Sucking in your abs can damage your health.

Abs workout: is engaging your core all the time bad for your health?

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We all know a strong core is important, but how much is too much? Writer Lisa Bowman learned the hard way, experiencing a plethora of health issues as a result of consciously engaging her abs when she didn’t need to. 

I’ve been sucking my stomach in for as long as I can remember – partly to do with perpetual bloat and society’s ridiculous beauty standards (which I’m trying to shake off), and partly because I know a strong core is important, especially when working out.

I thought tensing my tummy all the time would strengthen it and give me good posture, but I recently noticed that constant tensing during yoga was preventing me from activating my ujjayi breath (deep breathing). 

It was also really uncomfortable engaging my abs in an attempt to sit up straight at my desk, when my body was trying to digest lunch. The worst part, though? I started to pee a bit when I laughed or sneezed. It turns out these are all symptoms of engaging your core too much.

Core strength… but not as we know it

“It’s a myth that the core is just the abdominals,” explains Anji Gopal, osteopath, yoga teacher and founder of BackCare Foundation.

“The core is a combination of muscles that work together to support, move and power your body. These are the specific spinal muscles (multifidus), abdominals (transverse ab), the psoas and two diaphragms – the thoracic (breathing) and pelvic (pelvic floor). Think of them as a ‘core cylinder of support’.

“We need all the muscles to be strong and flexible – imbalance (too strong or too weak) can cause dysfunction, which may result in pain. I often see patients who have only been working the front, so have strong abs and weak lower back muscles.” 

As well as lower back issues, incorrect core engagement can lead to neck and shoulder pain.

“The core muscles need to be strong and flexible to take on extra pressure where needed,” advises Rosie Stockley, a women’s fitness specialist and founder of MAMAWELL.

“They work together, so when some areas are in tension, others, correspondingly, will be more relaxed. When powerlifting, for example, the core will activate to provide the support for these movements. The core muscles need to recruit with power – with the breath as the instigator – so having them already activated won’t allow this to happen effectively. By relaxing them, they can engage with full strength when needed.” 

Core strength and incontinence

The most shocking thing I noticed when engaging my abs too much was my weakened pelvic floor. “Constant engagement of the core (this might be from sucking in your tummy or always feeling the need to brace hard in exercise) can lead to a shortening or tightening of the muscles,” says personal trainer Beth Davies, who specialises in pelvic health.

“The pelvic floor muscles are three layers of muscles that support the pelvic organs, contribute to the effective elimination of waste and support good sexual function. In a constantly shortened position, it becomes harder for them to relax and lengthen, so they may not be able to respond to the demands placed upon them.” This, she says, can lead to leaking, particularly with higher activities, or an inability to hold on when you need a wee. Sex may also feel uncomfortable or painful if the pelvic floor muscles are unable to relax.

Sucking your tummy in restricts your intestines, which need room to function properly, so you may also find you develop digestive issues such as constipation. 

Breathing is another function that can be negatively affected by over-engagement of the abs. You can’t take full breaths when tensing your tummy as this prevents the diaphragm from dropping down into the abdomen, stopping the lungs from expanding properly. Studies have shown that too much shallow breathing activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, causing you to feel stressed.  

When should we be engaging our core?

If you’re guilty of tensing your tummy too much, it’s important to learn when to engage and when to relax, and to understand that constant engagement isn’t a requirement of good posture – something I previously thought. If you’re used to sucking your tummy in all the time, start by consciously allowing the abdominal muscles to relax, and letting yourself take deep breaths into the belly, reminding yourself how it feels to let go. Do this regularly and you’ll soon notice when you’re instinctively engaging when you shouldn’t be.

“Core engagement should happen naturally as a response to movement or change in pressure, eg if you lift a cup of coffee or check your phone, you may feel a gentle ‘switching on’,” explains Davies.   

“How much conscious engagement depends on the task at hand. Lifting a weighted barbell needs more than lifting a 2kg dumbbell, for example.

“For many tasks, performing them on an exhale breath provides strength and support, but for very high load tasks, bracing may be more effective. It’s about matching the task to the tension required and also remembering that for a lot of the time, we don’t need that extra engagement. You can let your tummy relax!” 

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Images: Getty

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