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 10 abdominal muscle rehab tips for your postpartum body combine gentle strengthening and protecting techniques to begin safely and effectively rebuilding your core right after delivery.
1. Avoid slouching
As tough as it may be to avoid this one (especially when you’re sleep deprived!), slouching is actually one of the most damaging positions for your abdominal muscles because it places excessive outward pressure on the already stretched out muscle tissue of your external abdominal wall. When possible, practice sitting tall on the edge of your chair as much as you can (this will also strengthen your core muscles!). For times when your muscles are too tired to sit tall, or you just want to relax, place ample back support behind you to keep you upright. This is especially important when feeding your baby (nursing or bottle feeding) because you spend so much time doing this activity, and it’s one that tends to place your body in a hunched over position.
2. Re-connect with your “inner girdle”:
To effectively rebuild your core, you must 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 pulling you in and elongating you (giving you a lean, flat waistline!), and — even more importantly – for supporting your back and stabilizing your entire body. To begin strengthening your TVA, practice this very simple, yet highly effective, breathing-and-holding TVA Hold Exercise several times throughout your day (i.e. while nursing, changing diapers, brushing your teeth, showering, etc).
3. Kegels! Kegels! Kegels!
In addition to your TVA muscle, the other critical inner core muscles that must be rebuilt are the muscles of your pelvic floor. Pregnancy and childbirth obviously take a toll on these muscles, which can lead to incontinence, bladder or rectal prolapse, pelvic and hip pain, and overall core instability. To strengthen these muscles, follow these steps to learn how to perform proper Kegels. If you are experiencing significant pelvic area pain or incontinence, it is best to seek out a pelvic floor specialist.
4. Sit and stand up tall:
This goes one step beyond just avoiding slouching. When sitting up tall, practice drawing your belly button in just slightly to the halfway position (not fully engaged, like in a TVA hold). This position keeps all your core muscles active and working. Hold this position until you feel your muscles fatigue, then sit against your back support to keep your torso elongated. Keep working to hold the position for longer on your own, and eventually progress to doing it standing too. The more you do it, the stronger the muscles get, and the easier (and more natural) this position becomes.
5. 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 acts as a “temporary TVA muscle” — protecting your back and the rest of your body while your core is still too weak to do so. A splint will NOT weaken your core muscles, or do the work for them. On the contrary, a splint can actually help you to strengthen your core muscles faster by serving as a constant cue to keep your torso elongated and your TVA muscle active (belly button slightly drawn in). Learn more about splinting and the splints we recommend from The Tummy Team.
6. Avoid bending or twisting your torso:
If you perform these moves with a weak “inner girdle” (TVA) that cannot yet hold everything in, then your abdominal contents are instead pushed forward when you perform them, placing excessive outward pressure on the already stretched out muscle tissue of your abdominal wall. This could further damage your core or worsen your Diastasis Recti if you have it. So, avoid traditional ab exercises like sit-ups, bicycles, oblique curls, etc. Also avoid crunching or twisting movements in your everyday life – the most common of which is moving through a “crunch” position when transitioning from lying down to sitting up, and vice versa. Instead, roll to your side first, similar to when you were pregnant. Bending over is another very common, and damaging, movement. Try to limit bending over by either lowering down onto the floor or squatting. If you need to bend over, do so by pushing your hips backward and keeping your torso long and your knees soft as you lower down (vs. rounding over and crunching when you bend).
7. 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.” Our bodies were actually designed to squat to have a bowel movement. Squatting places your colon in the optimal “open” position and also helps to naturally compress the colon to allow for better and easier waste excretion, which therefore reduces difficult bowel movements and the havoc they wreak on your belly. To help you achieve this squatted position on the toilet, try placing an 8-12” stool beneath your feet. The Squatty Potty stool is specifically designed for this use (as the name would indicate!). It adjusts in height to help you find the optimal squat position for your body, and also blends in with your toilet and pushes back under it when not in use.
8. Be careful with baby wearing:
Wearing your baby is a wonderful and important bonding experience (and often just a necessary form of transportation!), so we do not recommend eliminating it altogether. However, it does put a great deal of pressure on your back, which can lead to soreness and pain in the beginning when your core muscles are too weak to support your back. If you are experiencing back pain, try to limit the amount of time you wear your baby (opting for the stroller when you can), and when you do wear your baby, try to wear an abdominal splint.
9. Check yourself for Diastasis Recti:
This is a common condition that occurs in about 30% of pregnancies in which 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 within 3-4 weeks. So, it is best to wait for a few weeks to check. You can have your doctor check you at your postpartum visit, or you can perform a self-check. Learn how to check yourself for Diastasis Recti, and tips on what to do if you have it. Note, all of the preceding tips are especially important if you have it!
10. Transition properly into core exercises once you are cleared:
Once you are cleared by your physician to begin transitioning back into exercise, it is important to follow a proper core exercise progression. Focus on stabilization exercises that keep your torso in an elongated position vs. bending, twisting, or rotating exercises that place your abdominal muscles in a crunched position. It is also important to focus on strengthening all your core muscles – your pelvic floor, abdominal muscles, back, and glutes – as they all must function effectively together to truly build a strong and stable core. For starters, try these 7 Moves For a Stronger Core.
Post by Brittany Citron
Brittany Citron is a pre/postnatal exercise specialist, and certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. She is also the founder of PROnatal Fitness, which offers prenatal and postnatal group fitness classes, personal training, andDiastasis Recti rehabilitation – all developed with input from experts in the fitness, medical, and healthcare fields. All PROnatal workouts are designed for the specific needs of expecting and new mothers’ bodies, and incorporate modifiable cardio conditioning, total body strengthening, and proper core training. Brittany lives in Manhattan with her husband and 3-year old son, and a little girl on the way!