There's something superhero-y about strapping into a tight, high-waisted pair of leggings. Your entire lower body is wrapped up tight - sometimes all the way up to your rib cage - and it makes you feel as if you're ready for anything that comes your way. You feel hyped as heck going into that strength workout, super confident going into that spin class - and, let's be honest, their tightness has a way of making you feel instantly more put-together (especially compared to sweats), even when you aren't leaving the house all day.
But have you ever wondered whether pants like these are actually problematic, physiologically? After all, we know waist trainers and corsets are bad news. Maybe you wondered after you watched your body physically expand after taking off the skintight pair of leggings you wore to that Pilates class, or saw the marks they left when you wore a pair to WFH all day.
Turns out, wearing tight, high-waisted pants can indeed have an impact on your health - especially when it comes to your core and pelvic floor, a group of muscles and ligaments that support everything in your pelvis. Here, a pelvic floor physical therapist, Hayley Kava, PT, covers everything you need to know about what your fave leggings might be doing to your body, and whether or not you should consider giving them up (or at least slipping into something a bit looser for your Netflix marathons).
The Impact 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 the lungs, moves down to draw air into our lungs," Kava explains. This increases pressure in the abdominal cavity (the large cavity in your torso that houses many of your organs). "Our abs and pelvic floor should also lengthen with an inhale in order to help us regulate this increase in pressure," she says.
"When we wear really tight, high-waisted leggings that prevent us from allowing our abdominals to lengthen properly with an inhale, we can develop a 'reversed' breathing pattern," Kava continues. In a reversed breathing pattern, we start keeping our belly button drawn in when we inhale - or all the time - "which can, in turn, cause us to keep our pelvic floor muscles 'tense' in response to the increase in pressure with our breath," she says. In other words, you begin to tighten, rather than lengthen, your abs and pelvic floor as you breath in, then release as you exhale.
This quick test can clue you into whether this might be an issue for you. Without thinking too much, take a breath. If your stomach draws in instead of pushing out, you're breathing in a reversed pattern.
All this might sound like NBD, but "over time, this can contribute to a number of different changes in our posture, core, and pelvic floor," Kava says. The diaphragm is "the main connector of our upper and lower body, and so this increased pressure can both impact function up or down the chain."
That could manifest as or contribute to pelvic floor tension, urinary leakage, urinary urgency (i.e. not being able to wait to pee), constipation, painful intercourse, pelvic heaviness/ pressure, or even things like low back pain, hip pain, upper back or even neck pain, she says.
Wearing super tight pants and breathing in a reversed pattern can also lead to more "upper chest" breathing, which is when you breathe through your neck, shoulders, and back, which increases tension in all these areas, Kava explains.
Before You Ditch Leggings Forever...
None of that sounds great, right? But like many things in life, moderation is key here, and there's a time and a place for your favorite tight-as-heck leggings. They could become an issue, however, if you're wearing them day in and day out.
"We breathe over 20,000 times per day! If most of our day is spent breathing in this reversed pattern due to our pants, preventing proper core and pelvic floor motion, it can certainly carry over into other aspects of our lives," Kava says.
Interestingly, Kava notes that, "I think lounging with these types of pants has the potential to have more of an impact than with exercise . . . I think it may actually have a less cumulative impact if you are only wearing them for workouts, and are being more conscious of form despite pant 'tightness' - I actually don't mind a bit of even compression on a higher-waisted tight," she elaborates. "Sometimes it can help you sense your breath and pelvic floor (especially if newly postpartum)." Meaning that the sensory feedback that a tight pair of leggings gives you can actually help you be more aware of your core and your breath during a workout, potentially helping you stay on point with your form - and maybe even help you remember to breathe into your belly to avoid reverse breathing.
That said, you may want to consider more relaxed pants for lounging, working from home, traveling, or wearing while you're on your feet all day. And if you're wondering whether a certain pair of pants you own is too tight, try this assessment from Kava:
Sit, stand, or lay down with your hands on your lower lateral (outside) ribs with fingers extending onto your abdomen.
Take a few breaths.
If you can inhale and "feel your ribs and abdomen rise, and the tights move with you and don't dig in, then you're in the clear," she says. "If they're leaving marks, prevent you from being able to feel this movement with your breath, or you're tempted to draw your belly in with your inhale, they're too tight."
Both personally and as a recommendation for clients, Kava says she prefers leggings without a seam at the top of the waist. "If it can provide this nice light compression without the breath-interrupting squeeze, it's a winner for me," she says.
Rest assured that if you need or want to wear a pair that are digging in some, "it may not be the end of the world for an hour or so," Kava says. "But it may be helpful to do some restorative breathing work before, after, or even during to give your core, diaphragm, and pelvic floor a good 'reset' and ensure you aren't building some less than optimal habits."
And hey, look on the bright side: You just got another excuse to wear sweats.