I was recently asked if it’s a good idea to hold your abdomen in all the time. Surely this would strengthen the abdominal muscles? It may seem reasonable to practise the abs by keeping them contracted all the time. However, how true and desirable is that really? Are you doing yourself a favour or could it have negative effects on your wellbeing? While not denying the importance of strong abdominal muscles, this blog examines the problematic results of chronically held abs for your health, and what you can do instead.
Tight muscles are weak muscles
Firstly, chronically contracted muscles are not strong and toned but weak. When muscles are healthy and strong, they can contract and release. Would you strengthen arm muscles by holding a heavy bag up continuously? Your arm and shoulder would soon tire and strain. Chronically contracted muscles become tight and weak. This tightening can be due to overwork or mental stress that makes you unconsciously contract certain muscles (shoulders are a classic example).
For the abdominal muscles to strengthen it is important they can relax between contractions. This stimulates the circulation of nutrients through the muscles and the removal of waste products. So it does not mean you just let your stomach relax all the time. Instead allow it to move freely with the breath, so the abs gently engage with every exhalation and relax with the inhalation. You can occasionally make this into a more strengthening exercise by exaggerating the contraction when you exhale. Be sure to relax the belly when you inhale. It is easiest to find this abdominal movement when you are lying down, as explained and demonstrated in the first, free session of my abdominal exercises video.
Problem for the pelvic floor
When the abdomen is chronically contracted, the pelvic floor muscles are also in a state of chronic contraction, which again means that although tight and rigid, they will not be strong. When weak, this structure of muscles that supports the weight of the pelvic organs may not be able to hold the downward pressure, weaken even more and with age cause problems such as incontinence and prolapse.
Problem for the diaphragm
Chronically held abdominal muscles leave no space for the diaphragm to move. The importance of a freely moving diaphragm for our wellbeing cannot be stressed enough. The diaphragm is a big dome-like structure dividing the upper and lower part of the trunk. It descends and broadens during inhalation, causing the belly to widen and expand outward. It moves back up into the chest, drawing the abdomen in and slightly upwards with the inhalation. As it moves, the diaphragm massages and has a positive impact on the abdominal organs below and the heart above.
When the diaphragm moves freely, it enables abdominal breathing, a deeper and calming way to breathe. The first session of my video guides you to find this relaxed abdominal breathing. It is very useful to master this skill. After all, consciously focusing on abdominal breathing helps to calm the mind in a stressful situation. If the diaphragm has become rigid, due to stress or tightly held abdominal muscles, the resulting superficial breathing in the top of the lungs leads to anxiety and even more stress.
When the movement of the diaphragm is restricted, our breathing mechanism has to rely on the work of minor respiratory muscles. These are less efficient, require more effort and result in shallower breathing. Not only is this shallow breathing a waste of energy, but it also has a negative impact on the nervous system.
What about the back?
A rigid diaphragm causes other structures in the body to tighten, such as the throat and the back muscles. It is true that strong abs will stabilise the spine but when chronically contracted, they increase the tension and tightness of the lower back muscles. The diaphragm attaches along the front of the lumbar vertebrae, so its movement affects the spine. Free breathing provides a constant, healthy movement for the spine that encourages space between the vertebrae. This is essential for the health of our back.
An easy way to strengthen the abdominal muscles
So in short, if you would like to strengthen the abdominal muscles, definitely avoid holding the abdomen in all the time. If you want to strengthen the abdominal muscles, instead of holding them all the time, it is much more effective (and doable) to occasionally include a few minutes of “exaggerated abdominal breathing” in your day. You can do this by increasing the contraction of the abs and pelvic floor when you breathe out, and relax them fully when you inhale.