How many of us are walking around with our bellies sucked in all the time? I know the belly is a sensitive area for so many of us and we've been conditioned to believe that a flat stomach is ideal. BUT did you know that when we constantly suck in we limit our ability to get stronger?! We create instability in the spine and pelvis. We even cause our heart and our digestive system to have to work harder. YUP all of these things happen when we continuously suck our bellies in. I’m happy to say I’ve given up sucking in my stomach and the positive changes I've seen have been incredible!
So why do we suck in? Maybe in an attempt to strengthen the core? Maybe because fitness and diet culture have blasted us with images of flat stomachs as the "ideal" body. Well f$@# that I'm so grateful I've been able to let that go and truly learn to love my body as it is. It wasn't an easy journey but it's possible. And I hope that this will inspire you to try letting your belly relax!! We’ve all heard it in a fitness or yoga class “pull our navel to our spine”, “scoop your belly in”. “It will protect your back”. Unfortunately these cues are not all that great. They are just a description that was easy for new movers to understand, that became popular, that got repeated. These cues attempt to help us connect with the deepest core muscle, the Transverse Abdominis (TA), but instead they often prevent the muscle from connecting in a functional way. Pulling the navel in can be an okay cue to gain awareness of the abdomen and to learn how to feel some kind of muscle engagement. BUT when it becomes an unconscious habit and the only way to feel core engagement it can lead to a ton of compensations and decrease your stability and strength.
When I first set out to create new movement patterns relaxing my belly was super challenging. I could barely make it three steps without my navel pulling in towards my spine. I would constantly have to remind myself to relax. It was a super uncomfortable feeling to let it relax.
When the navel is pulled into the spine it can cause over-engagement to occur in the obliques. This can limit breathing, create rigidity and bracing which decreases stability and strength. Let's explore. Pull your belly in and now try to take a really deep belly breath while keeping the navel pulled in. Can’t do it can you?!
Your diaphragm is a dome-shaped structure that helps you breath, it aids with digestion, helps your heart beat, works in relation to the pelvic floor and is interwoven with your deepest core muscles. When you pull your belly in, you limit the ability for your diaphragm to expand and contract. Meaning it cannot function optimally, and the other systems have to pick up the slack. Your heart takes on more work, and your digestive system has to work harder.
When the navel is pulled in, it also moves the stuff in your abdominal cavity around. Your subcutaneous fat can be pushed in a number of different directions, so your guts get moved into territory of your other parts. Depending on how the guts get displaced, overtime this can lead to problems in the stomach and the pelvic floor.
Once I got past the discomfort of letting my belly relax, I was amazed at how calm I felt. I’ve always struggled with anxiety and this was greatly reduced by relaxing my belly. For the first time in a very long time I felt calm. In big groups I was no longer distracted or worried about what I was going to say next. I was so much less anxious. Why was this happening?
When your belly is relaxed you can breathe well, your diaphragm moves well, and when this occurs it stimulates the vagus nerve. Stimulation of the vagus nerve sends a message to your brain telling you to relax, think-feed, breed and rest. So by relaxing my belly I was allowing my diaphragm to function with more ease. When my belly was pulled in, I had a more shallow breathing pattern which stimulates the flight or fight response. Essentially when the belly was pulled in I was walking around in a state of stress, ready to fight, freeze or flee at any moment. When it was relaxed I was tapping into my parasympathetic nervous system.
I also noticed that I felt stronger not just in my core but in my entire body. As I mentioned before, the diaphragm has a relationship to the deeper core layers. This means that breathing and strengthening the core go hand in hand. In order to create core stability the diaphragm must move well. If you restrict the diaphragm’s movement by pulling the navel to the spine, you also limit the ability to strengthen the deeper core layers. Your muscles are not able to be used to their full potential. The deep core is your support system and when it’s not functioning well other areas, have to pick up the slack. This can lead to pain, strain and tension in the rest of the body. So better breathing leads to a stronger core, a stronger core leads to a stronger ore stable body!!
Have fun with this by exploring your own movement patterns. Next time you go for a walk give it a try! How many steps can you take before your belly button pulls back to your spine? If you want to learn more about diaphragmatic breathing, core strength or move in a body positive space join me at JHDC in studio or online! Much love,