Curious to learn more? Book a 10-min free intro call.
A woman with a round, soft belly smiling and stretching her arms

4 Reasons to Stop Sucking in Your Stomach

This post was updated and expanded by Dr. Ashley Rawlins, PT, DPT, on 12/8/2023.

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." Sometimes referred to as "Hourglass Syndrome," the fact that we're still holding in our stomachs shows how far we've yet to go when it comes to embracing a healthy body shape that includes a soft, round tummy.

Not everyone who sucks in their stomach is doing it intentionally — and you might be aware of it in some instances but not others. "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. Hourglass syndrome 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.

What sucking in does to your pelvic floor

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.

Email address is required

Thank you! Your submission has been received!

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Are your symptoms normal? Take the quiz.
Take Quiz

5 Ways to Stop Sucking in Your Stomach

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? Try these 6 techniques to help you break the habit:

1. Check for belly tension every time you reach for your phone.

Holding tension in your belly can become so ingrained in your daily habits that it becomes automatic, but mindfulness (aka giving attention to the habit) is the natural first step when breaking a habit. "Simply having the awareness or knowledge that you have this habit is the first step," says Rawlins. "Plan to check in with your belly at regular intervals. It can help to choose something you already do several times a day — like pick up your phone or fill your water glass or check your Slack feed — and use that as a signal to note whether you're holding in your stomach."

2. Use touch to melt away tension.

When you catch yourself holding in your stomach, try putting an open hand on your belly, where you feel the most tension. "This technique is especially helpful when struggling with the mindfulness aspect,” says Rawlins. “Our bodies respond really well to touch, because it draws attention, through sensation, to the area of your body that needs to let go. It can help your body ‘wake up’ to the fact that it needs to release.” 

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."

3. When you have more time, massage your belly.

Take your healing touch to the next level with a self-abdominal massage. It doesn’t need to be fancy, and you don’t need to know a specific massage technique to get the benefits. The goal of a self-belly massage is to touch your body and ease tension in your stomach while developing a more nurturing and loving relationship with your belly. Try pushing gently into your tummy muscles as you rub in your daily moisturizer. Massage all of the abdominal real estate between the bottom of your ribs to the top of your pubic bones, and don’t forget the sides of your waist. Pay attention to areas of tightness, or tenderness. Make note of how your belly feels or any differences from side-to-side and top-to-bottom. Another helpful massage to try is a bowel massage to get the added (belly soothing) benefit of a good bowel movement!

If anything is painful or causes nausea or lightheadedness, it is best to hold off on further massage and discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider — they will help you get to the root of your symptoms, and help ensure that abdominal massage is safe to continue with. 

4. Stretch the front of your body.

Part of what makes sucking in your stomach become such an automatic habit is that the fascia surrounding your muscles can shorten over time, and contribute to lasting muscle inflexibility and tension. Yoga is a great tool for connecting with your core and stretching your fascia. Here are 3 recommended asanas to get you started:

Full Cobra

How to do it:
  • Lie face down with your forehead resting on a small towel.
  • Place your hands underneath your shoulders with palms resting on the floor and elbows in towards your rib cage.
  • Press the tops of your feet into the floor as you lift your upper body off of the ground.
  • Push through your hands to fully straighten your elbows (or as far as you are able) to enjoy a tummy stretch from your pubic bone to your chin.
  • Hold this position and breathe deeply for as long as it feels good.
  • Keep your shoulders away from your ears, and your gaze forward. Slowly lower back to the starting position.

Articulated Cat-Cow

How to do it:
  • Start on your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
  • Slowly move your spine one vertebrae at a time beginning with the tailbone and ending with your neck.
  • Begin by lifting your tailbone towards the ceiling, then allow your belly to drop towards the floor. Drop your shoulders away from your ears as you feel your mid-back arch.
  • Lift your chin towards the ceiling feeling your upper back and neck arch.
  • Hold this pose for a few breaths to enjoy a gentle stretch across your belly.
  • Next, reverse this position by tucking your tailbone and allowing your lower back to press upwards toward the ceiling. 
  • Push through your arms to lift your mid-back towards the ceiling and bring your chin towards your chest to feel your upper back and neck lengthen.

World's Greatest Stretch

How to do it:
  • Begin on hands and knees with hips directly above your knees and shoulders above your hands.
  • Move into a tall plank by stepping both feet straight back behind you.
  • Step one foot forward so that it rests along the outside of your hand on the same side.
  • Press the opposite hand into the ground for stability, and enjoy a stretch from the toes of your back leg, to your belly button.
  • Expand a stretch all of the way to your shoulders by reaching the hand that is next to your foot up towards the ceiling and twisting your body open towards your forward leg, bringing your gaze upwards towards your fingertips. 
  • Hold this stretch for several breaths before switching to the other side.

5. Book a visit with a pelvic floor physical therapist.

Sometimes you need more than mindfulness and connection. If you find it difficult to release your abdominals and soften your belly, or if you have symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction like bladder leaks or pain or tension during sex, it may be time to see a pelvic floor 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."

There's More to Share!

You might have pelvic floor dysfunction and not even know it.

Take our quiz to find out.