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Pelvic + Sexual Health

Free The Belly! 4 Reasons to Stop Sucking In Your Stomach

May 02, 20223 min
A woman sitting on the beach with a soft relaxed belly

Do you suck in your stomach when you want to look 'your best,' whether that's on the beach, posing for pictures, perched on a stool at a bar, or having sex with the lights on? Yeah, most of us do. "The pressure to live up to unrealistic societal expectations of the female body starts early in life and is centuries old," says Origin pelvic floor physical therapist Ashley Rawlins, PT, DPT. "When we suck in our stomachs, it's like we're donning an invisible corset."

You may also be sucking in your belly without realizing it. "Stomach gripping can be a tension holding pattern that develops in response to pain, trauma, stress, or anxiety," says Rawlins. "This tension can show up anywhere in the body, including the abdominals — it's like we're subconsciously flexing our muscles in an effort to protect ourselves."  

As you might guess, this habit isn't good for our minds or bodies. In fact, sucking in your stomach takes a serious toll on your breathing patterns, abdominal muscles, and pelvic floor. Read on for more details and some coaching on how to break the habit and finally free your belly.

4 Reasons to Free the Belly

1. Sucking in your stomach disrupts normal breathing.

To breathe the way nature intended, your diaphragm has to move down to help your lungs fill with air. When you contract your abdominals, you stop that from happening and force your body to breathe in an unnatural way that involves expanding your upper chest and using your neck and shoulder muscles. 

2. Sucking in can contribute to pelvic floor issues like incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse.

Habitually contracting your upper abdominal muscles can exert excess force on the pelvic floor muscles, leaving them strained and overworked. That, in turn, can lead to bladder and/or bowel leaks (incontinence) or cause unsupported pelvic organs to drop lower in the pelvis (prolapse).

3. Pee when you sneeze or laugh? Sucking in will only make it worse.

Gripping your abdominal muscles for a prolonged period of time increases intra-abdominal pressure. When you sneeze, laugh, cough, or jump, that adds even more pressure — pressure that an already weak pelvic floor, without the additional help from abdominal muscles, can’t counteract. The bottom line: More and bigger leaks.

4. Sucking in can exacerbate pelvic pain and sexual dysfunction.

Your deep abdominals are coordinated to co-contract with your pelvic floor muscles to provide stability in your low back and pelvis. If you’re creating excess tension in your abdominals by sucking in your belly, you’re likely walking around all day with tension in your pelvic floor, which can lead to pain in the pelvis and low back, as well as sexual dysfunction.

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HOW TO Break THE  Habit

When you soften and relax your belly, you undo the negative consequences of holding everything in. You're releasing pressure on your pelvic floor, giving your body back its normal breathing pattern, and recharging your abdominals so that each layer of muscle can be powerful, coordinated, and able to do what it was made to do.

But how do you do it? "Simply having the awareness or knowledge that you have this habit is the first step," says Rawlins. "If you're not typically aware of how you're holding your body, yoga can be a wonderful way to improve mindfulness — and, as a bonus, your breathing patterns."

When you catch yourself holding in your stomach, try putting an open hand on your belly, where you feel the most tension. "Our bodies respond really well to touch," says Rawlins. If you’re an upper abdominal gripper, she suggests placing your hand on the bottom of your rib cage/top of your stomach. If your lower abs are stiff as cement, place your hand mid-distance between your hips and just above your pubic bone. "Focus on breathing into your hand — this helps your brain understand where you are intending to soften, and you can immediately feel it with your hand as your muscles relax."

Sometimes you need more than just mindfulness. If you find it difficult to release your abdominals and soften your belly, or if you have pelvic floor dysfunction like bladder leaks or pain or tension during sex, it may be time to see a physical therapist. A PT can use manual therapy techniques such as myofascial release and trigger point release to help give your muscles their range of motion back. "A PT can help with getting the movement back in your muscles and teach you some self-massage as well," says Rawlins. "They'll give you the tools you need to regain and maintain the wonderfully soft, relaxed stomach that allows you to breathe deep and relieve pressure on your pelvic floor."

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