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Sucking In Your Stomach Doesn’t Tighten Your Abs — In Fact, It Can Make You Sick

It's time to let it go.


How old were you when you began sucking in your stomach? For many of us, the practice started at a young age. As children, we saw slim women with flat stomachs on glossy magazine covers and women on TV looking at their reflections and complaining about their non-existent bellies. The idea that you should look a certain way can lead to unhealthy habits, from avoiding all carbs to clenching your abs. Indeed, stomach gripping (as some experts call it), is not good for you — even though many of us were taught that it strengthens the abdominal wall and improves your posture. In fact, the habit may actually increase the appearance of a “belly pooch.” Here’s why.

The Problems With Sucking in Your Stomach

Sucking in your stomach might seem harmless, but it has a number of consequences that range from mild to severe. That’s because constant gripping may cause dysfunction in five different sets of muscles:

  • The upper fibers of the rectus abdominis, or the pair of muscles that extend from your ribs down to your pelvis. This muscle pair holds your internal organs steady and helps you maintain balance.
  • Internal obliques, or the pair of muscles that extend from your inner hip bones to the middle of the stomach. These muscles help stabilize you when you twist and turn.
  • Transversus abdominis, or the deep, inner muscle located below the obliques that stabilizes your torso.
  • Diaphragm, or the primary muscle that helps you breathe, located below your lungs.
  • Pelvic floor muscles, or the group of muscles that run from the pubic bone to the coccyx. These muscles literally form the “floor” of the pelvis, and help support the uterus, bladder, and rectum.

Below are several effects of this muscle dysfunction.

It can cause acid reflux.

If you’ve ever eaten a big meal on a date and then sucked in your stomach on your way out the door, you may have already experienced this unpleasant side effect. Gripping the muscles in the abdomen squishes the stomach inward, which can cause partially-digested food and/or stomach acid to flow back into the esophagus (gross, but accurate). This is also why tight-fitting clothes can cause reflux.

It can cause back pain.

The constant contraction of the torso muscles tires them out, which can lead to pain in other parts of the body. According to Julie Wiebe, clinical assistant professor in the physical therapy department at the University of Michigan-Flint, that pain includes soreness and stiffness in the low back and hips.

It can cause shoulder and neck pain.

When your diaphragm can’t properly expand, your body will try to find other ways to get adequate air. So, the lungs press up instead of down and out, which may cause shoulder and neck pain.

It can lead to pelvic floor dysfunction.

Though sucking in your stomach may sound like a strengthening movement, it’s actually a weakening one. The constant tension puts pressure on your pelvic floor muscles, which can weaken them and make them less flexible over time. This may contribute to incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse (when a pelvic organ, such as the bladder, drops from its normal position and bulges into the vagina), and pain during sex (tight and inflexible pelvic floor muscles can make it hard to relax during sex).

It can change your breathing patterns.

Weibe notes that long-term restriction of the diaphragm can alter the way you breathe. For example, you might find it difficult to take deep, long breaths, because contracted muscles are less flexible. One source estimates that stomach gripping can reduce your oxygen intake by as much as 30 percent.

It can increase the appearance of a belly pooch.

Sucking in your stomach does not properly engage your deep abdominal muscles — it only makes you grip your upper abs tightly. As a result, you may find that your upper abdomen looks firmly defined, but your lower abdomen has a pooch. Of course, this doesn’t mean that your belly pooch will magically disappear when you stop sucking in your abs. (Remember: Having some belly fat is normal and healthy — it protects your organs and provides insulation.)

How To Get Out of the Habit

Here are the first few things you should do: Practice stretches, relaxation techniques, and deep belly breaths. Stretches that therapists recommend include cat and cow, happy baby, child’s pose, and pigeon pose. Belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, involves lying on your back with your knees bent and taking deep, slow breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth, letting your belly rise up and down.

And, if you’re still not comfortable showing off your belly after a big meal, plan ahead and wear loose-fitting clothing. Above all, give yourself the love and grace you would give to any friend or family member. Breathe in, breathe out, and relax.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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