When Kim Kardashian West wore a custom Mr. Pearl corset beneath her 2019 Met Gala Thierry Mugler silicone gown, the Internet accused her of removing a rib. Her anatomically confusing and cinched waist was meant to be hyperbolic, but for the millions of girls who look to Kardashian West as a source of inspiration, it was perplexing nonetheless.
At the same time, body positivity is part of a cultural zeitgeist that commands a woman take up space. Doing so allows her to stand in her worth, hold herself up, and anchor her reality. Yet garments like waist trainers, designed to make a woman's waist "attractively" smaller, are more popular than ever (the term garners over one million posts on Instagram). Such mixed messaging makes navigating the terrain of body modification tricky.
Any type of garment meant to mold a woman’s curves comes with the baggage of the socio-political variety. And they should, because the reasoning that the female body is disruptive has major implications for women, girls, and men alike. But are waist trainers physically safe? What exactly do they do to a woman’s anatomy? Can you injure your organs while wearing one? Is there any actual scientific evidence that they "train" your waist to be more sculpted? Ahead, medical and fitness experts provide in-depth answers regarding waist trainers and whether they really work.
What are Waist Trainers?
A waist trainer—an elastic compression band worn around the midriff—counts the corset as a distant relative. Most of the time waist trainers are made from thick elastic fabric with laces, velcro, or hooks to keep it strapped around your midsection.
No garment has generated controversy like the corset, made popular in Victorian Europe. Although fashion historians like Valerie Steele say corsets have a bad rap and that cases of organ failure and spinal deformity happened infrequently and only when corsets were tied too tightly, corsetry constricts the body’s natural movement, which some find troubling.
The Purported Benefits
Keyword here: purported. Any benefits that waist trainers claim should be taken with a grain of salt.
The idea behind waist training is that, by wearing a steel-boned corset, fat pockets along the waist and floating ribs (the two lowest ribs that aren't connected to the breastbone) will be molded into a trimmer hourglass figure.
The truth is, this hourglass figure won't stick around. A blog post published in the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery (ABCS) states that waist training won't make any drastic changes to your body shape and any hourglass figure formed will be short-lived.
Waist trainers may seem like a quick fix for shaping the mid-section, however, most of the weight loss you experience is superficial. “It’s actually water loss from extra perspiration,” says Casey Palazzo, certified Lagree Instructor, at The Studio (MDR). You might think more sweat means the body is working harder, but compression from the waist trainer may have the opposite effect on your abdominal muscles (more on this later).
Waist trainers might also promote a “crash-diet” approach to fitness, which is not only superficial but harmful to overall wellness. Some women report “feeling full all the time” when they wear waist trainers, says strength and fitness coach Nicolle Harwood-Nash of The Workout Digest. “In a way, you’re committing to a fake form of diet. This isn’t a good alternative to eating a healthy diet.”
Are Waist Trainers Safe to Wear?
Often waist trainers are recommended to be strapped around you for 8 hours throughout the day, which is long-term and considered risky. It's also a no-no to wear it to bed and highly discouraged to wear during exercise (more on that later).
If you want an hourglass shape temporarily for a special occasion, a few hours will likely not result in any serious complications. Just ensure that you don't feel restricted from it.
Possible Side Effects & Risks
Any benefits that waist trainers may provide are heavily outweighed by the amount of risks they are affiliated with.
Waist Trainers Weaken Abdominal Muscles
One of the most agreed-upon effects of waist trainers is that prolonged use will actually weaken your abdominals. “Constricting airflow and compressing your midsection can prevent your abdominal muscles from engaging in core movements,” says Palazzo. “Over time, you’ll be losing strength and definition,” she says.
Shani Fried, a pelvic floor physical therapist agrees. “People wear a waist trainer to look slimmer because they think it’s going to bring the abs together,” she says. “But it’s a passive movement, so you’re doing the opposite. It actually turns off the ab muscles.”
Although it might be tempting to wear a waist trainer during exercise, this type of thinking is flawed. Chiropractor Rachel Sparks says, “The more often you wear a waist trainer, the more it is going to be a source of support for your body as opposed to challenging your muscles to keep you upright.” The compression signals the back and core muscles to deactivate, which is a disaster for abdominal muscles you’ve worked hard to engage.
Waist Trainers Restrict Air Flow
Waist trainers can prevent the diaphragm from doing its job, which can have serious implications for your wellness in addition to your fitness routine. “When worn, a waist trainer covers the two bottom ribs and will be pulled up high so it gives the illusion of an hourglass shape,” says Harwood-Nash. “The constriction in the rib cage makes it difficult for anyone using it to breathe properly.”
Sparks agrees, explaining that compressing the diaphragm inhibits its function. “The main muscle meant for breathing is your diaphragm,” she says. “But for your diaphragm to work properly, your abdomen needs to expand to accommodate its contraction. Wearing a waist trainer severely, if not completely, disallows this to happen.”
Jesse P. Houghton, MD, senior medical director of Gastroenterology at Southern Ohio Medical Center concurs. “Tight compression from a waist trainer can inhibit the diaphragm from being able to fully contract and relax, thus inhibiting the full expansion of the lungs.”
Skip the waist trainer when you're hitting the gym. With the restricted airflow, you could be limiting the amount of oxygen you need.
Waist Trainers Can Cause Musculoskeletal Issues
Your musculoskeletal system is also at risk when you waist-train. Sparks explains, “Your spine is made of several units known as vertebrae. These are individual so that they can help you move in different ranges of motion. If you think about the middle part of your spine, it is attached to your rib cage so it doesn’t move as freely.”
In trying to compensate, you might injure yourself in other areas. A compressed diaphragm might send a signal to accessory muscles to compensate. “Smaller accessory muscles located near your neck will kick in [to help the diaphragm breathe],” says Sparks. “These small muscles are not meant to move your ribcage thousands of times per day; they will eventually wear out leading to neck pain, headaches, and jaw pain.
Waist Trainers Put Pressure on Internal Organs
Sparks points out that a large requirement of organ function is their ability to move. “We all can wrap our heads around spinal movement,” she says, “but did you know your organs are meant to move as well?” Applying unnecessary compression to internal organs might be aggravating, causing them undue stress.
What exactly are the long-term effects of such aforementioned stress? Houghton says that sadly, we just don’t have all the data. “I am not aware of any actual high-quality studies on waist trainers,” he says. He does maintain that there’s no real danger of a waist trainer causing organs to move around or sustain injury. “Any possible shifting of one's internal organs would likely take years of constant wearing to occur,” he says.
Tarek Hassanein, MD, founder of the Southern California Liver & GI Center, also agrees that the pressure from a waist trainer won’t damage intestines and doubts pressure from a waist trainer will negatively affect organs. “Compression to the abdominal area is not necessarily equated to compression of the intestines themselves,” he says. “The waist trainer, when used in conjunction with exercise, will help the abdominal muscles form in a shape guided by the belt. The abdominal muscles are there to protect the stomach, intestines, and other gut organs so when you have anything compressing like that, your muscles will take the force, protecting your intestines from any pressure.”
This is not to say that the pressure applied to internal organs is without consequence. The consequences are mostly muscular, however. Joel C. Willis, an EMS trainer certified in Lightning Fit, touches on what happens to muscles due to pressure to organs. “When the body is being compressed, muscles that are normally utilized in the back and the core begin to shut off because the waist trainers restrict range of motion. This loss of motion creates muscular compensation as well as dependency on wearing the product.”
Waist Trainers Might Lead to Digestive Issues
Long-term use of a waist trainer might lead to digestive issues. “Wearing a waist trainer for any length of time can certainly cause GERD (acid reflux) to occur,” says Houghton. “This is due to compression of the stomach and thus upward pressure on stomach contents, causing reflux into the esophagus.”
Waist Trainers Might Aggravate Prolapse in Postpartum Women
Some women bind their midsections with wraps postpartum in the hopes of flattening the stomach after pregnancy. Postpartum women might seek out a waist trainer after a baby when Fried says the pelvic floor muscles are especially weak. It’s tempting, postpartum, to reach for a waist trainer, especially if your abdominal muscles experienced trauma during pregnancy and childbirth.
Fried says you’ll get more effective results from engaging in slow, gentle, rehabilitating strengthening exercises you practice over time. “We’ll flatten the stomach this way, by re-activating the core.”
However, many postpartum women might feel too overwhelmed with a newborn to commit to a new exercise routine and instead seek the purported "easy-fix" wearing a waist trainer has to offer. This is where things get really complicated and potentially dangerous.
“There’s a lot of things going on in your abdominal cavity postpartum,” says Fried. During pregnancy, organs—including the bladder, intestines, and stomach—can shift as the uterus expands. Although your uterus contracts within about six weeks postpartum, you might be at risk for prolapse, a condition where the bladder, uterus, or rectum can start to descend. Wearing a waist trainer might aggravate this condition.
“It’s not going to move any organs,” Fried explains, “but it can give pressure downward.” She advises postpartum women get checked by their OB/GYN to make sure they’re not at risk for developing a prolapse. “Chances of prolapse increase after having a baby and with age. If you are intent on wearing a waist trainer, get checked and keep getting checked.”
More Tips to Shape Your Waist
Admittedly, targeting the waistline with diet and exercise is difficult, especially if you desire an hourglass shape. Palazzo says the best way to chisel your midsection is with a tailored exercise regimen. “Try incorporating oblique movements such as the Lagree Method's ‘French Twist and Teaser’ to help carve out the waist and tighten the obliques towards the center line of the body.”
Other exercises that work the obliques include side bends. “Side bends provide a fantastic workout for your waist as they effectively target the sides of your core,” adds Harwood-Nash.
If you are intent on garnering extra support from wearable fitness to shape your waistline, consider exercise suits that incorporate electro currents into your workout as an alternative to waist trainers. “The purpose of a waist trainer is to cinch the waistline by having constant contraction applied by a wrap-like product,” says Willis. “The underlying problem with this is, to achieve your desired look, you would have to wear such a constricting product for too long. Contraction is not the problem—prolonged contraction is.” The Lightning Fit suits incorporate an electrical current that “work with the human nervous system to induce contraction in all the major muscle groups,” like the abdomen. In other words, you’re getting the contraction without the compression.
The Final Takeaway
No reason to risk your health for a smaller waist. Long-term results are more likely to be achieved with changes in exercise and diet. If you are adamant about testing them out, try an option that isn't crazy tight and if it winds up being painful—just take it off!
American Board of Cosmetic Surgery. 4 reasons to throw your waist trainer in the trash. Updated March 22, 2016.