While it may seem like you will never get your abdominal muscles back after pregnancy, your muscles are actually quite resilient! With the proper rehab, you can absolutely get your core back to its pre-pregnancy (or better!) state. The great news is you can begin your rehab process as soon as you feel comfortable following delivery, and it is most likely easier than you think. The following 7 simple tips can help significantly speed up your recovery following delivery, and get you on the right path to safely and effectively rebuilding your core!
1. Avoid any sort of crunching or twisting movements: These movements place excessive pressure on your already weak outer abdominal wall, which could potentially lead to Diastasis Recti (a separation of the outer abdominal muscle), or worsen it if you have it. So yes, this means absolutely NO sit-ups for quite a while! Beyond this though, try to avoid crunching or twisting movements in your everyday life. For example, avoid slouching! Slouching places your abdominal muscles in a crunched position. If needed, place back support behind you when seated to keep you upright (i.e. using pillows or blankets). This is especially important when feeding your baby given the sheer amount of time you spend in this position each day. Another tip is to remember to roll to your side first when transitioning from lying down to sitting up (and vice versa), such as when getting out of bed. Finally, if you need to bend over, do so by bending at the hips – pushing your butt backward and softening your knees so that you can bend with a flat back vs. hunching over.
2. Re-connect with your “inner girdle”: To effectively rebuild your core, start by focusing on your largest and innermost abdominal muscle – your transverse abdominis (TVA). This muscle wraps around your entire mid-section from your spine to the front of your abs (like a girdle), and is responsible for basically “pulling everything in” (AKA giving you a lean, flat waistline!), and supporting and stabilizing your back. One of the most effective ways to begin rebuilding this muscle is by performing these simple, but effective techniques of Belly Breathing and TVA Holds.
3. Kegels! Kegels! Kegels! The muscles of your pelvic floor form the “floor of your core” and are extremely weak after 9 months of pregnancy and any type of delivery (vaginal or C-section). Weak pelvic floor muscles can lead to incontinence, bladder or rectal prolapse, and overall core instability. Kegel exercises can be an excellent way to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles – if, and only if, they are performed properly. Learn the proper way to perform Kegels, and try to perform several sets a day. Performing one set each time you feed your baby will help you get in plenty per day.
4. Consider wearing an abdominal splint: In most cultures outside the U.S., it is actually common practice to use an abdominal splint for the first 4-6 weeks following delivery. A splint wraps around your mid-section, and places the stretched out muscle tissue of your abdominal wall in the optimal position to promote fastest healing. It also helps to support and protect your back while your core is still too weak to do so. There are many manufacturers of abdominal splints. We recommend ones from The Tummy Team because they have a variety of splints to fit different needs and body types, and are also a good blend of being appropriately supportive and comfortable.
5. Squat on the pot! This one may sound funny, but it’s important! Weak inner core muscles can lead to intestinal issues, which can lead to difficult bowel movements, which most likely leads to forceful and damaging belly-bulging “bearing down.” If you are having any sort of constipation issue, try placing an 8-12” stool beneath your feet to place your body in more of a squatted position. This position opens up your colon and allows for easier waste excretion. The Squatty Potty® can be an excellent tool for this because it adjusts in height, blends in with your toilet, and pushes back under the toilet when not in use.
6. Get checked for Diastasis Recti: Diastasis Recti is a common condition that occurs in about 30% of pregnancies in which the excessive outward pressure from your growing belly causes your rectus abdominis muscle (or “6 pack” muscle) to partially or completely separate at your body’s midline. Diastasis Recti can lead to a number of complications, including low back pain, hip or pelvic pain, incontinence, bladder or rectal prolapse, and what looks like a “pooch” in your belly. Everyone has a bit of a separation in the immediate aftermath of labor, but it should close for most women within 4 weeks following delivery. So, it is best to wait for a few weeks to check. Ask your doctor to check you at your postpartum visit. If needed, you can also perform a self-check. If you do have it, it is best to correct it as soon as possible to avoid further core damage or injury, and also avoid complications in future pregnancies. Seek out a physical therapist who specializes in this. PROnatal Fitness also offers PROnatal Ab-Rehab™ -- a one-on-one rehabilitation program designed to correct Diastasis and strengthen weak core muscles.
7. Transition properly into core exercises once you are cleared: Once you are cleared by your physician to resume exercise, it is important to follow a proper core exercise progression. Your core muscles need to be rebuilt from the inside out, beginning with the critical inner core muscles of your TVA and pelvic floor. Try following the progression of these 7 Moves for a Stronger Core, making sure to master moves in one phase before moving onto the next.
Brittany Citron is the founder of PROnatal Fitness, a company providing pre/postnatal fitness classes, personal training, and Diastasis Recti rehabilitation. She is a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor with a pre/postnatal specialization, and the mother of an active 3 year old boy. For more information on PROnatal Fitness classes and services, visit www.pronatalfitness.com or email Brittany.Citron@pronatalfitness.com.