What's your stomach doing right now? How are you standing, sitting, or walking around right this second?
Chances are, you're sucking your stomach in or, keeping it really, really tight.
Why isn't your belly relaxed? Maybe it's because you...
...hate how your stomach looks.
...are embarrassed at what your relaxed stomach feels like (either to yourself, to others, or to a partner).
...think keeping it hard makes for strong abdominal muscles.
...assume keeping your core tight all of the time will help you lose belly fat.
...were told to do it to improve your posture or back pain.
... feel as if you"need" to do it in order to fit into your clothes.
Maybe, (and this is so often the case), you don't even realize you're doing it as it's become a subconscious action and frequent habit. One which, usually happens even when you're completely alone.
Sucking in and tightening your stomach all day long does NOT equal a strong core or flat abs. Our core, by the way is SO much more than just our "6 pack muscles".
And, in order for your core canister to respond and react properly, we need to be able to handle periods of bracing and tension AND be able to fully relax.
What happens when we suck "things" in?
Imagine taking a partially inflated balloon or an almost full tube of toothpaste & squeezing it in the middle. What happens? Pressure builds up and the air or toothpaste being displaced needs to go somewhere.
(h/t to PT Julie Wiebe for the balloon analogy)
Pressure bulging UP can impact your diaphragm and breathing patterns.
Think: reflux, heartburn, nausea, hiatal hernias, hiccups, chest pain.
Pressure bulging DOWN affects your digestion, bowel movements, menstruation, abdominals, low back and pelvic floor.
Think: stomach pain or cramping, diastasis recti, back pain, constipation, incontinence, pelvic pain, pelvic organ prolapse.
And, constantly holding all of the physical constant tension leads to increased anxiety and stress. Prolonged exposure to stress can significantly increase and elevate our cortisol levels which has been linked to.... wait for it.... an increase in belly fat.
So, stressing about abdominal fat to the point of feeling like you need to suck everything in all the time can further increase your stress, which can lead to an increase in abdominal fat.. and the cycle continues.
Increasing intra abdominal pressure isn’t inherently bad (sneezing or coughing increases IAP). Same goes for contracting the abdominal muscles. We need it - in varying degrees- to move ourselves & things we pick up and carry, safely & efficiently.
And while creating tension is important, it's not done by sucking the stomach IN or keeping it extremely tight ALL day long, ALL of the time.
Sucking in doesn't equal strong
Sucking in might seem synonymous with "contract your abs".
Not so fast.
Instead of properly integrating the parts of the core canister, sucking "in" usually turns into pulling the diaphragm UP, raising or poking the ribs up and outwards, sometimes creating a barrel or puffed out chest like appearance.
This is NOT abdominal muscle engagement but a trick of displaced air and manipulation of muscles and organs and it won't strengthen your abs.
Most people, when strong abs are the focus, are (hopefully) trying to engage their transverse abdominis, the inner abs, or "corset" muscles.
But, their attempt to create a flatter tummy, falls, well, flat.
The core's canister-like pressure system isn't being used and is most likely making the belly fat or pooch you're trying to hide even worse. My fitpro friend, Ashley Nowe, has an excellent video on what contracting and engaging the transverse abdominis really looks like:
Sucking in won't make you skinny (neither will ab exercises)
Planks won't give you a flatter stomach. Neither will crunches. Or any other ab exercises.
Ab exercises will help strengthen your core which will make your lifts and every day life activities "easier" and safer. Proper positioning and knowing how to brace your core is key to being safe, successful and progressing in the gym.
But ab training will not whittle your waist just by itself.
Spot reduction? Not a thing. You can't dictate where on your body you'd like to lose fat from, or how much fat, or, in what order.
Losing fat requires spending time in a caloric deficit, not an increase in your sit-up volume.
Waist trainers = waste of time
Waist trainers are marketed as weight loss aids worn to reshape the midsection through increasing thermogenesis (part of the metabolic process involved with heat production) but there is NO evidence waist training alone has any impact on fat or weight loss and any effect it has on your metabolism is temporary.
I repeat: there is NO evidence of waist trainers having any lasting impact on fat or weight loss.
Waist trainers won't...
...increase the strength or function of the muscles lying underneath them.
...improve your posture
... burn fat.
Waist trainers will...
...decrease the amount of air you can breathe and limit your respiration (which account for all those so-called fainting couches in the Victorian era. Women couldn't breathe properly wearing tight corsets all the time).
...negatively reshape the ribcage, intestines and organs with long term wear which you now know will effect your digestion, bowel movements, bladder and pelvic floor.
Waist trainers are not a substitute for developing consistent exercise and nutrition habits and cause more health risks than rewards despite what the internet and celebrities might tell you.
This is also what happens when wearing very tight things around your waist and using weightlifting belts improperly. They’ll decrease the amount of air you can breathe and mimic the "sucking in" mechanism.
There is a difference between compressive, supportive clothes like workout gear and leggings and wearing restricting garments for the sole purpose of sucking things in to look or feel leaner. I won't be getting rid of my high waisted leggings anytime soon, but as someone with a history of pelvic floor dysfunction (and someone who pretty much wears yoga pants for a living) I do take some precautions.
I don't wear clothing that inhibits my breathing. I need to be able to take full breaths, not only while I'm training, but all of the time. Many of my clothes are form fitting, but none are cinched tight at the waist. I still have full mobility. When I'm not working or lifting, my clothing is looser and unrestrictive.
If you're unable to do things like squat and get up and down off the floor, because of the tightness of your pants and shorts- especially when you are exercising- than they are too tight. Ditto if your clothes always leave marks or imprints on you after you take them off.
Frequently wearing things like tight belted dresses, too tight pants, Spanx like undergarments (I've often heard of people wearing two sets at once!) or other cinched clothing often end up doing the exact opposite of what you are intending them to do. In an effort to get rid of a stomach pooch, you actually end up exacerbating it.
This is also why if you are going to be using a weightlifting belt, make sure to be properly taught on how to use it. It's not just as simple as putting it on.
Belt or no belt, your breathing technique while lifting - especially for heavy/max lifts and for things like the deadlift, bench and squat- should be similar. You want to inhale air circumferentially - into your stomach, low back and sides and then brace/flex your abs. With a belt, you’ll have tactile feedback, an external object, to push against and it will help to further increase intra abdominal pressure.
But a belt will not automatically eliminate or help you avoid back pain just by wearing it. You actually have to USE it. Think of a belt as something to help enhance your performance, not solely as protection.
I’m a fan of training belt-less as much as possible, but either way, you shouldn’t be using one for your warmup sets and wearing one for all of your exercises like dumbbell front raises or lat pulldowns is doing yourself and your core's pressure system and musculature a huge disservice.
Occasionally lifting without a belt - or at least waiting until max sets to use it - ensures that you know how to create stability and increase your intra-abdominal pressure which is what will help to protect your spine.
Having PFD issues (leaking, incontinence, pain, pressure)? Constipation or other GI problems? A stomach “pooch” not going away? All of these could be due to poorly managed pressures caused by constantly sucking your stomach in or incorrectly trying to stabilize and strengthen the core.
Society of six-pack abs
Your stomach is NOT going to be flat 24/7, even if you're lean and have visible ab definition. The smallest changes in digestion, bathroom habits, the menstrual cycle and other hormonal variations, water, sodium and food intake, as well as stress will create changes in how your stomach looks throughout the day, even hour by hour.
Ripped abs are fleeting, subject to fluctuation and are situational dependent.
And yet so many people consider their stomachs to be markers of progress, using their bellies as a way to assess their level of fitness or leanness.
Holding on to the narrative that your belly needs to be flat in order for it to be "acceptable", "pretty", "attractive", "fit", "right" or "good" is holding you back.
It's holding you back from making future progress, from experiencing life and situations fully (how can you focus on much of anything in the moment if you're constantly worried about what your stomach looks like?)
Whats wrong with soft? With big? With round? With jiggle and squish and rolls and curves? With bad about relaxed and loose?
There's also nothing wrong with skinny or flat or defined or muscular.
And there's nothing wrong with wanting to change how your body looks.
But trying to bully your body into a particular appearance backfires every time.
It takes practice to learn how to relax your stomach (regardless of how it naturally looks). So much practice. There are so many of us (fat, big, skinny, lean, soft, tight, whatever) who hold our stomachs tight and abs gripped all of the time. Enough so that really focusing on relax them takes work and effort. More than you might think.
It takes work to undo the thoughts and beliefs you've had about your stomach and body. About how your stomach "should" look. It takes work to undo the thoughts and beliefs you think others have or will have about your stomach and body.
Practice letting go of those thoughts and beliefs. Practice letting go of the tension and tightness you are holding in your stomach. Not only for your own peace of mind but for your physical health and quality of life.