they aren’t any good for running in. Believe me, I’ve done it.

Good bra strap

Most sports bras are what’s known as “racer back”[1]. There’s a good reason for this. Bra straps – more so on smaller-breasted women – slip off women’s shoulders. The “racer back”, which effectively joins the two shoulder straps together somewhere below the nape of one’s neck, prevents this entirely. Great idea.

Except if you’ve got big ones, because racer back sports bras do the most insane thing, which is demonstrated quite well by this image. They move the point where maximum pressure is applied to the body from the outer end of the clavicle, directly onto the trapezius muscle.

Bad bra strap


Look, this blog isn’t entirely about gardening and breasts. It’s just been one of those weeks.

[1] There are some exceptions to this, but I have not yet tested them.

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18 Responses to An illustrated guide to what’s wrong with sports bras.

  1. And this is why I don’t wear racer-back sports bras. But I’m a lucky C cup so can get away with less strapping.

    • chiller says:

      It’s such a frustrating issue, and one that feels as if it’s nibbling on the edges of the broader issue of what shape women are supposed to be – you know? Like women with big boobs aren’t supposed to be running, so nobody has bothered to design well for them.

  2. elaine4queen says:

    i say “like”. what i mean is “don’t like”.
    bras are the very devil’s work. all i want is to be supremely comfortable. is that really too much to ask?

    • chiller says:

      Perhaps I should go into business making bras that actually WORK.

      • elaine4queen says:

        that would be AWESOME.

        ten thinks i should go buy a fitted bra, he says he can see i don’t get adequate support, but i have done it before and not ended up with anything comfy. a trip to M&S usually results in there only being one ‘least worst’ fit. no wonder i end up wearing those things that are like trainer bras.

      • chiller says:

        Hm. I am a massive fan of a good bra. In fact I might be slightly underwear obsessed (not in a bad way). And yes, a well fitted one is a good thing, but having Shop A tell you your size doesn’t mean every bra in that size (even in that shop) will work, because some boobs are round, some not, some are wide spaced, some close together… argh. It’s just a question of work out what size you OUGHT to be, then try, try, try, try, try.

      • elaine4queen says:

        probably doesn’t help that i get FEAR in posh shops.

      • chiller says:

        I secretly do too, but just swagger about and front it out. Apparently they can’t read your mind! Wish I’d known that, age 13.

      • elaine4queen says:

        me too. that was the worst. and i felt like i was a BOY in an underwear department.

      • chiller says:

        I had the opposite prob – went from child-dimensions to having a D cup virtually overnight. Hell. I always felt – and still feel – a bit awkward in very gendered environments though. Like someone’s going to point at me and make that noise Donald Sutherland makes at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

      • elaine4queen says:

        zactly. i felt like my head was see through and EVERYONE could tell i was WRONG in some ill defined way.

  3. Erbie says:

    Huh. I’ve been working out a lot lately in a racerback sports bra. I have also been having some really bad shoulder pain on one side. Also with the big ones. I think you have just solved my back problems! I will search high and low for a non-racerback style, though I haven’t seen one lately. I have a old one that’s less attractive than my spiffy purple racerback. Maybe I’ll try that one out for a few weeks and see if things improve. Thanks for this!

    • chiller says:

      Yep, the pain is definitely from those poor muscles getting squashed.

      I know Pure Lime do some sports bras that sit in the right part of the shoulder, and earlier someone recommended to me – had a quick glance and they also seem to stock a lot of sports bras that sit in the right places, though I’ve not looked in any detail yet. My big question is whether sports bras that DO sit in the right place are also capable of providing maximum control, but I haven’t yet looked into this. I really hope so!

  4. Genevieve says:

    found this post because I was looking for ideas on how to put on a racerback bra…very glad I found it cos I’ve been struggling with shoulder pain and now I know why- I was using crop tops that go right across the same place the racerback does…:/
    Freya active do a sports bra that hooks and eyes and is optionally a racer back, otherwise it’s a normal styled bra if anyone is looking for one. Lime does too. M&S…will not spend my money on them after they made me feel like a freak for being a 32 G.

    • chiller says:

      Panache do a great line of bra-shaped sports bras as well (that’s who I ended up going with) – I found Lime not supportive enough for me, which is a shame as they look great.

  5. Mary says:

    Found this post trying to research why my shoulders hurt all the time when I wear a sports bra! Now that I’ve confirmed I’m not crazy, I will try to find a bra with traditional straps and no underwires for working out.

  6. Notasnowflake says:

    I realize this is from 2012, but thank you for illustrating why I have a killer headache this morning: new racer-back sport bra!

  7. Emmamame says:

    Finally an answer. I did feel like I was crazy for years, now I understand! I’m only a 32C – most sizing charts say I need a small sports bra but medium or large usually seems more (initially) comfortable. Thanks so much for writing this!

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