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)