After you give birth, it’s normal for your entire midsection to seem quite foreign. Perhaps it seems like you have no abdominal muscles at all. Don’t panic, but also PLEASE don’t act on any urge to do thousands of sit-ups or planks in an attempt to “get your abs back.” This will have the opposite effect. You can absolutely have a strong core again, perhaps even stronger than it was prior to pregnancy, but it does require a methodical approach to recovery, focusing on gradually rebuilding your core from the inside out. PROnatal Fitness has developed a 3-Stage Core Recovery Protocol that has proven to be effective regardless of how many weeks, months, or years you are postpartum. The protocol is also highly beneficial for Diastasis Recti and C-Section Recovery. In this piece, we share 5 exercises from our Core Recovery Protocol to help you get started on a successful path to recovery.
Your Postpartum Core
Before we tell you what to do, it’s important to understand a bit about your core anatomy and what happens during pregnancy. Let’s first take a (simplified) look at your deep core muscles. The image below shows the critical muscles we refer to as the Core Canister: The diaphragm (DF), the transverse abdominis (TVA), and the 14 different muscles of the pelvic floor (PF).
Think of the TVA as your body’s “inner girdle” (wrapping around your entire midsection) and your pelvic floor muscles as the “floor of your core.” A growing belly during pregnancy places excessive pressure outward and downward (AKA “loosening that girdle” and “weakening the floor”). Childbirth further traumatizes these muscles (especially if you use the traditional pushing technique of holding your breath, as many doctors cue). So, typically women have some degree of diastasis recti (abdominal separation) and pelvic floor dysfunction in the early postpartum period. If you jump into doing traditional ab exercises without properly rebuilding the walls and floor of your core, it’s like trying to add an addition onto your house when the foundation is weak. We don’t want to deal with those repercussions, so let’s focus on rebuilding that foundation first.
Pregnancy and childbirth place a great deal of stress on your core and alter your connection to your Core Canister. Therefore, the very first step in rebuilding your core is to re-establish the brain-to-core connection to get those critical core muscles firing properly again. When this is accomplished, then you can focus on building core strength and capacity.
5 Core Recovery Exercises
Before doing any of the movements below, it’s important to remove any added stress to your core muscles by focusing on moving in neutral alignment. When your body is out of neutral alignment, it places excess stress on your core muscles, which can counteract your hard work in doing the exercises below. Watch how you sit, stand, move, bend over, etc. If you can master this, it will dramatically expedite your recovery. With added stress removed, we can focus on rebuilding with these 5 moves:
- 360° Breathing: This is the first and most fundamental technique to master, as proper breathing gets all the critical Core Canister muscles to function properly as a unit and regulate intra-abdominal pressure. If you can master 360° Breathing, and make it become natural, that’s like doing over 20,000 reps per day of the most beneficial core exercise there is. It is the first, and most fundamental, technique we teach ALL clients. WATCH VIDEO
- 360° 2-Step Exhales: This is a progression on 360° Breathing that increases emphasis on the exhale to increase TVA activation (AKA tighten the girdle more). WATCH VIDEO
- PFAs-Slow and Fast: Now, we want to increase activation of the traumatized pelvic floor muscles with PFAs (Pelvic Floor Activations). No, this does not mean doing “Kegels” as they’re traditionally known (squeezing the muscles used to stop the flow of urine). Watch this video to learn how to target ALL your pelvic floor attachment points, and work them through a full range of motion. PFAs can be tricky to learn, especially in the beginning when your PF muscles are weak, but keep practicing and it will get easier. WATCH VIDEO
- Core Canister Pump: This movement is essentially a PFA-Slow with a stronger TVA contraction on the exhale. So, if we think of that Core Canister, it’s a stronger contraction of both the walls and floor on the exhale (followed by full relaxation on the inhale). WATCH VIDEO
- Core Canister Hold: This movement begins the same as the Core Canister Pump, but after you exhale and contract the TVA and PF, you then hold that contraction in the muscles as you continue to breathe (light inhale, strong exhale). Do only 2 breath cycles at first, then gradually increase to 3, 4, and so on (up to about 30 seconds). You may not be able to hold the PF contraction as long as the TVA, which is fine. WATCH VIDEO
How to progress through the exercises
Perform the exercises above in a seated position first. Work through them in numerical order, progressing only upon mastery of each technique. Spend about 5 – 8 minutes each day (ideally 2 times per day) practicing these techniques. A sample routine could look like this:
- 1 min: 360° Breathing (6 – 8 breaths)
- 1 min: 360° 2-Step Exhales (6 – 8 breaths)
- 1 min: 3-5 PFAs-Slow + 8-10 PFAs-Fast
- Rest and repeat
Once you’ve progressed a bit more, perhaps your routine looks like this:
- 1 min: 3-5 PFAs-Slow + 8-10 PFAs-Fast
- 1 min: Core Canister Pumps (6 – 8 breaths)
- 1 min: Core Canister Hold (hold for 2-3 breath cycles. rest, repeat)
- Rest and repeat
Once you have worked through all the movements in the seated position. Progress to lying on your back (knees bent, feet flat on the floor), then in quadruped (all 4s hands and knees). You may find certain movements feel easier for you in one position vs. another. Everyone’s body is different.
What to Avoid
While going through the recovery process, it’s important to avoid all traditional abdominal work (sit-ups, planks, leg lifts, dead bugs, V-sits, etc) until deep core strength has been restored. For more details, review these Core Movements to Avoid. One easy way to tell if a movement is not appropriate is to watch for a vertical, torpedo-like protrusion down the center of your abdomen, like the image below. This is a sign of diastasis recti.
Finally, while you might be tempted to “suck in” your belly to make it appear flatter, or walk around with your core constantly “engaged,” AVOID the temptation. These activities create excess intra-abdominal pressure in your core, which can actually worsen DR, and end up having the exact opposite effect of a flatter tummy.
Want More Support?
The above is just a small excerpt of our full Core Recovery Protocol that we take women through after pregnancy. Want to work with an expert on your postpartum recovery (no matter how many months or years postpartum you are)? Consider working with a PROnatal Personal Trainer. Want to earn your specialization to work with postpartum women? Consider getting your Pre/Postnatal Performance Training Specialization.