The surprising habit that weakens your pelvic floor (and we all do it!)

Something I’ve become more aware of lately is how I automatically suck in my stomach whenever I’m out in public.

This isn’t anything new. Like most women, I was taught to suck my stomach in to make it seem as flat and attractive as possible. And with “shapewear” like Spanx to help, it’s easier than ever to hold that position for hours at a time.

It’s not something I ever thought could hurt me. So imagine my surprise when I recently discovered this habit of “stomach gripping” may actually be damaging my body — especially my pelvic floor….

Sucking in your abs can weaken other muscle groups

When people contract and hold their upper abdominal muscles for a prolonged period, it’s known as “stomach gripping.” Training those muscles to always be “on” can affect the entire core and exert force on the muscles of the pelvic floor.

Stomach gripping can cause those pelvic floor muscles to become overwhelmed, which could lead to urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse. And the muscles could also become less flexible over time.

Constantly holding in your stomach is especially bad if you have existing pelvic floor issues, particularly incontinence. When you contract your abdominal muscles over long periods, you’re raising the pressure on your pelvic floor. And when you cough, laugh, or sneeze, you turn up that pressure even further, causing urinary incontinence.

The consequences of stomach gripping can go beyond the pelvic floor. If you’re constantly sucking in your stomach, you could find it harder to take a deep breath, which could lead to breathing problems, especially for people with asthma.

When you inhale, your diaphragm drops down into your stomach, which allows your lungs to expand. And if your abdominal muscles aren’t relaxed, you end up taking short, shallow breaths high in your chest. This means you’re not using your full lung capacity.

This compromised breathing can also lead to headaches and pain in the shoulder, neck, and jaw. It can also increase stress by keeping your “fight or flight” response constantly activated.

Other consequences of stomach gripping include slower digestion and stiffness and soreness in the lower back and hips. Keeping those abdominal muscles contracted also makes them less responsive and less able to absorb impact, leaving you open to injury from activities such as running.

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Time to accept that a little “pooch” is normal

The first thing to do to reverse the effects of stomach gripping is to stop sucking in. Very few of us have a naturally flat stomach, even with hours of abdominal work, and we need to stop worrying about whether our tummy may be sticking out a bit.

This may take some practice. Many of us have become so used to stomach gripping that we may not even be aware that we’re doing it. But there are a few ways to check to see if you’re sucking in your stomach. One is to place your hand on your abdomen close to your ribs and gently jiggle your abs. If that was hard to do or didn’t result in much movement, you’re probably gripping.

You can also use a mirror to examine your abdomen from the side. If you see there is a cinched-in area around the level of your belly button, you’re sucking in. Or, if you see your lower abdomen sticks out farther than the upper, and your upper abs are more defined than your lower, it’s likely you’re gripping as well as suffering from lower abdominal weakness.

To retrain your abdominal muscles to ease up, it’s good to consciously try to relax and let your stomach out fully. If you have difficulty doing this in a seated or standing position, try getting on all fours, releasing your abdominal muscles, and gradually letting your belly hang all the way down. Keep your spine as neutral as possible, with no curve in your lower back, and breathe slowly and deeply.

Doing a combination of flexibility and breath work like belly breathing can also help, as can an abdominal massage. If you can, combine your breath work with movement, such as dropping into a squat with every inhale.

Overall, it’s important to understand that your abdominal muscles play an important role in your body’s functions and that when you do engage them, it should be for a specific purpose and a short duration.

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Sources:

Stop sucking in your stomach all the time — it could be bad for your health — The Washington Post

Why you really shouldn’t worry too much about sucking in your belly — The Sydney Morning Herald

Quick Tip: Ab Gripping — The Pelvic Underground

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Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.