In 2003 the US Air Force, in conjunction with several top universities, conducted a study on the effects of undergarments human performance. Their findings, sometimes, should not have been surprising. After handing out form fitting compression garments to ten male and female track athletes; scientists monitored factors such as flexibility, range of motion, skin temperature, and muscular oscillation (vibration) and countermovement. They found, that when compared to loose fitting undergarments, compression style athletic garments are not going to boost overall performance but do moderately help to prevent injury and extend the benefits of athletic “warm up” routines.

And every athletics coach everywhere said “Derp.”

One of the first discussions athletics supervisors have with participants- from Pee-wee football to personal trainers- focuses on support gear. But, in case you forgot or are new to the fitness world, let's recap.

Socks:

In the past a cool white cotton sock was the height of athletic technology. It was light in weight, held less moisture, and was easier to clean than its woolen counterpart. However with the availability of superior synthetic fiber socks, most doctors and athletics coaches are steering their athletes away from most natural fibers. The main reasons why are support and the ability for the garment to “wick” or move exuded sweat away from the surface of the skin.

Cotton easily stretches and loses its shape, it also can hold onto moisture giving bacteria and fungus a place to grow leading to full scale infection of the toes and heel pads. These infections can easily spread to other parts of the body even after a hot shower following work out causing thrush or jock itch. Beside infection a wet, out of shape sock can bundle up inside of a shoe leading to blisters or pinch points, or even just enough of a discomfort that a person's gate alignment can be compromised. This can lead to extra aches and pains or even strains and sprains as the muscular structure works to compensate for the loss of balance.

Without specifically required by a sport (such as soccer, baseball, or outdoor sports like hiking or skiing where skin protection and warmth are a factor) the right athletic sock will only extend 1 to 2 inches above the top of the athletic shoe. The obvious exception to this is made during colder weather where layers of clothing provide temperature protection to muscles as they work. Having a low cut sock that falls below the top of the shoe is never recommended as the motion of the shoe and foot can pull the sock down around the sole of the foot causing blister and irritation.

Cushioning is also to be considered depending upon the activity. Look for socks with extra padding around the heels and the ball of the foot, as well as a tighter weave pattern around moving joints such as the arch or the ankles. Most importantly pay attention to how the sock fits. A properly fitted sock should encase the foot like a second skin without bunching or sagging. If you end up with a wad of sock in the toe box of your shoes your socks are too loose, if the outline of the sock leaves red welts on your skin they are too tight. Make sure to use the measuring chart found on the back of most sock packages to arrive at the perfect fit. Sock sizes are related to shoe sizes in that shoe sizing may be used to find the right socks. If you are unsure about your shoe size and do not have a measuring horn handy make a fist and then grip the toe of the sock between your thumb and fist. Wrap the sock around the back of your hand and pull back up towards your thumb. The heel of the sock and the toe should just barely overlap around your fist. This is, of course, just a guide and is no substitution for trying the sock on for size.

Undergarment Bottoms:

Like socks, cotton used to be the king of all when it came to covering our bottoms. And it has since been rejected for the same reasons as cotton socks. Moisture on skin may lead to infection and simple cotton pants do not offer the compression support required to help protect loins and groins from stress and strain. Here too, fit is important as a pair of under shorts that bunch up or “wedgie” can be uncomfortable, either limiting your range of motion or stopping your workout completely as you go to fix the issue. Thankfully there are several synthetic fibers available such as COOLMAX © that wick moisture away from the body while providing the right amount of compression without cutting off circulation or chafing.

Men:

For men boxer briefs are highly recommended as the compression across the legs can help to reduce hamstring injury and help to keep legs warm and active. If, however, the legs are too restrictive and a pair of regular briefs are not comfortable as well a simple jockstrap may be worn to reduce chafing and injury. Jockstraps or “supporters” refer to the form fitting, sometimes backless undergarments that may or may not contain a protective cup made from composite materials. Unfortunately for men the support pocket itself is typically related to the waistband size and may not provide all the support required. While some manufactures are looking into measuring out pocket sizes the way bra sizes are measured in women there are not a host of these garments available on the market.

The insertable cups, however, typically come in different measurements such as small, medium, large, and extra-large. Bands should fit snugly without digging into the legs and sides and the pocket should incase without allowing genitals to shift around during athletic movement. The protective cup too should never pinch or chafe. Protective cups should always be used when there is a risk of impact to the groin and genitals, or continued pressure as there is from cycling. Several manufacturers of cyclist's wear have taken continued pressure into account and have developed a sort of protective pad intended to cushion and support the inside of the groin rather than the outside.

Women:

For most general workouts women may, fortunately, get away with a simple pair of compression shorts in order to support their regions. Here too a boxer brief style pant is recommended as it will provide support and warmth to hamstrings and lower abdominals. There are, however, a few exceptions. Women involved in possible impact sports such as hokey or softball should also wear pelvic protectors. Like the composite cups for men, these are shorts with an insertable plate which can reduce pelvic fracture in the event of sharp contact with equipment or other athletes. Female cyclists too should look into a protective pad to protect their pelvic floor from prolonged pressure.

Undergarment Tops:

Men:

As less support is required in this area than comfort simply choose a well-fitting tank top or T-shirt which will wick moisture (sweat) away from the skin.

Women:

There can not be enough said about the importance of a well-fitting and functioning sports bra. The first step in finding the correct support gear is to properly ascertain bra size. Use a cloth measuring tape to measure the rib cage just below the breasts (where the support strap or body of the bra will sit). Round this number up or down to eliminate any fraction sizes and then if that number is even add four inches, if odd add five. For example: if your bust at ribcage measures 33,, you will round down to 33 inches and then add five more inches to arrive at 38 inches. If you measure 35 in inches you will round up to 36 inches and then add four more to arrive at 40 inches total.

Next measure around your chest where the fullest part of your breasts occurs (typically just above the areolas). Now subtract the lower band size from the upper breast size. For example if the above stated band size is 38, subtract 38 from the upper breast size (bad sizes should always be even). The following cup sizes are determined from this answer: 0 inches difference is “AA” cup; 1 inch difference is an “A” cup; 2 inches difference is a “B” cup; 3 inch difference is a “C” cup; and 4 inches is a “D” cup. Usually when choosing a sports bra for B cup and lower the bra should compress, for C cup and higher it should encapsulate. These are just general rules however and can be disregarded for the sake of comfort. What is important when trying on a sports bra is “motion control” in the bust and freedom of arm movement and unrestricted breath. It is recommended that all sports bras be tried on prior to work out, and that the wearer attempted to jog in place or do jumping jacks in order to test range of motion.

For larger busted women (D and above) specialty bras may have to be fitted. Currently the company Under Armor produces a range of sports bras meant to support larger breasted women.