Joanna Hess, PT, DPT, PRC, WCS
I’m a recent transplant to NYC. For the last four years, I was living abroad and working at a interdisciplinary sports hospital. I loved learning about physiotherapy culture around the world. We each had different contributions – the Greek wheel, Scandinavian eccentrics, Australian pain science, and Spanish hypopressives. Hypopressive exercises were magic exercises that helped resolve low back pain, prolapse, incontinence, and diastasis recti abdominis. So of course, I wondered, “Are Americans missing the boat?”
What are hypopressive exercises? And how do they work?
Hypopressive abdominal exercises (HAE) were developed by Marciel Caufriez as a response to the obsession with “the core” and the corresponding exercises (primarily crunches) that would increase downward pressure. Hypopressive abdominal exercises use a pressure gradient between the thorax (the upper part of your trunk) and abdominal cavity to create a “vacuum” effect. By creating a vacuum that draws pressure upward, your body automatically recruits transverse abdominis (TrA) and pelvic floor muscles (PFM). Both the PFM and TrA are core muscles and are important in many functions. The HAE sequence begins with static positions and progresses to dynamic and difficult movements. The set up for the exercise is:
- Three breaths filling the ribs making sure the sides are expanding.
- Breathe in focused on expanding ribs out and lower ribs up while minimizing belly movement.
- Then, breathe out working on spinal elongation and keeping ribs up and out. Hold the exhale for creating the vacuum and relaxing the diaphragm. The belly button should start to move up.
- Close the throat as if you were at the end of a swallow to lift, expand, inflate rib cage further increasing the vacuum and pressure differential—like an inhale, but without taking in air.
In diaphragmatic breath, inhalation causes the diaphragm to descend which increases intra-abdominal pressure and a reflexive eccentric contraction of the pelvic floor and abdominal wall(an eccentric contraction occurs when the muscles lengthen). Exhalation is a passive return to the diaphragm’s resting position and if it is a complete exhalation, the PFM and TrA will also contribute some activity. For the hypopressive vacuum, inhalation relies on upper chest and neck muscles instead of the respiratory diaphragm and intercostals (rib muscles). The inhalation lifts the rib cage up and gives more volume. The exhalation activates the PFM and TrA to compress the abdomen which increases the pressure of the abdomen. The pressure difference between the diaphragm is augmented by the closed inspiration and creates the vacuum that creates this automatic response. With HAE, the abdominal cavity has the same increase in pressure, possibly more, than with diaphragmatic breath, but because of the suction upwards, it feels like a different pressure.
What’s the relationship between hypopressive exercises and core coordination?
As measured by surface electromyography (EMG) and dynamic ultrasound, HAE consistently have comparable or less activation of the pelvic floor muscle and transverse abdominis than isolated, well-cued exercises (1-4). However, to increase TrA contraction, HAE with pelvic floor muscle contraction recruits more fibers more than pelvic floor contraction alone (4). HAE biases activation of deeper stabilizers–transverse abdominis, internal obliques, and pelvic floor over the more superficial rectus abdominis and external obliques(6). No research has evaluated the HAE claims of decreased downward abdominal cavity pressure. While HAE are progressed with consideration for increasing challenge, they are not incorporated into everyday positions which has an impact on the body’s ability to integrate into a task.
So, will hypopressive exercises fix my problems?
The solution for downward pressure gone wrong is not forcing upward pressure, but addressing why the body lost its adaptability for life’s demands. I rarely use hypopressive abdominal exercises as treatment for problems of the pressure system–pelvic organ prolapse, stress incontinence, diastasis recti abdominis, lumbar disc herniations, and ventral hernias. Studies show that HAE do not have an advantage over conventional TrA and PFM exercises (8) in losing postpartum weight (9), improving pelvic organ prolapse symptoms (2,4,5), or correcting diastasis recti (10).
Besides being less effective than conventional exercises for strengthening and symptom relief, HAE exchange downward and outward pressure for upward pressure and compensatory muscle patterns. This could show up as gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD), hiatal hernias, hyperinflated lungs with increased sympathetic drive (and immediate lightheadedness), restricted diaphragm, forward neck posture, or thoracic outlet syndrome. The respiratory diaphragm has a mechanical advantage for respiration over upper chest and neck muscles which have other postural functions.
Escaping gravity is not yet sustainable which means, normal life—breathing, digestion, walking, and laughing—includes downward pressure. If the goal is to decrease pressure on the pelvic floor, lying down with hips elevated, headstand, downward dog, or inversion table—none of these translate into movements of everyday life, but they also do not alter the body’s normal respiration and stabilization patterns. “First do no harm.”
If someone is having difficulty isolating the PFM and TrA, I would connect with diaphragmatic breath, vary effort level, try different verbal and manual cues, and modify the relative position of the pelvis to the spine (7). After correcting the mechanical “pressure problem,” I would use HAE if an individual is still having great difficulty identifying the transverse abdominis and over-recruiting the rectus abdominis. But, I then would progress out of HAE to a isolated strengthening progression integrated into functional movements. HAE is also one of many tools that can help in decreasing acute low back pain associated with muscle spasm.
I nod at the centuries of wisdom of yoga that note benefit from hypopressive practices for posture, digestion, invigoration, and automatic recruitment of core stability. But let’s also remember the time-tried basics of a healthy movement-filled lifestyle. As more studies are published, I look forward to learning more about subgroups and larger functional goals for which HAE have benefit. For now, the magic bullet for pelvic floor dysfunction is not hypopressive abdominal exercises. Isolated pelvic floor and transverse abdominis activation may be old-school, but are well-researched with strong support and are overwhelmingly more beneficial than HAE at addressing symptom alleviation and muscle strengthening.
Thank you so much for reading our blog, if you think physical therapy can help you. Please give us a call at either our midtown location 212-354-2622 or our downtown location 212-267-0240. We are offering free phone consultations at both offices for a short period!
Joanna Hess is a treating therapist at our downtown location
1. Brazalez BN, Lacomba MT, Mendez OS, Martin MA. The abdominal and pelvic floor muscular response during a hypopressive exercise: dynamic transabdominal ultrasound assessment. Br J Sports Med. 2018;52(Suppl 2):A22
2. Resende AP, Stüpp L, Bernardes BT, Oliveira E, Castro RA, Girão MJ, Sartori MG. Can hypopressive exercises provide additional benefits to pelvic floor muscle training in women with pelvic organ prolapse?. Neurourology and urodynamics. 2012 Jan;31(1):121-5.
3. Resende AP, Torelli L, Zanetti MR, Petricelli CD, Jármy-Di Bella ZI, Nakamura MU, Júnior EA, Moron AF, Girão MJ, Sartori MG. Can Abdominal Hypopressive Technique Change Levator Hiatus Area?: A 3-Dimensional Ultrasound Study. Ultrasound quarterly. 2016 Jun 1;32(2):175-9.
4. Stüpp L, Resende AP, Petricelli CD, Nakamura MU, Alexandre SM, Zanetti MR. Pelvic floor muscle and transversus abdominis activation in abdominal hypopressive technique through surface electromyography. Neurourology and urodynamics. 2011 Nov;30(8):1518-21.
5. Bernardes BT, Resende AP, Stüpp L, Oliveira E, Castro RA, Jármy di Bella ZI, Girão MJ, Sartori MG. Efficacy of pelvic floor muscle training and hypopressive exercises for treating pelvic organ prolapse in women: randomized controlled trial. Sao Paulo Medical Journal. 2012;130(1):5-9.
6. Ithamar L, de Moura Filho AG, Rodrigues MA, Cortez KC, Machado VG, de Paiva Lima CR, Moretti E, Lemos A. Abdominal and pelvic floor electromyographic analysis during abdominal hypopressive gymnastics. Journal of bodywork and movement therapies. 2018 Jan 1;22(1):159-65.
7. Sapsford R. Rehabilitation of pelvic floor muscles utilizing trunk stabilization. Manual therapy. 2004 Feb 1;9(1):3-12
8. Martín-Rodríguez S, Bø K. Is abdominal hypopressive technique effective in the prevention and treatment of pelvic floor dysfunction? Marketing or evidence from high-quality clinical trials?. Br J Sports Med. 2017 Sep 4:bjsports-2017.
9. Sanchez-Garcia JC, Rodriguez-Blanque R, Sanchez-Lopez AM, et al. Hypopressive abdominal physical activity and its includence on postpartum weight recovery: a randomized control trial. JONNPR. 2017; 2 (10): 473-483.
10. Gomez FR, Senin-Camargo FJ, Cancela-Cores A, et al. Effect of a hypopressive abdominal exercise program on the inter-rectus abdominis muscle distance in postpartum. Br J Sports Med 2018;52(Suppl 2):A21