When — and how often — to “zip up” the core is something I’m asked a lot. The short answer to the awesome question, “should I zip up all day long?” is NO! But you should be properly aligned all day long. In a nutshell, when you’re in proper alignment you won’t even NEED to turn your core muscles “extra-on” by zipping; they’ll already be “on” (activated) just the right amount for regular activities of daily living.

In this 10-minute video I review my “mom jeans” method of zipping up (which helps maintain proper alignment), and I give examples of when you should “zip” (i.e. when you should engage your core a little EXTRA). If you don’t have time to watch the vid, the examples include lifting, pushing, pulling, balancing, and doing focused core work.

As stated in the video above — and re-stated right here because it’s so important — is that, aside from zipping up — and in tandem with zipping up — what you should really focus on is finding and maintaining proper posture and alignment. If you keep your bones, muscles, and joints in ideal alignment, your body will naturally be in the best possible position for your pelvic floor and core muscles to do their best, strongest work. This is particularly important for anyone with back pain, abdominal hernias, pelvic organ prolapse, or diastasis recti… Or for anyone who could develop these issues in the future. (So…basically EVERYONE.)

I always think it’s fun to hear real questions from real FemFusion friends. The following question was sent to me via Facebook:

“I hope you don’t mind me sending you a question…First of all, I love your Lady Bits book… I read it cover to cover in just a few days! I have a question about ‘zipping up’ during exercise. Is it better to engage the core and lift up the pelvic floor the whole time you are exercising, or just during the exertion? I have a hard time knowing when the exertion phase of an exercise actually is…for example during a pushup…would you engage the whole time for those? When to engage during a plank? I engage at the bottom of a squat…is that enough? Thanks for any tips on this subject, I have been trying to heal a mild diastasis recti so I want to make sure I understand the proper mechanics.”

The following is my answer. It’s also addressed in the video above, but if you don’t have the time or inclination to watch, read on!

The first thing I’d like to address is the proper mechanics of zipping up. It’s important to maintain proper alignment of the pelvis, spine, and ribcage (and shoulders and hips and ankles, etc.) at all times, but especially when you’re “zipping up!” If you don’t, your core muscles won’t be at an advantageous position to fire properly and effectively.

In short, you want to play around with your spinal and pelvic alignment until you’ve reached the position in which your lower ribs are lined up with the anterior superior iliac spines of your pelvis (the front “spikes” on your pelvis), which should be lined up with your pubic symphysis. Then, if you’re like many people, you’ll have to DROP YOUR LOWER RIBS in order to be in a “neutral ribs over neutral pelvis” position. For more on this concept, please refer to the guru of all things alignment, Katy Bowman, and her article about neutral pelvis (click here).

Once everything is in-line, you can actively “zip up” your core muscles as needed, when doing certain activities. Click here (and/or watch the video above) to learn more about proper alignment and my “mom jeans” method of zipping up.

zip up

Re: “zipping” during exercise, I do NOT encourage you to consciously “zip” throughout an entire 60 minute workout… You need to allow for rest times. Just as you wouldn’t hold a biceps curl for 60 minutes, you wouldn’t want to strongly engage your core through an entire hour-long fitness class without taking mini-breaks. However, during isolated core exercises as you mentioned in your question, you’ll want to zip as follows:

  • During a plank, I recommend zipping before you get into position and then holding your “zip” throughout. Breathe using short, sharp exhalations to help maintain the active contraction of your core.
  • During a push-up, gently zip before you get into position and hold throughout your push-up reps, although you’ll really want to focus on the exertion phase, which is the “pushing up” part. Remember to exhale during this phase as well.
  • The same goes for squats; you can be gently engaged throughout, but “extra-engage” at the bottom of the squat. Hold your “zip” and exhale on the way up. Think of lifting yourself up with your butt and pelvic floor muscles as you exhale.

In general, the exertion phase is the phase of the exercise that is:

  1. Harder!!!! and…
  2. The phase in which you feel a bit of downward pressure in your abdominal and pelvic regions.

For example, during biceps curls, it’s when you bend your elbows and curl your weights up. In an overhead shoulder press, it’s when you press your weights up, overhead.

Counter this increase in intra-abdominal/intra-pelvic pressure by making sure you are:

  1. In proper alignment, and…
  2. “Zipped up” starting at the pelvic floor and working your way up through the core.

Again, you also want to EXHALE during this exertion phase. Exhalation helps to contract your deep abdominal muscles, which helps maintain the “zip.” It also helps counteract the increase in pressure.

“What about just walking or standing or climbing the steps, is a gentle kegel ok or should I just let everything relax during those?”

For walking and standing, my recommendation is to maintain proper alignment as noted above, and to just let your muscles do their natural “thang” (without the extra “zip”).

Going up steps might require a gentle zip AND AN EXHALE if they’re extremely tall stairs. However, if they’re regular-height and not too strenuous to ascend, then you probably do not need to consciously zip. But please keep in mind that everyone is different! Go by how you feel. If you have pelvic organ prolapse and it feels uncomfortable to ascend stairs without gently engaging your pelvic floor, then zip away. Just be sure to exhale as you ascend, as well!

“But if I’m not zipped up all day long, my tummy is going to look all poochy!”

Never fear: your tummy pooch will be addressed with proper posture and alignment. By all means, do NOT “suck in” (or “zip up”) your belly all day long. This can lead to back pain, overly tense, overly active (and yet fatigued + weak) muscles, and all manner of resulting musculoskeletal dysfunction. If you’re focusing primarily on maintaining proper posture and alignment, and yet you’re still concerned about a poochy tummy (for example, if you’re wearing a clingy dress and you’re getting your photo taken), then a light amount of activation might be okay for some women. However, if it crosses the line of being overly active for too long and leading to back/hip/pelvic pain, then it’s certainly not okay! Better to be poochy than painful.

Of course, as you strengthen your core and maintain a higher baseline level of activity level, you should feel less poochy anyway. Your awesome posture and alignment will help you look 5 pounds lighter (and 2 inches taller) too!

If you have a lingering “tummy pooch” that just won’t go away, then you might be dealing with diastasis recti. Click here for an article that describes this condition more in-depth.

I hope this helps you navigate how and when to “zip.” It’s life-changing when you figure it out, and will keep you and your pelvic floor safe and secure during your next workout (and daily life, in general)!

Until next time, remember… Eat clean, move every day, and you WILL shine brighter!

All my love,

Dr. Bri, PT, DPT - FemFusion Fitness