Why Doing This To Your Abs May Be Bad For You

Who among us, male or female, hasn't looked at someone who is younger, fitter, and with the perfect abs, looked at our own bodies with a bit of frustration, then thought "right" and sucked in our stomachs and held that for as long as we could? Turns out, that simple act has more insidious consequences than we are likely to imagine. 

The act of sucking in your stomach, which experts call "stomach gripping" (some also refer to it as "chest gripping"), might not feel like a big deal, but actually has the potential to affect the way your belly is supposed to do its job (via The Washington Post).

While anyone can be a chest or tummy gripper, Alchemy in Motion says it happens most often to moms who have just given birth and who really want to hide the appearance of having that last bit of belly. It also happens with athletes who have been doing sit ups or oblique twists for a while.

You'll be able to tell if you are a chest gripper, because when you look in the mirror, you'll see a flat upper abdomen, and a bulge in the lower abdomen; your body's shape will be similar to that of an hourglass (via Dynamic Health). If you take in a deep breath, and you might notice that most of the movement is in the upper chest, and not deep and relaxed in the belly. 

Stomach gripping has consequences

While having an hourglass-shaped middle doesn't sound like a bad thing, University of Michigan-Flint physical therapy clinical assistant professor Julie Wiebe tells The Washington Post that sucking your stomach for extended periods of time "could alter the mechanics of your abdomen; it could alter its ability to respond to demands in the environment. It could [even] change your breath patterns."

Alchemy in Motion compares the act of tummy gripping (or what it calls "chest gripping") to unscrewing a tube of toothpaste then squeezing it in the middle; the pressure will result in spewing toothpaste everywhere. Similarly, stomach gripping means putting pressure on your insides so that eventually something gives, and it can lead to problems like incontinence, which is when you accidentally pee a little when you cough, laugh, or sneeze. It can also trigger breathing problems and, ironically, ending up with a weaker core. Other consequences of stomach gripping can include pains in the lower back and neck, as well as acid reflux (via Dynamic Health).

Northwestern University assistant professor of physical medicine, rehabilitation, obstetrics and gynecology Sarah Hwang says the act of squeezing your chest and stomach increases intra-abdominal pressure, so "when something happens to increase that pressure even further, like coughing or laughing or sneezing, the pelvic floor muscles can't overcome that increased pressure, and people will have urinary incontinence."

How to undo a stomach gripping habit

If you are a chest or stomach gripper, there is a small thing you can do to remedy this, and that is to change the way you breathe. For starters, Dynamic Health recommends that you got on all fours, relax your stomach and breathe. It should have you feeling like your belly is moving toward your thighs, but your shoulders shouldn't lift. The breathing exercise should be done for between three to five minutes, three to five times a day.

But those of us who grip our chests also need to accept that fixing the way you stand and breathe may be easier than changing your mental state, because part of becoming less of a stomach or chest gripper means you'll have to accept your body just the way it is. "Body image plays a major role in self-esteem, and for some people, holding in that stomach and having the flatter abs gives them a lot of self-esteem, but the price of it is high, and it's something you have to keep doing forever," Cincinnati psychologist Ann Kearney-Cooke says (via The Washington Post).

This is not to say you can't engage your abs again ever, as Weibe says there is a place and a time to do that. Rather, we all need to "understand that they are part of a functional whole, and they're intended to play on a team, and they need to be appropriately engaged for the task you're up against."