The Real Dr NO! Don’t hold in your tummy like Ursula… How the iconic Bond girl pose could leave you with an agonising bad back
Ursula Andress made the pose popular with her bikini scene in Dr No in 1962
Madonna’s number one fashion tip for years has been to ‘hold your stomach in’
Flexing the abdominal muscles hard to achieve the pose is bad for your posture
Ursula Andress in Dr No held this iconic pose which has influenced women for more than half a century
Madonna, when asked for her number one fashion tip, once said: ‘Hold your stomach in.’ And that’s become a mantra for many women, and men too, of all ages.
The Material Girl may now be in her 60s, but the Instagram generation are just as self-conscious: no gym-selfie would be complete without a display of washboard tummy that could only be achieved with some serious breathing-in.
By flexing the abdominal muscles hard, as if doing a stomach crunch, while slightly tucking in your bottom, it’s possible to reduce your waist circumference by a good few inches. It’s a clever trick.
But, as a personal trainer, I tell my clients: stop doing it. Just let it all hang out!
Why? Well, at least anecdotally (I doubt anyone has ever studied this, but if they have, do get in touch) I know many people don’t just do it for a picture. They’ll be sucking in their tummy for much of the day, thinking it’s good posture.
But it’s not. In fact, postural ‘misappropriation’ such as this could actually damage your back.
Clenching adds strain and reduces mobility
Yes, a strong core – the term we use to describe the muscles that surround the torso – is important. It’s what supports the spine and keeps us upright. When lifting something heavy, it’s important to engage the core to protect the back. Likewise, slouching, or a hunched-over stance, is going to cause problems in the long run. But constantly sucking in your tummy and squeezing the abdominal muscles may actually be bad for the back.
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Osteopath Gavin Smith, from Holland Park Osteopathic Practice in West London, explains: ‘I often see patients with back pain caused by over-clenching their stomach muscles, or other strange postures that they consider athletic.
‘Some do this because they had back pain in first place and are so worried about it getting worse that they flex the abdominal muscles all the time. Then there are others who have read somewhere, or been told by a personal trainer, that they should clench more to strengthen their core area.
‘In fact, all this does is increase pressure on muscles in the abdominal area and lower or upper back, putting them under increased strain and restricting mobility.’
Why your natural curves are good
The spine is made up of small bones, called vertebrae, stacked on top of each other. When viewed from the back, it runs straight down the middle of the trunk. But looked at from the side, the spine naturally curves in such a way that it can distribute the load it is supporting equally across the entire structure.
Madonna has been a powerful advocate for holding in your stomach, but her advice might be leaving you at risk of ongoing back pain
These curves are vital. They keep the body’s centre of gravity aligned over the hips and pelvis. And if this soft S shape becomes flattened, it can have painful consequences.
The body can start to tilt forward when standing, which makes muscles and joints ache to the point where everyday tasks become almost impossible and a daily diet of painkillers is sometimes necessary to cope with the discomfort. We know slouching over a desk, or craning over a mobile phone leads, to back problems. But, for similar reasons, so does sucking in your tummy for prolonged periods.
Your desk workout will flatten the spine
For millions of office workers, the idea that you can give your abdominal muscles a workout while you sit at your desk is the perfect keep-fit solution when you cannot get to the gym. Some so-called experts claim repeatedly clenching the abs while sitting still throughout the day is a form of isometric training and will get you in shape. But there’s a potential downside. Flexing all the time in this way can ‘flatten’ the spine.
Constantly contracting the abdominal muscles pulls the stomach back towards the spine, but naturally the hips rotate forwards, which irons out the curve of the lower back. ‘Those curves in your spine are natural and healthy and they vary from one person to another,’ says Smith. The strain could, in theory, lead to lower or upper back pain.
Breathing, too, can suffer from constant abdominal flexing. When we breathe in, the diaphragm – the sheet of muscle that separates the thorax and abdomen – drops down, expanding the volume of the chest cavity, allowing air to rush into the lungs. At the same time, your stomach sticks out in order to accommodate the diaphragm. Then, the diaphragm and stomach return to normal, causing exhalation. But if you’re holding your stomach in, the diaphragm has nowhere to go and research suggests this can lead to the body getting nearly a third less oxygen than normal.
The result is constant shallow breathing, which in studies has been linked to feelings of anxiety. Not a good look.
The trouble with poor posture is that the problems it presents are progressive. Over weeks, months and years, the body adapts and adjusts to the positions we put it in.
We know now that sitting hunched over a desk is bad for us, and that we should change positions at least every 20 minutes. But a habit of sucking in your tummy will gradually lead to changes and imbalances in the spine, shoulders, and elsewhere, and pain. In fact, it may already have happened.
Here’s how to find some balance…
Good posture isn’t easy. In fact, it can feel pretty unnatural at first. When standing, a good rule of thumb is this: imagine there is a line running straight down through your ear lobe, through your shoulder, hips and down to the middle of your ankle.
Doing this is the sure way to know that your joints and muscles are properly balanced and well supported to leave you comfortable while standing for long. If anything feels tight or flexed, especially in the back, then relax it.
Your tummy will stick out a bit – but forget what you see in magazines and social media. This is what the body should look like!