When You Keep Gripping Your Stomach: The Hourglass Syndrome

By Victoria Marsh
clear hour glass

Did you know that there’s such a thing as “hourglass syndrome?”

This syndrome is not synonymous with the popular hourglass figure, which is when a woman has proportionate and attractive curves. Hourglass syndrome (dubbed as the “lower belly pooch” or “the second set of boobs”) refers to women with an underdeveloped lower abdomen and overdeveloped upper abdominal muscles.

For some people, these muscles give the image of “core strength.” Your upper abdominal muscles look ripped, but in reality, you have weak core muscles.

Hourglass syndrome is the result of frequent stomach gripping, aka when you suck in your stomach so you can look thin. Some people attempt to improve their core strength by stomach gripping but fail to realize that by not engaging key muscle groups, they’re developing additional lines to their stomach (as well as compromise their posture and increase their risk for back injuries).

What is an Hourglass Syndrome?

The hourglass syndrome is a disorder where you habitually suck in your abdomen. By sucking in your stomach, you activate your upper abdominal muscles due to the pulling of the diaphragm (aka the muscles that sit under your lungs) toward the opposite direction. This causes inflation of your lungs.

When you suck in your abdomen, you pull your diaphragm inward, as well as your lower ribs. If you do this for an extended period, you enjoy an upturned belly button and a smaller waist, as well as a horizontal line on your stomach. It seems like a cool way to “lose fat” temporarily, but it’s unhealthy.

What Causes the Hourglass Syndrome?

Stomach gripping is a common disorder that causes many pain syndromes (such as hourglass syndrome). It happens when the diaphragm doesn’t function well or when there is too much tension in your upper abdominal muscles.

Think of it this way: your diaphragm is like an umbrella sitting beneath your lungs at the bottom of the ribcage. Normally, your diaphragm contracts to the outer margins, pulling the center of the diaphragm down, stabilizing your spine and inflating the lungs.

When you have hourglass syndrome, your diaphragm contracts towards the center instead. This gives you a narrow waist or an hourglass look.

Practicing incorrect exercise methods (some that stem from childhood) or prolonged abnormality of the abdominal muscle walls can cause hourglass syndrome, too.

Why Does Stomach Gripping Happen in the First Place?

If you’re always sucking in your stomach, it could be due to one of the following reasons:

  1. Aesthetics or poor habits. Nearly everyone wants a flat stomach so they practice “effective” trends that force the upper section of their stomachs to work hard. If you keep sucking in your stomach for a prolonged period, your brain rewires from your normal stabilization patterns to this new version. This results in a bad habit.
  2. Non-ideal development. In some cases, the muscle activation program doesn’t function well from the start. Some babies develop stomach gripping to compensate for the improper muscle activation, causing them to carry this habit to adulthood.
  3. Protective patterns. Some people grip their stomachs to cope with a painful injury. However, once the injury is gone, they tend to still practice stomach gripping.

What are the Consequences of the Hourglass Syndrome?

If you have the hourglass syndrome, you are at higher risk for the following:

  1. Neck pain. If your diaphragm can’t descend normally, your breathing will be compromised. Your diaphragm should descend downward, extend to your abdomen and expand your lungs. For people with the hourglass disorder, their normal breathing pattern is disturbed, causing their shoulders and chest to lift instead of compensating. This causes a great strain on the neck, which leads to neck pain and migraines.
  2. Lower back pain. Your diaphragm stabilizes your lower back. When it’s not working properly, your lower back is bound to be in pain. Overworking your muscles can also cause tightness and pain.
  3. Acid reflux. Apart from balancing and breathing functions, your diaphragm also serves as a sphincter. It keeps food from going up your throat. With a damaged diaphragm, you increase your risk of acid reflux.
hour glass and woman
Photo by Tasha Jolley on Unsplash

Is Hourglass Syndrome Permanent?

Fortunately, it’s not. But you can manage it.

However, there’s no one-size-fits-all hourglass syndrome solution. It takes serious work, especially if you’ve been stomach gripping for years.

The first step towards recovery is awareness. Increase your awareness when you’re stomach gripping when you don’t have to be. If you’re supposed to be working on your abs because it’s a gym day, that’s OK. But you should avoid gripping your stomach when you’re chilling at home, eating dinner or trying out clothes. With the latter, we know that people keep saying you should “keep your stomach in” when fitting clothes. Don’t listen to them. Instead, let your stomach relax to reverse the damage.

Next, retrain your muscles. Abdominal massages and belly breathwork can help you do this. If you’re experiencing difficulty with these exercises, go down on all fours and let your stomach fall naturally. When you take relaxed breaths, the air shouldn’t fill your chest but your torso. If your shoulders rise when you breathe, you’re not breathing through your belly.

If this is the case, continue relaxing the stomach area and fill it with air. Once you’ve mastered this move, proceed to more advanced exercises. Consider practicing these exercises while standing up or sitting down.

Advanced exercises to offset your hourglass syndrome are:

  • Wall posture. This exercise requires proper posture. You must also match your pelvic movements with deep breaths from your diaphragm. To perform this exercise, tuck your pelvis, flatten your spine against the wall and arch your lower back to create a space between the wall and your spine. Keep your legs straight and your back against the wall. Some patients bend their knees to make movements with their pelvis. If this is you, always keep your legs straight.
  • Core plank. A core plank engages all of your abdominal muscles, including the transverse abdominis and the lower abdominals. When you perform a core plank, it’s OK to experience postural collapse. As you lose your form, relax before you re-start. If you have more energy, do another core plank.

If your hourglass disorder is more serious, consult with a physiotherapist.

Treatments for Hourglass Syndrome

Physiotherapy is the typical treatment for hourglass syndrome. Their goal is to properly activate your diaphragm and relax the overloaded muscles of your back and abdomen. They will also help their patients break free from the habit of sucking in their stomachs. This can be achieved through therapy sessions as recommended by the physiotherapist.

 

Are you experiencing hourglass syndrome? Do you struggle with stomach gripping? If yes, know that you’re not alone and there is help available.

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