Corsets and their Effect on Muscle Tone, Sculpting & Flexibility
Corseting obviously affects many parts of the body, some systems more obviously than others. One of the more obvious parts that corsetry affects are the underlying core muscles – almost every week, someone asks me if corsets have caused any muscle weakness or atrophy in my core. I would argue that my core has only improved its strength since beginning tightlacing, because it’s made me more conscientious about my posture and muscle tone.
Can Corsets Cause Muscle Atrophy? Can Corsets Worsen your Posture?
If you wear your corset 23 hours a day, 7 days a week (taking it off only to shower and change), it is true that you may experience muscle atrophy, especially in your oblique muscles. Those who do experience atrophy may notice that they get fatigued easily when standing unsupported by their corset for long periods of time. However, nobody has ever flopped over at the waist or snapped their spine in half, from my research. This scenario is simply not realistic.
The risk and amount of atrophy depends on how long and how tight you wear your corset. If you’re wearing your corset with more than a 4-6″ reduction, it’s more likely that the corset will encourage muscle stretching, and by extension relaxation – this is great for people who have overtense muscles who experience back cramping or spasms, but relaxation over too long a time is what can cause atrophy.
It is of my opinion that wearing your corset to the point of atrophy is not beneficial. I try to maintain moderation in my tightlacing, where I enjoy wearing corsets but I also enjoy my uncorseted time. I don’t want to feel dependent (physically or psychologically) on the corset.
Not everyone experiences atrophy, however. Some corseters have even experienced that wearing their corset at a slightly lighter reduction has helped them improve their posture at all times (even when uncorseted) through muscle memory. Further, being lightly corseted has encouraged them to keep their abdominals engaged at all times. There are small things you can do to engage your muscles while wearing your corset. While I don’t necessarily condone trying to force your muscles to flex in a corset (typically you should not have to “fight” nor “help” a well-constructed corset), I occasionally push my abdominal muscles against the front wall of the corset as an isotonic exercise, and then I try to pull my abdominals inward, away from the front wall of the corset as much as possible, with a focus on the latter exercise. Even when you’re wearing your corset, it’s still possible to engage some of those muscles, at least up to a certain reduction – so atrophy of your core muscles while wearing a corset is not absolutely true.
Corsets, through encouraging a consistently proper posture, may help the vertebral ligaments to adapt and support the spine to maintain erect posture at all times
In a recent SciShow talk show, Michael Aranda and Hank Green discussed spinal posture and how slouching is encouraged by the ligaments between the vertebrae stretching over time. It was also proposed that this process is eventually reversible, and by maintaining a consistently erect posture, then the ligaments may shorten again (and the muscles of the back may become accustomed to holding this position) so that one’s “neutral” posture is naturally erect and can be enjoyed effortlessly.
However, until the day arrives that your ligaments do shorten, many people find it exhausting to hold an erect posture, or they may often forget and begin to slouch again. Wearing a corset can serve as a reminder to maintain proper posture at all times that its worn. While overbust corsets or corsets with shoulder straps help to also keep your shoulders back, even wearing a normal underbust can help correct posture in the lumbar and low-thoracic area, and may help to set up the proper “stacking” of the rest of your vertebrae. By keeping your spine in this position, the ligaments may eventually shorten, whether or not your core muscles are engaged. Of course, if you do want to consistently use more of your own core muscles, you can simply wear your corset at a relatively light reduction, using it just as a rigid reminder to maintain proper posture but you’re depend more on yourself.
Does muscle tone impede your waist training progress?
Many people avoid exercising their core muscles because they believe that muscle is less compressible than fat (technically true), that well-toned muscles become larger over time (not necessarily), and therefore it will be more difficult to achieve their corseting goals (not necessarily). But in my opinion, this idea is not so simple.
The functional part of your muscles are called sarcomeres, which are contained inside the myofibrils, inside the muscle cells (myocytes). These are the fibers which are responsible for contraction. Surrounding your sarcomeres is the sarcoplasm, which is rich with glycogen, nutrients, and proteins like myoglobin that brings oxygen to the muscle cells.
There are two elements to muscle growth (hypertrophy): sarcomere hypertrophy, which increases muscle density, tone and strength but not so much size. This is why some people are little but mighty. Then there’s sarcoplasmic hypertrophy which makes the muscle bigger and puffier by increasing glycogen stores around the fibers, but this doesn’t directly affect the strength of the muscle.
Exercising your core can increase the size of the muscles, but most women don’t have to worry about this (there’s a genetic predisposition). But if you’re concerned about this, it’s worth researching ways to increase muscle tone without changing their size too much. I didn’t study exercise science in-depth but there are hundreds of forums that go into more detail about this – I personally just stick with the exercises I mention in the next section. (Click through the “read more” tab if you’re on the main site page)
Exercises I do (out of the corset) to increase tone and prevent atrophy
I would always recommend regular exercise and toning (whether you wear corsets or not), but f you do plan to wear your corset more than half the time you’re awake (8 hours a day, 5-6 days a week or more), I would make daily core training a strict part of your regimen (unless you only wear your corset to sleep, in which case you’re not using your core to maintain upright anyway). It doesn’t have to be a lot of exercise, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. I gained considerable core strength by following Pilates instructional videos, as almost every move teaches you to keep your core tight, your ribcage in, and your muscles engaged at all times.
On my lazy days, even if I don’t do cardio, I will still do some some regular core-toning exercises, including 3 sets of: 50 bicycle crunches, 30 reverse crunches or leg lifts, and 20 seconds of planking (planks also strengthen the lumbar area of your spine). If you want to really work out your oblique section, side kicks in kickboxing will definitely strengthen this area. These exercises take less than 10 minutes altogether. If you’re not wearing your corset that day, you can break up your sets throughout the day: sitting through a commercial break, or waiting for your microwave to go off. I also keep my core engaged while on the elliptical or walking.
Can you “sculpt” muscle using corsets?
Whether or not you can change the shape of your obliques to give you more of an hourglass shape is disputed. If it does work, here is my hypothesis as to how: When you intensely work out your muscles, your fibers break down and must be rebuilt – typically denser and stronger, as your muscles are trying to prevent such mild injury from occurring again in the future. Directly after exercise (when your muscles are still warm, broken and tangled) is when many people recommend you stretch your muscles to help realign the fibers and encourage them to heal in a certain way. Corseting, especially with certain silhouettes, can definitely stretch the oblique muscles.
I try to plan out my day such that I can do some intense activity in the afternoon/evening, take a shower, and throw on my corset within an hour of finishing my workout, when my muscles are still warm and complacent. I’ve also suggested this schedule to others, and those who have followed this same regimen had reported back that it’s easier to get a stronger cinch in their corset this way (compared to corseting over a fully healed and/or cold muscle). IF oblique muscles are indeed encouraged into rebuilding themselves in an an hourglass shape with the use of corsets, this would be the best way that I can think of doing it.
Fran Blanche, owner and corsetiere of Contour Corsets, tested the long-term, semi-permanent effects of waist training on herself for a year. She fashioned a sports corset that was specifically designed to take the stress of exercising in a corset. She also mentioned that she’s naturally lean (low body fat percentage) and she wore her corset at a 35% reduction (that would be the equivalent of someone going from a 30″ natural waist to about 19″ corseted) and this is what she reported:
“My persistence of shape when out of the corset was high and I could palpate my muscles, so I know that the muscle wall had adopted the corset shape when out of the corset, about 4-5” larger than the closed corset interior waist size. But as I said, I do not know of anyone else who did high reduction tightlacing with hard cardio in a specially designed sport corset, so my results may have been unique. “
It’s worth stating that I don’t necessarily condone working out in a corset because it can ruin a corset if it’s not made for this type of stress – I do know of some weight lifters who have used corsets in lieu of a lifting belt to support their abdomens, but unless you’re already experienced in both corseting and the exercises that you do, you know how to pace yourself and preferably monitor your cardiac output and respiration, AND you have a corset specifically made for exercising in, I would err on the side of not working out in your corset and simply putting your corset on as soon as possible after working out (and having a shower).
A little more on stretching:
Imagine the line that your oblique muscles form naturally – in general, it’s in a relatively straight line. When you are bending to one side, one oblique becomes stretched as the distance between your ribcage and your iliac crest increases. When you’re corseted, you are pulling the obliques inward, following the fact that a curve is longer than a straight line from point A to point B, this means that your obliques are stretched when wearing a corset at a relatively large reduction – and the corset mimics stretching of the oblique muscles simultaneously on both sides. When you first start corseting, you may experience this as a bit of soreness or warm/tingling feeling that’s reminiscent of stretching, say, your hamstrings.
This is another reason to go slowly with your corseting; your muscles and tendons need time to increase elasticity, in order to prevent injury. When I am tightlacing a little more intensely, I notice that my flexibility in the sides of my torso increases and I’m able to stretch further in my side bends when uncorseted.
In “The Contortionist’s Handbook” online, there is a short blurb on the effects of combining contortion with tightlacing, which is supposedly practiced by individuals in Germany, The Netherlands and Russia. The author writes
“the contortion training makes it easier for them to tight-lace rather extremely as well as the tight-lacing helps them to get more limber faster and most have been able to fold their backs a little bit over a year after beginning! One of the reasons can be that the corset simulates the effect to the body of a deep backbend or a backfold where the organs are very much compressed and displaced and the ability to breathe deeply is reduced. The corset wearer’s bodies has adapted to this due to the constriction and therefore the positions involving backbends are much easier to do than normally.”
Unfortunately I haven’t really seen evidence or correlation between tightlacing and backbends, although I do know that there are a few contortion artists that also happen to wear corsets (including Zlata, who can be seen wearing 16″ corsets here – NSFW). So as I say time and time again, take this information with a grain of salt, because correlation is not necessarily causation.
As you can see, wearing corsets does not necessarily cause atrophy or cause bad posture by creating a dependence on the corset – on the contrary, wearing corsets in moderation can actually help improve posture and can encourage your core muscles to remain engaged. Also, exercising and toning your core muscles is not necessarily unconducive to tightlacing; rather combining regular toning and corseting can help your body take on the shape of the corset semi-permanently if that is your wish. As I mentioned before, it highly depends on the individual and not only their body, but their habits: what type of corset, how long you wear it, how tight you wear it, what level of fitness you’re coming from, etc. I encourage beginners to slowly settle themselves into a moderate, balanced regimen and to approach tightlacing with a healthy perspective and realistic goals. Remember that any lasting changes will come about with time, and it’s not for the impatient.
*This article contains my own opinion and is provided strictly for informational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of a medical doctor. Please talk to your doctor if you’d like to start wearing a corset.*