You DID it! You successfully grew a new, wondrous, beautiful person. You brought them into the world, and truly, you are the only one who will ever understand how hard that was. Please snuggle in with that new baby of yours and revel in the total and utter amazing thing you have done. Breathe in every perfect inch and let your heart explode in love.
Then, when you’re ready — good and ready — I’m here to tell you it’s time to get to work. Specifically, rebuilding your body – and most importantly, your core muscles. I probably don’t have to tell you that your core muscles are important. “Core” has become one of our favorite buzz words, so you already know it’s “supposed” to be stronger, flatter, better, worked, trained, and who knows what else.
Before we all spin out of control on the stress train, let me make it really simple. That amazing thing you did – growing and bringing that beautiful baby into the world? Well, it basically stretched, ripped, and destroyed your core. Totally worth it? Yes! BUT, if you’d like to avoid low back pain, pelvic pain, slouching shoulders, the ever-glamorous “flip butt,” and linebacker thighs for the rest of your life, you NEED to rebuild. And chances are, you need to start now. Right now.
If you’ve really just had your baby (as in 1-6 weeks ago, not via C-section), congratulations on being proactive! You can (and I’m going to say should) start rebuilding your core right now. Check out this amazing article from Fit Pregnancy, written by Tracey Mallet on things you can start doing right out of the gate (don’t forget to listen to your body). If you’re more than six weeks out, are feeling like you’re ready to start doing more than walking, and have chatted with your doc about getting moving again, then this workout is for you!
What’s Happened and Where to Start Rebuilding
Your ab muscles act like a natural corset around your waist – pulling your stomach in, supporting your internal organs, and giving your entire torso support. Technically, your “core” is a lot more than just your abs – it’s your four sets of ab muscles, lower back, and even glutes. Basically, everything except your limbs and head. As your belly expands with your ever-growing bundle of joy, your “support system” is forced to shift, move, and change to accommodate your shifting, moving, and changing body (and mostly belly). Growing a happy, healthy, big ol’ baby eventually wins out over your ab muscles wanting to keep everything “pulled in,” and your abs muscles separate. Depending on lots of factors, you either get a modest separation or the equivalent of the Grand Canyon. Through the total miracle that is our bodies, moderate amounts of separation can realign themselves, and your ab muscles can knit themselves back together. Too much stretching, though, and you may need some physical therapy or even surgery.
So how do you know which team you’re on? To assess what you’re working with, lie on your back, knees bent, and contract your abs. Put your hands on either side of your waist with your fingers coming together at the center line of your body. Dig your fingers in until you feel some muscles, and then a soft, squishy space in the middle of your abs where your ab muscles have split apart. Finally, lift your head slightly and assess how many finger widths you have between your muscles (so how big the “squishy” part is). Okay, now, keep breathing. Don’t judge. You have an amazing baby, remember? Totally worth it, mama.
Your goal is to get your ab muscles back together — with only about one finger width between them. If you have somewhere between one and three finger widths of separation right now, you’re most likely ready to cautiously begin core exercises. More than three fingers and you may need to check in with a physical therapist before moving forward with strenuous core workouts (you can still start connecting to your deep ab muscles though — see exercise #1 below!).
What We’re Doing
This workout is designed to do three things:
- help you connect and reawaken your deep abdominal muscles (specifically your transverse abs), which are ultimately responsible for “flattening” your abs,
- help all your core muscles start working synergistically together again, which will help you avoid poor posture and chronic aches and pains caused from a muscular imbalance, and
- work additional muscles which tend to need a little extra TLC after pregnancy: thighs, glutes, back, and lots of other places where we really, really don’t want that extra bit of jiggle to get too comfortable.
You cannot rush rebuilding your core. I’m going to say it again – if you try to do too much too quickly you will do so much more harm than good.
This process is a slow one, but if you give your body the time it needs, you are doing yourself a lifetime of good. Literally. Rebuild right, rebuild once.
The first and most important step is to connect to your deep ab muscles and to be able to hold on to that connection. Ideally all the time – that is your goal. When you start you’ll feel like you’ll have it one second and then you’ll have lost it the next – that’s totally normal. Keep at it!
Start with exercise #1. Do it right now. Do it again later. Once you feel like you’ve got it – really got it — then go on to the rest of the exercises. Stop when you lose your connection to those deep ab muscles.
Signs you need to slow down, take a break, do fewer reps, and refocus:
- Your other muscles like your lower back, shoulders, and thighs take over midway through the exercise.
- You are unable to breathe WHILE doing the exercise.
- Your back is arching instead of staying in a neutral position and/or your lower back hurts.
- Your upper shoulders and/or neck are tense or hurt.
Exercise #1: The Most Important Thing You Can Do Postpartum
Learn to engage your deep ab muscles:
- Start lying down with knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Walk your feet out so they are farther out and your thighs are relaxed.
- Put your hands on your ribcage.
- Inhale deeply and feel your ribcage separate.
- Exhale strongly and press the back of your ribcage into the floor (your fingers should slide together). Pull your belly button down into your spine while keeping your entire torso lengthened. Finally, pull your lower ab muscles towards your spine (like you’re trying to zip up your skinny jeans).
- Don’t forget your pelvic floor! Pull those muscles up and in.
When you have your deep ab muscles engaged, you should feel your spine go into a “neutral” position. Generally speaking, women have too much arch in their lower backs following pregnancy, so for most of us it feels like your lower back is “flatter,” which is fine. Keep in mind that your goal is a neutral spine, not to completely flatten the natural arch in your lower back.
So, that’s it. Those are the steps to engaging your deep ab muscles and beginning to truly rebuild your core muscles.
Remember, your goal is to have your core muscles work all the time. So contract your deep core muscles as much as you can — while you drive, do dishes, take laundry up the stairs, make dinner, pick up your kids, shower, etc.
If all these steps feel completely overwhelming at first, that’s completely understandable. Take them a little at a time, hour by hour, day by day. Maybe at first you feel like you get 80 percent of the way there, 50 percent of the time – that’s great! Keep at it and it will become habit in no time! Remember, these muscles haven’t had to work this way in a loooong time, so it’s going to take some time to get them excited again.
Exercise #2: The Vacuum
Now that you’ve mastered pulling in your deep ab muscles on your back, it’s time to try other positions. Start on all fours. Go through the same steps as above, knitting your ribs together, pulling your navel up towards your spine, lengthening and flattening your entire torso and pulling your lower core (and pelvic floor) in and up. You should naturally go into a “cat” stretch position. Ensure that your arms/chest/shoulders are NOT doing the work, but instead the movement is coming from your core muscles. Relax and come back into “neutral,” then repeat 8-10 more times.
Exercise #3: Towel Lateral Bend
Sit cross-legged with great posture (abs pulled in, shoulders down, chest up, head stacked on top of spine). Hold a small towel above your head with arms straight. Really imagine that corset of muscles wrapping around your torso. Pull everything in and “hug” your ab muscles into center. Inhale to prepare, then exhale and bend straight over to the side, staying as lengthened as possible. Use glute muscles to keep hips on the ground. Repeat, alternating sides for 12-20 reps.
Exercise #4: X-Tilt
Start standing on your right foot with arms above your head. Tilt entire body to the right, so you make a big “X.” Lift your left leg as high as you can while keeping your knee and shoe laces facing straight ahead. Hold for a breath, then return to start (bonus points for not touching your foot to the floor). Stay on the right side for 8-12 reps, do a few standing cat/cow stretches, and repeat on the left for the same number of reps.
Exercise #5: Knee Lift
Start on the floor, knees bent, arms up to ceiling. Lift one leg until your calf is parallel to the floor, maintaining your deep ab muscle engagement throughout. You’ll know if you’re truly using your deep ab muscles by watching your abs as you lift and lower your leg — if your ab muscles “pop up,” then you want to shake it out and try again. Your ultimate goal is to pull your ab muscles deeper towards your spine as you lift your leg, so if anything, your abs get flatter as you “work.”
Advanced version: Support yourself on your elbows and do the same thing. Ensure that your chest stays lifted to the ceiling, your shoulders stay down, and your back stays in neutral. Keep alternating knee lifts for a total of 8-16 per side.
Exercise #6: Half Roll Down with Twist
Start seated on the floor, legs bent. Exhale and pull your navel into your spine so hard you end up in a seated “crunch” position with a rounded spine. Just like in the vacuum exercise, your core muscles are what’s creating the movement — you don’t want to use your shoulders/upper body. Keeping ab muscles contracted, come back to the beginning position. Repeat 3-5 times. Then, if you feel like you’re up for an added challenge, add a small rotation in the “down” position. So, the entire exercise would be roll/crunch down, rotate from your core (think of wringing out a dish towel), rotate back to center, then lift back to sitting. Repeat a total of 6-10 more times on each side.
Exercise #7: No More Jiggles Back Series
Start lying face down on the floor with your thumbs by your ears and your legs shoulder-width apart. Engage your deep ab muscles, and as you exhale, lift upper body and arms off the floor. (Advanced: Also lift legs.) Squeeze your elbows and shoulder blades down the back of your body, trying to make as much space between your shoulders and ears as possible. Relax back down to start. Repeat 4-6 more times. Then, if you’re ready for a little more, add this on: after you lift up, reach your right hand to your left foot (bend your knee). Keep your upper and lower body lifted throughout, thinking of as little touching the ground as possible.
This combination of lifting and rotation works every gosh darn little muscle in your back/sides/glutes/thighs and all the other places where a little extra jiggle tends to settle during pregnancy.
I highly recommend you do it. Often. Every day, even. Keep alternating sides for a total of 8-16 reps.
I know your postpartum body can feel like a foreign land, and it can be frustrating that nothing feels like it’s “where you left it.” Let taking time for yourself to exercise, reconnecting to muscles you haven’t used in a long time, and rebuilding be a daily ritual which helps you feel empowered and proud of your body. Take deep breaths, think positive thoughts, and get moving!
If you want MORE core-rebuilding fitness, look for classes which are core centered such as flow yoga, barre classes, Pilates, and dance-inspired classes. Taking a class can allow you to connect with other moms, get some much needed time out of the house, and have a ton of fun, all while giving your body the time and attention it deserves!