There’s something superheroic about being strapped into a pair of tight, high-waisted leggings. Your entire lower body is wrapped tightly – sometimes all the way down to your chest – which makes you feel as if you’re ready for anything that comes your way. You’ll feel fired up and super confident going into that spin class when you get into that kind of strength training – and, honestly, the tightness of them will make you feel tighter immediately (especially compared to sweating), even if you’re out of the house all day.
But have you ever wondered if there’s really a physical problem with pants like these? After all, we know that corset trainers and tight corsets are bad news. Maybe you’ve seen your body physically swell after taking off the tight corsets you wear in Pilates class, or wondered after seeing the marks you leave behind when you wear a pair of upper WFH all day.
It turns out that wearing tight, high-waisted pants can really have an impact on your health – especially when it comes to your core and pelvic floor, the set of muscles and ligaments that hold everything in your pelvis together. Here, pelvic floor physical therapist Hayley Kava, PT covers everything you need to know about what your favorite leggings might be doing to your body, and whether you should consider giving them up (or at least slipping into some sort of your Netflix marathon a little looser).
Effects on your breathing, core and pelvic floor
Let’s start with a little anatomy. “When we inhale, our diaphragm, the muscle at the bottom of our lungs, moves down and draws air into our lungs,” explains Kava. This increases the pressure in the abdominal cavity (the large cavity in your torso that houses many of your organs). “Our abdominal muscles and pelvic floor should also lengthen as we inhale to help us regulate the increase in pressure,” she says.
“When we wear very tight, high-waisted tights that prevent us from properly lengthening our abdominals by inhaling, we can develop a ‘reverse’ breathing pattern,” Kawa continues. In a reverse breathing pattern, when we inhale (or all the time), we begin to tighten our belly button, “which in turn keeps our pelvic floor muscles ‘tense’ in response to the increased pressure on our bodies. Breathe,” she says. In other words, you begin to tighten rather than lengthen your abs and pelvic floor as you inhale, then relax as you exhale.
This quick test will give you an idea of whether this is a problem for you. Without thinking too much about it, take a deep breath. If your stomach contracts instead of pushing out, then your breathing pattern will be the opposite.
All of this sounds like NBD, but “over time, this can lead to many different changes in our posture, core and pelvic floor,” says Kava. The diaphragm is “the main connector between our upper body and lower body, so this increased pressure can affect the upstream and downstream function of the chain.”
This can manifest itself as or lead to pelvic floor tension, urinary leakage, urinary urgency (i.e., inability to wait to urinate), constipation, painful intercourse, pelvic heaviness/pressure, and even pain like low back pain, hip pain, she says, and upper back and even neck pain.
Kava explains that wearing super tight pants and breathing the opposite way can also lead to more “upper chest” breathing, meaning that when you breathe through your neck, shoulders and back, it increases tension in all of those areas.
Before you ditch the leggings for good. . .
None of this sounds very good, does it? But like many things in life, moderation is the key here, and there is a time and place for your favorite tight leggings. But if you wear them day in and day out, they can become a problem.
“We breathe more than 20,000 times a day! If we spend most of the day breathing in this opposite pattern because of our pants, preventing proper core and pelvic floor movement, it definitely carries over into other areas of our lives,” says Kava.
Interestingly, Kava notes, “I think lounging around in these types of pants may have a bigger impact than exercising …… I think if you’re only wearing them for exercise and are being more form-oriented despite the tightness of the pants – I actually don’t mind a little bit of even compression on high-waisted leggings. Sometimes it can help you sense your breathing and pelvic floor (especially if it’s just after giving birth). This means that the sensory feedback a pair of tight leggings gives you can actually help you become more aware of your core and breathing during your workout and may help you stay in shape – and may even help you remember to breathe your abdomen to avoid breathing backwards.
That said, you may want to consider looser fitting pants for lounging around, working from home, traveling or wearing while you’re on your feet all day. If you want to know if a particular pair of pants you own is too tight, try this assessment from Kava.
Sit, stand or lie down with your hands on your lower (outer) rib cage and your fingers up to your abdomen.
Take a few breaths.
If you can inhale and “feel your rib cage and abdomen rise and the tights move with you rather than deeper, then you’re OK,” she says. “If they leave marks that prevent you from feeling that movement with your breath, or if you try to tuck your belly in with an inhale, they’re too tight.”
Both personally and as a recommendation to her clients, Kava says she prefers leggings that don’t have seams at the top of the waist. She says, “If it provides that nice slight compression without causing a squeeze that interrupts breathing, that’s a winner for me.”
Rest assured that if you need or want to wear some leggings that dig in, “it’s probably not going to be the end of the world in an hour or so,” Kava says. “But it may be helpful to do some restorative breathing work before, after and even during to get a good reset of your core, diaphragm and pelvic floor, and to make sure you don’t develop some less-than-ideal habits.”
Hey, look on the bright side: you’ve got one more excuse to wear a sweatshirt.