Don’t Walk Around Engaging Your Stomach Muscles

stomach musclesA great deal of information exists for anyone interested in searching. Look hard enough and you can find numerous points of view on just about any subject.

When it comes to posture and movement many people I respect say things that are the opposite of what I personally espouse.

What I do resonates with some people and not others. Putting oneself out onto the internet allows anyone and everyone to voice an opinion about how silly or stupid you are. And while I receive mostly positive feedback, some of the criticism is withering (and welcome).

This all refers to a session with a client this past week. Some people I work with work with a lot of practitioners. The more the merrier is the approach some people take to changing their bodies, and who am I to say otherwise? More power to them if they can integrate many opposing views.

The client in question was walking around, and while she wasn’t moving poorly, it was clear that she was holding in her stomach muscles. She told me that someone told her that in order to provide better support for her lower back she should gently engage her core during the day.

I have to admit that I love a conundrum of this sort. I really like the person who told her to do this but disagree completely.

Here is the simple explanation I provided to my client.

  • She did need more core tone to support the lower spine
  • She needed to get her legs directly under her pelvis to properly align the psoas which is more important than the stomach muscles for spinal stability.
  • People need to build better tone through specific exercises and improved movement patterns.
  • Engaging your core while going through your daily life can support the lower back but it will almost definitely interfere with a natural breathing pattern and I think the upside is outweighed by the downside.
  • If you are holding your stomach muscles today, how will you know when to stop?

Lots of different practices work. And different practices serve different people. I like to think that I am right about everything but that is pretty meaningless. So I mostly try to help people feel what it is I or any practitioner is talking about so that they can make their own informed decisions about the choices they make on the road to an active pain free life.


On the Level with The Psoas and the Diaphragm
Sunday Morning Music: Into the Woods
  1. I’m not sure…..this is an issue I’ve thought about a lot. Theoretically, I agree with you. But in practice, I find that sometimes if I’ve been experiencing some minor back pain, and I try to make a point of *gently* engaging my abdominals at intervals throughout the day (when I think about it), it does seem to help. I think the word GENTLY is key. If it’s gentle enough it shouldn’t interfere with breathing. My personal opinion, which I’m sure isn’t shared with everyone, is that you should not be doing abdominal breathing while you’re in movement. As a ballet dancer, you CANNOT do abdominal breathing and dance at the same time (which requires using your abdominal muscles), so we learn to breath into the sides and back of the body while in motion. Also, I wouldn’t recommend “holding in” your abdominals constantly throughout the day. The trouble is, there’s a great many subtleties involved, and most people aren’t kinesthetically aware enough to deal with them, so your advice may be the best after all.

  2. Thanks for this post Jonathan! Like you say in your intro, and Joyce reffirms, there are so many subtleties.

    6 years ago my chiro told me I needed to engage my abs, but I took that cue to extremes and over-engaged, pulling the front of the ribcage down. As I took to daily ashtanga practice, I gradually figured out that a GENTLE lower transverse engagement was what I really needed. Over the years this has become more subtle and slid down further to become only a slight suction above the pubic bone. My experience has been that it’s inaccurate to say only abdominal breathe or only chest breathing… It’s both! This allows for both expansion of the abdominal and thoracic cavities, so you get both abdominal breathing and ribcage breathing simultaneously. However, it’s taken years of strong and consistent ashtanga practice to sort all this out.

    What advice to give to those who do not have a refined level of body awareness seems endlessly open to debate 😉

    • Hi Mike, Thanks for commenting. What I hope to do with the blog and my walking program is talk to those who do not have a refined level of body awareness. I try to keep it short simple and relatable because the number of people with no body awareness dwarfs the number of those with. Best, Jonathan

  3. Abdominal breathing means that the breath is “initiated” at the belly button (maybe an inch under) but has to immediately expand through the lower rib cage which automatically allows the whole rib cage to expand normally, as in “normal breathing”. Abdominal only is as bad as upper thoracic only as it prevents the diaphragm from moving effortlessly which is what we must return to as soon as the real need to “engage” the core in effort is over. So when people talk about abdominal breathing it’s to put the emphasis away from the common upper thoracic breathing in my view. Thus the need to explain what is normal relaxed breathing.

  4. Here is a great 3D animation (sample here ) by Jessica Wolfe who writes : “I teamed up with Dreamworks animator Marty Havran to create the first ever three-dimensional animation that exhibits all the muscles, bones, and organs of respiration. You can appreciate the uniqueness of the rhythm of our breathing coordination. From a professional standpoint, this film benefits healthcare professionals, actors, voice and singing teachers, yoga instructors, athletes, and physical therapists. For the layperson, the animation helps correct the many misconceptions people have about their breathing. The breath is potent fuel that can address problems caused by faulty breathing and restore vitality to life.”

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