Reconnect :: with your Abdominal Muscles (Properly) & Jump Start A Safe, Effective Postpartum Abdominal Exercise Program.
Flat, toned abdominals are the desire of many women and one of the biggest goals of any post-natal exercise program. You want them? Well, simply do more abdominal exercises and Voila! the flat mid-section of your dreams will appear. Oh, if only it were that simple and safe to do it that way. In fact, regaining or acquiring a flat stomach and strong abdominals after giving birth can be a complicated process that demands patience, persistence, correct form and safe exercise progression – But it can be done! Unfortunately, when some abdominal exercises are done incorrectly and too soon after giving birth (I’m talking traditional crunches here ladies) it can exacerbate existing conditions and/or
discomforts. This can create the frustrating situation where you are trying to do something good, but the feel-good and look-good results you desire are just not happening. I’m here to remind you that it’s not a dive in head first situation, rather you should take your time and slowly submerge yourself, as the combination of time and the right exercise choices will lead you to your desired health and body aesthetic goals.
Naturally, there are multiple ingredients in the recipe for a flat tummy. Along with strengthening and stability exercises and exercises that support correct posture, the recipe includes aerobic fat-burning exercises and proper nutrition. The latter two are beyond the scope of this article, but we will address how to begin the process of regaining abdominal strength, stability and correct posture; because for mothers that have recently given birth, it is important that we learn why and how we can reconnect with our abdominals in a logical, progressive and smart manner. The timeline that determines the “end” of the healing process and/or the “bouncing back” to a pre-pregnant figure is different for each
woman given her individual body, pregnancy and birth. Practicing patience with our bodies will not only keep the frustration and accompanying stress of delayed results at bay, it will allow us to appreciate the journey and brilliance of our healing postpartum body.
Taking the time to reconnect with your abdominal muscles after the bodily changes of pregnancy and stresses of labor, and now with the demands of caring for a newborn turned infant turned toddler, may be the last thing you will think of adding to your endless “to do” list. It is, however, one of the most important and vital things that you can do for yourself (and in turn for your child) in the first days, weeks and months after you give birth – and it is never too late to begin. When we ignore the importance of using exercises to facilitate the healing process (particularly of the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles) after birth we are opening ourselves to complications now and later in life which include lower back pain, pelvic instability, incorrect and painful postural deviations and urinary incontinence. Now, who wants that! So, as much as it is about wanting to look good with that flat tummy, at the root it is really about promoting the correct healing of the abdominal muscles so that we can feel our best and live a life without pain, conditions and/or postural deviations that could have been avoided.
Pregnancy causes major postural adaptations to a woman’s body. These include forward and rounded shoulders (kyphosis), increased curvature of the lower back (lordosis) and a forward tilt of the pelvis. These adaptations are normal and needed for the pregnant woman’s body to adjust to changes in center of gravity and balance due to the constant growth of the baby. Pregnancy often results in the abdominal muscles becoming over-lengthened and lax, the muscles of the lower back becoming shortened and tight, the pelvic floor muscles being stressed, the upper back muscles becoming over-lengthened and weak and the muscles of the chest becoming shortened and tight. These can all equal not-so-pretty and not-so-feel-good posture and bodily discomfort. Each of these deviations can be carried into the postpartum period, and are often exacerbated by holding, feeding, carrying, rocking, picking up, setting down, leaning over and many more of the movements involved with the daily caring and loving of our babies. The goal of a sound postpartum exercise program is to correct these deviations, balance the musculature and avoid the exacerbation of these issues that can be caused by either sedentariness or a “too much too soon” postpartum exercise routine – particularly when it comes to reconditioning the abdominal muscles. In order to fully understand the importance of properly reconnecting with and regaining the strength and stability of your abdominal muscles, we must first have a short anatomy lesson.
Here we go – The abdominal wall is comprised of four different paired muscles each with a right and left side, and together cover and support the entire abdominal cavity. The muscles include the rectus abdominis, external obliques, internal obliques and transverse abdominis. The rectus abdominis is the most superficial of the group and runs directly up and down, vertically in the center of the abdomen. This is the “six pack” muscle, and in traditional abdominal exercise routines receives the most attention because it’s primary function is to produce spinal flexion or a forward bend of the spine (the movement involved with crunches). The right and left sides of the rectus abdominis connect at the linea alba, which is a piece of connective tissue that runs directly down the center of the torso. During pregnancy, the linea alba widens and thins due to the pressure of the expanding uterus. This thinning of the linea alba can lead to a abdominal separation or diastatsis recti, which is a common occurrence during late pregnancy and in early postpartum period. This is why, in an attempt to decrease the chance of a severe abdominal separation (the kind that can lead to functional problems and undesired aesthetics), traditional abdominal exercises that pull the head, shoulders and neck off the ground are not recommended during pregnancy and early postpartum.
The external and internal obliques are the muscles that run diagonally from the sides of the abdomen, at the ribs toward the midline. As the name implies, the external oblique muscles lies over the internal oblique muscles. Together the external and internal obliques produce trunk rotation and lateral flexion or side bending of the spine. The oblique muscles can also help to flatten the abdominal wall (they are important for the flat tummy look) and help to create spinal stability. Finally, the deepest of the abdominal muscles and the most important for a postpartum abdominal exercise
program is the transverse abdominis. The transverse abdominis wraps around the torso horizontally from back to front
and is responsible for the compression or flattening of the abdominal wall as well as for the narrowing of the waist (ahhh….that’s what we’re looking for). The transverse abdominis is also particularly important for providing core stabilization, which is vital for functional movement and healthy back care. When you are instructed to “pull in” your abdominal muscles, you are primarily contracting your transverse abdominis. Reconnecting with and developing all of
the abdominal muscles are important to a successful postpartum abdominal exercise program. The most successful and safe program will work from the inside outside, which means it will begin with regaining the strength of the transverse abdominis. Through first focusing on the strength and functional control of the transverse abdominis you will achieve the crucial stability of the trunk and pelvis needed for proper posture and movement patterns that are necessary for avoiding back pain. Plus, you will be re-flattening your lax postpartum abdominal muscles, which is one important aspect of being able to once again button up those pre-pregnancy jeans.
Once you re-establish the strength of the transverse abdominis through the ability to properly hold in your abdominal
muscles while performing some simple exercises, you will then begin to integrate more complex and advanced abdominal exercises, which will eventually lead you back to performing traditional crunches better and safer than you ever did before. By just taking a few moments each day to do these simple breathing, abdominal exercises, you will facilitate the healing process after giving birth through increasing circulation to the affected areas and by strengthening the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. This will begin the process of reconnecting with your center and restoring abdominal strength. Remember, this is just the starting point and the emphasis is on taking your time, practicing patience and being persistent. Healing from birth doesn’t happen quickly, but when you practice safe and progressive
abdominal exercises you will not only feel stronger and free of unnecessary pain, you may even find yourself getting the flatter tummy you thought never possible.
Live Pilates Excercises:
Seated Abdominal Connection Exercises Sit straight up on your bottom with your legs crossed or on a chair, stack your shoulders directly over your pelvis and place your hands over your belly.
Exercise 1 – The Tranverse Abdominis and Pelvic Floor Activator
• Inhale for 4 counts while letting your belly push into your hands.
• Exhale for 8 – 10 counts while drawing your belly button back to your spine, flattening the abdominal wall (TA) and imagining that you are pulling your two sits bones and pubic bone together, squeezing your pelvic floor muscles
• Hold for 8 – 10 counts
• Repeat 5 times
Exercise 2 – The Transverse Abdominis Pulses
• Exhale and draw the abdominal muscles in one more time
• Inhale release the muscles half way out
• Exhale and quickly draw them back in
• Quickly repeat this small in and out motion 30 times
• Repeat 2 more sets of the pulses
To learn more about safe, effective and progressive post natal exercises that will give you results, check out Leah’s new DVD LiveLife Pilates for New Mothers. www.pilatesfornewmothers.com Article by Leah Stewart, M.S.