Now that you have your baby, it’s time to focus on repairing and reconnecting with your core. Your abs have gone through extensive changes over the course of the 9+ months of pregnancy, separating and stretching to more than 50% of their original length. There is no rushing your recovery – but there are a few deep core focused exercises that are key to reactivating the right muscles and avoiding the dreaded mommy tummy! The muscles of the deep core that you want to target are thinking muscles. This means you don’t actually need to move to activate them. Unlike a bicep curl – where your muscles engage to bend your arm – you actually have to find the mind-body connection to the action of the muscle for them to activate. The more you think about the muscles moving, the stronger they become. The best thing about postnatal deep core exercises is you can do them almost anywhere – no props or even gym gear required. Do them in your PJ’s, it doesn’t matter – just make sure you do them!
You can do these exercises seated on any household chair, physioball, and yoga bolster – somewhere you can sit up tall and evenly on your sitting bones.
Learning How to Breathe Again:
Inhale, exhale – easy right? So many of us breathe incorrectly – using the wrong muscles, causing a great deal of tension throughout the body. The diaphragm is your most important breathing muscle. Over the course of your pregnancy as your baby grew, taking up more space in abdomen, the organs had to move up and so the diaphragm could no longer fully activate. Now that you have space back, we need to retrain the diaphragm to fully release so you can breathe easily, providing much needed nourishment and oxygen for the cells of the body! Your breath is your most powerful tool when retraining the postnatal core, so you need to get it right! The BodyLove Pilates breath goes like this:
Inhale gently through your nose. Imagine your diaphragm is a jellyfish, domelike in shape, swimming down into your belly. Allow your belly to fill up with air and the muscles to relax.
Exhale a long, slow, even breath out your mouth – making a sound like you are Darth Vader from Star Wars! Imagine now that the Jellyfish diaphragm gently floats back up with the exhale.
Take 10 slow, focused breaths at the beginning of all your workouts to find the rhythm of your breath so you can move into the more targeted breathing exercises.
Consistently stretching the sides of the body after baby will lengthen tight muscles of the side and low back and also provide a great opportunity to practice your breathing work mentioned above. Doing focused breathing exercises in side stretch will help open up the muscles between the ribs called the Intercostal muscles that have been totally squashed together during pregnancy.
Focus on sending your inhale into the side of the body that you are stretching. Imagine there is a balloon inside your ribcage and you are inflating that balloon with your breath. Do 10 breaths on each side.
Belly Button to Spine:
This exercise is known when you are pregnant as “hug your baby” and it targets the deep core muscle called the Transverse Abdominis (TVA). This is the most important muscle for the repair of Diastasis Recti – which is the separation of your 6-pack muscle that occurs during pregnancy. Closing your Diastasis is the single most important thing to achieve when you’re returning to fitness after pregnancy. It is also the only muscle that will get your flat tummy back! This exercise provides stability for your pelvis and spine – a crucial skill to master in the retraining process.
Inhale through your nose and allow your belly to release and fill up with air. Exhale a long, slow, even Darth Vader breath out your mouth as you imagine the two sides of our abdominals knitting back together as you pull your belly button all the way to your spine. Tip: Feel like you are growing taller, lengthening the body as your pull the belly button in. Keep your heart lifted throughout the exercise.
This exercise challenges the connection you found in Belly Button to Spine, but this time we are asking you to be able to count out loud while keeping your belly button all the way to your spine. You will take little sips of air as you count, but your focus is on maintaining that belly button to spine connection throughout. Inhale through your nose and allow your belly to fill up with air. Exhale a long, slow, even Darth Vader breath out your mouth and imagine pulling your belly button all the way to your spine and then begin to count out loud. You have to count out loud so you know you are NOT holding your breath. Start with 5 sets counting to 10 and slowly build to 2 sets of 25.
The Sideways Elevator:
Now we are thinking about the sequential deepening of the connection to the spine. In this exercise, you need to imagine that your belly button is an elevator and that your spine is the penthouse. Now turn the elevator on its side so it is going through your body. Inhale through your nose and allow your belly to fill up with air – the elevator is on the ground floor. Exhale a long, slow even Darth Vader breath out your mouth and imagine the elevator moving through level 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – The Penthouse (otherwise known as your spine!) Inhale and allow the elevator to go back to the ground floor again.
Similar to the Sideways Elevator exercise – we are focusing on the sequential deepening of the pelvic floor muscles. The pelvic floor muscles have two main functions – squeeze and lift. This exercise asks you to focus on both. Inhale through your nose and feel like you are fully releasing the pelvic floor muscles – the elevator is on the ground floor. Exhale a long, slow even Darth Vader breath out your mouth and imagine the elevator lifting and moving up to level 1 – 2 – 3. Three is the penthouse in this case.
Getting up and Getting Down:
This is not an exercise but there is no point doing all this great deep core work if every time you get out of bed, off the mat or out of the bath for example, you are engaging muscles we want to avoid, making your Diastasis worse and slowing your recovery. Until you have healed your Diastasis Recti you want to avoid all flexion of the spine. Flexion of the spine happens most obviously when you do a crunch – no crunches allowed! But this crunch type move also happens in lots of everyday activities like the ones mentioned above. Instead of hauling yourself up, be sure to turn to your side and use your upper body to sit or get up. You have to pretend you are pregnant again – avoid doing any movement that engages your 6 pack muscles. Also be aware of how you get up and down to the ground/exercise mat so you do not engage the rectus. “From a seated position slide all the way down until you are side lying, only when your head is completely down can you roll onto your back!” To come back up – “Roll over onto your side. Using your top arm push yourself up to an upright seated position.”
When you’re pregnant, all your abdominal muscles massively stretch to make room for the growing baby. Now we have to focus on shortening all these muscles back again. This exercise requires the activation of a few core muscles at the same time to gently tilt the pelvis posteriorly. First you have to get down safely as instructed above, on to your back with your knees bent, and your pelvis and spine in neutral. Inhale through your nose and imagine you have placed a little marble on your belly in between your pubic bone and your belly button. Exhale a long, slow even Darth Vader breath out your mouth and imagine the pelvic floor lifting, the TVA and oblique muscles wrapping together, hollowing out a little space and to gently roll the marble toward your belly button. Inhale and release the little marble back to the start position. This is a very small, but deep move. You do not need to imprint the low back heavily onto the mat.
For the extra challenge – do all the seated exercises on All Fours – this requires you working your core against gravity as well as strengthening the shoulders and back to correctly hold the position. Read more about your postnatal core here.