30 Dec 2022
By Erin Lanting, BSc., MScPT
Wherever you are right now, in whatever position you might be, what is happening with your stomach? Are you pulling it in or is it completely relaxed? Chances are that many of you are pulling those tummy’s in and its likely something you are doing without even realizing it. How many of you want to look your best on the beach or in a photo? These are just a couple reasons we may consciously pull our bellies in, which can then lead to us doing it on more of an unconscious level. . Stress and anxiety can also play a role in this pattern. Regardless of when or how often you pull your stomach in, this article is for you. This stomach gripping phenomenon needs to end! I believe it’s mostly due to societal pressures for a flat and thin stomach area, especially for women, as well as the increased focus in the fitness world on abdominal work and strength. I am not saying we shouldn’t have strong core muscles, but like all other muscles, we need to have balance between activation & relaxation. If you want to gain a better understanding of the purpose that the muscles in this area play and the potential implications of not activating them correctly or in the right environment, then continue reading!
What exactly is happening when we suck in our bellies?
I find the best way to visualize this is to think of a tourniquet. If you are constantly sucking in, you are creating a tourniquet around your organs and all the vessels in your abdomen which essentially means you are cutting off the normal fluid flow and balance in and out of the area. In terms of your muscles, you end up activating mostly your upper abdominal muscles, ultimately creating an imbalance in your core, all of which wreaks havoc on our breathing patterns, gut health, and pelvic floor. Let’s dive a little deeper.
Like I mentioned above, the tourniquet effect makes it so our guts can’t move properly which can contribute to constipation and other digestive issues. We need proper fluid flow through the organs, but if we are putting constant pressure and tension around this area, blood flow will ultimately be compromised. Anyone with chronic constipation or digestive issues should have someone evaluate their breathing patterns and core muscles to see if there is an imbalance.
Another reason to put a halt on this pattern is that you may be creating or exacerbating a pelvic floor issue by putting extra pressure and force on the pelvic floor muscles. This can lead to conditions like incontinence, and prolapse, none of which any of us want to deal with. Do you pee when you sneeze or laugh? Gripping your abdominal muscles for a prolonged period of time increases intra-abdominal pressure. Coughing, laughing and sneezing also increase pressure so in some cases the combination of the two is too much for a weak pelvic floor to counteract.
Sucking in your belly too much also makes it so you cannot breathe properly. When you contract your abs as you suck in your belly, you prevent your diaphragm from being able to move down as is necessary to expand your lungs in a normal breathing pattern. As a result, we end up breathing more with our chest and neck muscles which can lead to other problems like neck pain. Accessory muscles in the neck & chest are meant to only be accessory muscles, but if they start to take over for most of the work, it creates chronic neck strain, which yes, can lead to neck pain. This is why when anyone has neck pain, it’s important to look at how they are breathing and provide breathing exercises if necessary. If you have tightness or pain in your lower back it can also be due to chronic tension held in your abdominal muscles. Of course we need stability for our spine which in part comes from activating our pelvic floor and deep stabilizing muscles, but often when someone is sucking in, they aren’t actually activating these muscles and instead are overusing the superficial and upper abdominal muscles creating an imbalance.
As you can see, there are multiple reasons why we shouldn’t be sucking in our bellies all the time. Do you find yourself wanting to strengthen your core and abs but not sure where to start? If so, I’d recommend seeking out some professional guidance on what exercises would be best for you, especially if you are dealing with any injuries or chronic pain conditions. I would also recommend doing some breathing exercises which I will post on our Facebook page in the coming weeks!