Properly training your post pregnancy core muscles will get you back to your workouts and training sooner and more safely. Core exercises will also help you keep up with your little one(s), reduce low back pain, and improve post-partum recovery and health. What you might not know is that core workouts are not created equal. Many of the most popular core exercises can even harm your body after pregnancy. Here’s what you need to know about post-pregnancy core training.
Targeting the Right Core Muscles during Post-Pregnancy
Very simply, our core muscles support and stabilize our spine during activity. This improves our safety and function in both daily activities and athletic performance. The core is way more than just your tummy. Think of it as the muscles from your hips to your shoulders. A good core training program will target shoulder stabilization, your back (and backside) along with your abs. One top of that, our core abdominal muscles are a lot more complex than they appear, especially after pregnancy. While we’d all love to have visible six packs, focusing on crunches and reverse sit ups can do more harm than good. They can actually contribute to the mommy pooch. The best post pregnancy core exercises will start by targeting the deeper muscles of the core, namely the transverse abdominis and obliques. This will reduce waist circumference, flatten the tummy, and make daily activities and training easier and more enjoyable.
The Effects of Pregnancy on the Core
Newsflash. Pregnancy is hard on your core. Hormones relax the connection of our abdominal muscles along the center line of our abdomen, known as the linea alba. Most women experience a separation of the two sides of their rectus abdominis (i.e. six pack) during pregnancy. Diastasis Recti occurs when these muscles remain separated after pregnancy, creating a gap that can cause pooching of the belly, as well as a considerable reduction in core stability. Unaddressed, diastasis recti can also lead to hernia and a loss of pelvic floor strength. This condition is also incredibly common, nearly universal immediately after pregnancy and continuing for more than a year in about a third of mothers.
Self-Assessment: Do you have diastasis recti?
Diastasis Recti is diagnosed by considering this separation in terms of finger widths. Assessing it is easy. Lie on the floor with knees bent toward the ceiling and feet on the floor. Engage your core by pulling your belly in toward your spine. Now perform a partial crunch, tuck in your chin and lift your shoulders from the floor to engage your outer core muscles. If you use your fingers to feel along the center of your belly above and below the navel, you will probably feel some separation between the abdominal muscles. If the distance of separation is wider than the tip of two fingers finger, bring it up with your doctor. You should avoid crunches and focus on strengthening other areas of your core. Here are the most important post-pregnancy workouts for core strength.
Post Pregnancy Core Exercises
Phase 1: Heal your Mommy Pooch
also known as: Transverse Abdominis Therapy
The Dia Method Tummy Pull:
This simple, post-pregnancy exercise may be the most important thing you can do to heal diastasis recti and reduce the size of your tummy after pregnancy. Developed by Lea Keller as a part of her Dia Method, this exercise has research to back it up. It can heal Diastasis Recti in about 3 months by strengthening your transverse abdominis. Once you learn it, can be practiced in different positions throughout your day. Add it to your day by practicing it at your desk, while feeding your infant, or prepping meals.
Set a timer for ten minutes. Start by lying on the floor. Exhale completely. When you are empty of air, pull your belly in completely. Check this with your fingertips and keep them on your tummy throughout the exercise to be sure that your tummy does not return to bulging. Return to normal breathing and continue to contract your belly muscles in towards your spine. Focus on continuously drawing in tighter while breathing as normally as possible. Check out this link for a recent NPR article on the effectiveness of this exercise.
Phase 2 Core Yoga:
Once you’ve been cleared by your doctor and can complete the tummy pull, it’s time to start adding in bracing exercises. These will further strengthen your transverse abdominis and obliques, stabilizing your pelvis and low back. This is essential to returning safely to athletic and daily activities. In a study sponsored by the American College of Sports Medicine, three yoga exercises were found to be the most effective training method of common core exercises. In each of these movements, avoid letting your tummy pooch out and concentrate on pulling it in toward the spine. Add one or more of these exercises to your post pregnancy workouts, daily walks, or complete them alone working up to one minute in each position.
Seated on the floor, raise your legs and torso into a V-shape. You can start by lifting your legs with shins parallel to the floor and hands on your thighs. As you progress, remove the hands and bring them overhead. Next work on straightening the legs.
Dolphin Plank (with a Ball):
Start by performing a plank pose on your forearms. Your hips should remain low with your tummy engaged, even if you need to come to your knees. Work up to staying on your toes. Once you can do so, level up by bringing your arms up onto an exercise ball while your feet remain on the floor.
From a forearm plank, turn to the side balancing on one arm and foot, stacking your hips and shoulders. Now engage the underside of your waist, slightly lifting your lower hip and shoulder. Reach your top hand toward the ceiling. Level up by adding a lift of the top leg, repeating 10 times. Complete the other side.
Phase 3 Full Core Work:
When you’re ready to start training more intensely, these exercises take core training beyond your abs. By introducing integrated exercises, you will increase muscle recruitment and core function. You can continue the first two phases of your post pregnancy workouts while adding in these core exercises.
Lying on the floor with your knees bent toward the ceiling, press into your heels to lift your glutes away from the floor into bridge pose. Keep pressing through your heels and into your shoulders to engage your posterior chain. Progress by lifting one leg toward the ceiling then lowering with leg extended away from the body. Return to the start position and repeat on the other side, completing six reps on each leg. Caution: If you are experiencing post-pregnancy diastasis recti or symphysis pubis dysfunction (low joint pain in the front of the pelvis) skip the leg lifts and extensions for now.
Standing with feet at approximately shoulder distance, squat down moving your hips to knee level or lower. Stand up. You can practice with a chair behind you or a Dynamax ball as a target. Work up to 25 unbroken repetitions.
Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts:
Starting with a light dumbbell or kettlebell, stand on one leg, holding the dumbbell in the hand on the same side of the body. Keeping your standing leg straight, bend with the dumbbell down towards the floor, letting the opposite leg move up behind your body. Lift and lower the dumbbell 10 times. Repeat on the other leg. For a greater challenge, move the dumbbell into the other hand.
Knees or toes. Be sure to keep your tummy in and engaged. Start with 10 and move up to 25.
Pointer (with band):
Starting on all fours, raise your opposite arm and leg to the level of your body. Move them out to 45 degrees then return to your starting position. Repeat on the other side. Complete 12 reps on each side. Level this up by adding a resistance band, looping it around your lifting leg and held down by the arm on the same side. Complete 6-12 reps on each side.
Progressing Beyond Post-Pregnancy Workouts
Remember to start gradually and pay attention to your body’s response, especially soreness in the low back, pelvic, and abdominal areas. If you experience pain in these areas, bring it up with your doctor. Once you can complete these core exercises, you’re more than ready to progress beyond post-pregnancy workouts. With diet and a full exercise program, getting fit and strong is possible. These core-exercises will give you the safety and stability you need to return to training when you’re ready.