When thinking of how we want our stomachs to look, Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t necessarily the ideal many are looking to emulate. Yet even fitness influencers whose target demographic is women in their early 20s are promoting a technique made famous by Schwarzenegger as the key to a tiny-toned waist: the stomach vacuum.
Stomach or ab vacuums are allegedly the main abdominal exercise that Schwarzenegger and figures of his generation used to develop their inverted-triangle physique. Despite the grotesque name, no colonic suctioning occurs in the exercise. Instead, ab vacuums require exhaling all the air from your chest while sucking in your stomach as tightly as possible. One popular fitness YouTuber, Vicky Justiz, tells viewers to envision a string pulling their belly button toward their spine. She recommends that the position be held for 20 seconds at a time, with three repetitions.
In a video from 2017, an interviewer asked Schwarzenegger for advice on losing belly fat. After quickly discussing the need to lose fat through a calorie deficit primarily from diet and targeted exercises like crunches, Arnold recommends the vacuum. “Of course, don’t forget to do the vacuum. Practice the vacuum,” he says, standing up to demonstrate. “Hold it like that, 15 seconds, three times, now your brain starts remembering, ‘Oh, one of the functions I have is pulling the stomach in, not letting it hang out.’”
The effect is more than psychological, though. Stomach vacuums utilize the muscles of the transverse abdominis, often called the “internal corset.” These muscles are the innermost portion of our abdominal muscles, and help tighten the remainder of the region. In particular, the vacuum exercise works to bring these muscles inward, rather than adding bulk to the muscle and therefore widening the waist.
Like Arnold said in his interview, diet and regular exercise are key to a smaller, more defined stomach and waist. While stomach vacuums might help provide tightening and definition to the abdominal muscles, one still needs to have low enough body fat for this to even be visible. It’s not quite some get-fit-quick magic trick, but it’s still a super easy move to add to your daily routine.
Considering the simplicity and relative safety of the exercise (assuming you’re only sucking in for short periods of time and not depriving your breathing), the technique has become hugely popular in social media fitness circles. Though these circles seem to be divided between old school bodybuilding men and young women looking to achieve a more petite, hourglass figure, interest in the exercise has continued to grow during quarantine. Somehow, despite the fact that bodily aesthetics have changed, Schwarzenegger’s influence has only expanded — even to teen girls on TikTok.