First off, congratulations on your new tiny human! Your body has been busy for months creating said human, and if you’re like many of my clients, you’re ready to feel like yourself again, especially in the core. While every woman’s pregnancy is different, and you should – as always – check with your doctor first – there are general guidelines and exercises to regain your core strength.
Image courtesy of FitPregnancy.com
Don’t: Start where you left off
Do: Start with the basics
Typically, doctors give women the OK to start exercising 4-8 weeks postpartum, while the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) advise you’re able to gradually start exercising as you feel ready. The key here is, “gradually”. Even if you continued to exercise and lift weights (bonus points for you!) throughout your pregnancy, your abdominal muscles have been to hell and back.
Side-note: When I’m talking about your core, I don’t just mean the outer abdominal muscles of the much-sought-after-6-pack, but the deep stability muscles and connective tissue that are the foundation of your core, including the pelvic floor which has been weakened with the weight of a fetus.
As coach Jen Weir explains, due to “stretched and weakened abdominal muscles, the shortened and overworked back muscles, and the slightly unstable hips” (breakingmuscle.com), your core isn’t able to function as it did pre-pregnancy, so rebuilding your core stability and basic bracing ability is crucial.
While you may be tempted to hit your abs hard and go all out, start with basic breathing exercises as soon as you feel ready. You want to strengthen the diaphragm with deep belly breathing, to push the diaphragm – connected at the lower ribcage – towards the pelvic floor muscles, forcing them to engage which will strengthen these deep foundational muscles.
Activities as simple as walking and sustaining good posture for prolong periods of time will be difficult, and it will be frustrating, but rebuilding these deep muscular connections will ensure youvhave proper muscle coordination so you don’t injure yourself down the road.
Nicole Nichols describes belly breathing exercises in a recent issue of American Fitness Magazine:
Work on deep diaphragmatic breaths that can be performed lying, sitting or standing: Begin in a neutral spine. As mom breathes in, she feels pelvic floor (Kegels), rib cage and abs descend or open. As the client exhales, she lifts the pelvic floor, pulls the abdomen in and closes the rib cage and holds for 5 seconds. Work up to 5 to 10 breaths with abdominal contractions several times per day. – Restore Your Core
You will build the strength to get where you were, be patient and consistent to see the results you want.
Don’t: Assume abnormalities are normal and will go away
Do: Consider seeing a specialist
The first concern to address is Diastasis Recti; the separation of your abdominal muscles due to thinning connective tissue. Don’t worry, this is very common during pregnancy! Jen Weir explains how to check yourself for this condition:
To check for diastasis recti, simply lie on your back, contract your abdominal muscles and press gently into your abdomen above and below your navel. If you can feel a soft spot or gap between the muscles, then you do have a separation. One to two finger-widths is normal and should close on its own. If your gap is wider than three finger-widths, it may not be a bad idea to contact a physical therapist to ensure proper closing of the gap. – Jen Weir, Breakingmuscle.com
Other typical problems that arise after giving birth are pain in the hips and or pelvis, increased postpartum bleeding during or after exercise, and incontinence. These are red flags that your body isn’t functioning properly, and rather then wait it out or train through it, it’s time to see a specialist. You may need more time to strengthen your pelvic floor than you thought, or something could be misaligned due to months of altered movement patterns which a physical therapist that specializes in postpartum rehabilitation can help you identify and fix.
Don’t: Rely on crunches
Do: Focus on isometric abdominal exercises
Not only are crunches unnecessary, they can actually do harm. Crunches put a lot of stress on your spine, and don’t work the abdominal muscles in the way they were intended to function.
The main function of the abdominals is to support the spine and prevent it from spinning all the way around, breaking over backward, or flexing to the side. The crunching movement is a secondary function and one that’s not meant to be done at high volume due to the stress it puts on the discs of your spine. – Timothy Bell, Breakingmuscle.com
After doing breathing exercises (these can be done as soon as you feel ready) to reengage the diaphragm and increase pelvic floor strength, move on to exercises that require abdominal bracing. Laying on your back on the floor, contract your core as if you were going to get hit in the stomach. This isn’t the sensation of sucking in, but rather the entire circumference of your core, cinching inward towards your spine.
From here you can practice different movement patterns, like raising one leg, one arm, or bilateral movements like lifting your right arm and left foot off the floor simultaneously. Heel slides, birddogs, and clam shells are all great beginner exercises. For a guided 8-minute core focused workout, check out this video!
Try not to rush this! Picture how much it’s been through and be patient with your body as you rebuild your foundation of strength. Perform these bracing, breathing and isometric exercises throughout your day and you’ll start to feel the difference. Engaging your core muscles will help alleviate back pain, and you’ll be ready for heavier strength training sooner. Good luck!