So what do you do? You suck it in. You might suck it in to hide it. You might suck it in because you think this is what „engaging the core“ is all about. Well, sucking in your belly is disrupting the normal pressure in your abdomen and has nothing to do with contracting your deepest abdominal muscles.
You CAN re-connect with your belly again. Over time you can even flatten it so you like looking in the mirror again. All you need to do is get the muscles to work again. And the first step is letting it go! Release your belly. Let it be as big as it wants to be. The hardest thing of all. But now the muscle isn’t “stuck“ anymore and it can actually contract.
Getting ready to contract the deep abdominal muscle (transversus abdominis aka TvA) correctly
How you position your pelvis and rib cage really matters to the proper functioning of your TvA – after all the muscle attaches to large portions of both. Check it out on this image from Gray's Anatomy.
How should the pelvis be aligned?
Your ASIS (Anterior Superior Iliac Spine) and your pubic bone should be in a vertical line when standing or sitting. It will give you a nice curvature in your lower back. To find your ASIS you can just put your hands in your groin area and then walk them up until you can palpate the part of your iliac spine that most protrudes. Or maybe it makes more sense if I tell you to put your hands on your hips and find the point that protrudes in front.
So when you are sitting it should look like this.
Now that you are sitting in neutral pelvis, relax your belly and check in with your rib cage. Do you feel a strain in your upper back? Are you thrusting your rib cage forward? Try to relax your rib cage back and lower it down so it starts to align with your neutral pelvis. Relax your belly again. And breathe.
Some cues for you:
Take air in through your nose and let the air fill your rib cage.
If you notice your shoulders coming up to your ears when breathing, focus on sending the breath into the lower half of your rib cage.
Exhale through your mouth.
Take your time.
Your belly stays relaxed the whole time.
Once you get the hang of it and this feels natural, you can start doing some TvA contraction exercises.
Contracting the TvA
The TvA wraps around our waist like a girdle and contracts like one. Pretty cool.
Also make sure that your rib cage is not thrusting forward.
Let your belly relax after each contraction and check in with your pelvis and rib cage and re-set if necessary.
How many? It's up to you. More doesn't necessarily mean faster results. Focus on maintaining neutral pelvis and dropping the rib cage as you go throughout the day and when doing the exercise. And ... relax your belly. Now that you know how to contract the TvA properly you can hopefully see that your habit of sucking in your belly has nothing to do with contracting your abdominals.
PS: One day you don't even have to think about contracting your abs, they will do it for you. Like they are supposed to. If only we used our bodies the way we should. Our habit of excessive sitting is not exactly helping. The exercise shown is a good starting point - since we sit all the time, we might as well sit properly and wake up our core. When you're done with it, get out of the chair, do a calf stretch, put a pair of really flat and comfy shoes on and go for a walk. It will help with the belly blues!
PSS: A quote from Katy Bowman, biomechanist, about core strength.
Core strength does not mean abdominal exercises! It is the ability to stabilize the bones in the upper body, rotate the torso with proper spinal curvature, and maintain pelvic position while sitting, standing, and exercising! It’s the ability to control the bladder, stabilize the ligaments of the knees with the lower abdominal wall, and breathe correctly while doing all of these!