6 Exercises to Rebuild Your Core after PregnancyA Workout Plan to Repair Your Abs
-- By Cathy Cram, MS, Prenatal Fitness Specialist
After pregnancy, you're probably eager to get your post-baby body back in shape. But before you jump in to your usual ab workouts, there are some special considerations that new moms need to take into account.
Some postpartum women may notice a soft section above and below their belly button that can be felt when they contract their abdominal muscles. This soft area developed during pregnancy: As your belly expanded, the connective tissue that joins the two sides of the rectus abdominis muscle thinned and widened creating a larger, softer gap. (Learn more about the anatomy of the abs here). The separation, termed a "diastasis recti" is a normal process of pregnancy and allows the belly to expand and make room for the growing baby. But it can remain present after delivery—and needs special care to rehabilitate.
Not all abs exercises are suitable for postpartum moms. Traditional abdominal exercises, such as sit-ups and crunches, put too much stress on a postpartum tummy and back, and are not recommended for new moms. The exercises below are the best place to start. These moves effectively target the weakened abdominal muscles and allow for a gentle, slow progression that can help resolve diastasis recti.
These postpartum abdominal exercises are part of a five-step progressive workout plan. Developed by Shirley Sahrmann, a physical therapist who specializes in abdominal rehabilitation, this series was designed to target the areas most weakened by pregnancy (below the belly button) without creating stress on the back or abdomen. They're amazingly effective, but it is important for you to go slowly and master each exercise (maintaining the form described and achieving the number of reps listed) before moving on to the next one.
When to Resume Core Exercises
Before you do any abdominal exercises, consult with your doctor to make sure your body is recovered from delivery and any incisions are fully healed. After being cleared by your doctor, a Cesarean mom can start these exercises once her incisions have healed (stitches are dissolved or taken out) and she doesn't feel pain when contracting her tummy. If you had a vaginal birth you can get started (with your doctor's approval) once any incisions or tears have healed.
Level 1: Basic Breath
Concentrate on contracting the muscles below your belly button during each exhale. When you are able to contract and relax your abdominal muscles without moving your back or spine position, you have learned to properly isolate the correct muscles. You can then move on to the next level.
Level 2: Single-Leg Heel Slides
Remember not to flatten your back and to keep the curve of your spine relaxed. When your abdominal muscles are contracted it helps to stabilize your pelvis while your legs and lower tummy muscles work. This prevents strain in your back muscles, and trains your abdominal muscles to protect and support your spine. When you can comfortably do 20 heel slides on each side you are ready to move on to the next level.
Level 3: Basic Single Leg Extensions
Progress with this until you can extend the leg out and hover it about 2-3 inches above the floor (without touching it). Work up to five repetitions on each side without stopping, building to 20 "hovering" repetitions or more on each side—without allowing your back or spine to move at all—before moving to the next level. <pagebreak>
Level 4: Single-Leg Toe Taps
Level 5: Advanced Single-Leg Extensions
With each repetition remember to breathe, contract your tummy as you move, and keep your back neutral (not moving, flattening or arching up). If the arch in your back keeps popping up during the exercise, then you're not strong enough to progress to this level, and need to go back to the previous exercise until you build greater strength. Work up to 10 repetitions each leg to start. When you can repeat this exercise 20 times on each leg without discomfort or arching your back, move on to the final level.
Level 6: Double Leg Lowers
If you feel your back beginning to arch, bring your legs back up and lower legs again only as far as you can without arching the back. Work up to 20 repetitions. If you notice back pain with this exercise, return to the previous level.