Pregnancy can be mentally (and physically!) tough. You’ve just watched your body stretch and grow in ways it never has before. Organs are shifted, muscles are separated and once you’ve given birth to your little miracle, what’s left behind is often a core that’s much weaker than it was before pregnancy. Here’s how to restore you core.
Postpartum, many women are eager to get back into pre-pregnancy shape. However, it’s very important to evaluate the abdominal muscles prior to jumping into your first set of sit-ups!
Some women will experience diastasis recti, which is a gap in the two sides of the rectus abdominis muscles. As your body stretched to make room for your growing baby, the connective tissue (called the linea alba) thinned and widened. To determine if you have DR, lie on your back and then contract your abs as if to do a do a sit-up. Place two fingers in the center of your stomach, right above your belly button. If you can feel the muscles there separate more than just one inch, you have DR. Some women will experience a 2-4 inch gap! If this is you, extra care will need to be taken when resuming core strengthening exercises.
In addition, you will need doctor’s approval to begin or resume any sort of core exercises postpartum. For women who have had a C-section, this will be once the stitches have healed and your doctor has given their approval. For vaginal birth, don’t resume core work until any stitches or tears have healed and your doctor has approved exercise.
Once you’ve been cleared, start slowly as you work to regain strength. Form is going to be paramount to success and it all starts with learning how to control your breathing. Key to this is a technique known as diaphragmatic breathing or “belly breathing.”
To do this:
1) Lie on your back with your knees bent.
2) Don’ try to flatten your back against the flat surface. Rather, let the natural curve of your spine stay.
3) With one hand on your upper chest and the other on your stomach, just below your rib cage, breathe in slowly and deeply. As you inhale, the hand on your chest should remain still, while the one on your stomach should rise.
4) Exhale and tighten your tummy muscles and now pull your belly button into your spine without flattening your back. As you do so, the hand on your tummy should move back down to its original position.
5) Once you are able to contract and relax your core muscles without moving your spine, you have mastered how to isolate your core and you will use this in other core exercises below.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a crucial first step in restoring your core. Without proper form, you risk further injury or muscle separation due to “coning” (when you see a ridge or bulge down the center or your belly during exercise). Once this technique is mastered, you can move on to other core strengthening exercises such as:
– Single leg extensions
– Heel taps
– Lying leg raises
– Dead bugs
– Bird dogs
As you probably noticed, there is no mention of planks here. Planks aren’t “bad” for postpartum core strength, but oftentimes new moms lack the strength required to properly perform them. If you feel your abs are bulging out, or you see the “coning”, your core is simply not ready. The above list focuses on building up core strength again and actually the majority are performed on your back for support as you work to regain strength.
In addition, crunches, which are easily the “go-to” move for strong abs, aren’t typically included in newly postpartum core work. That’s because they only work the abdominal muscles and completely neglect the pelvic floor. In order to regain strength and restore the core, we need to focus on all the muscles that make up a strong mid-section.
Start small. Focus on breathing first and regaining control of your abdominals. From there, progress to the exercises listed above. When you’re ready, start with bird dogs to performing planks from knees, to incline planks, and then regular planks from hands or elbows. It’s a process. Just like it took nine months to create your beautiful little human, it will take time to regain your strength. Be patient! You got this mama!
By Kristen Simmons