After you give birth – whether that was a few days ago or several years ago — it’s normal for your entire midsection to seem quite foreign. Perhaps it feels like you have no abdominal muscles at all, or perhaps your belly still looks pregnant. First, do not panic. This is completely normal. Second, do not act on any urge to do thousands of sit-ups, planks, or other core exercises in an attempt to “get your abs back.” While well-intentioned, this can 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.
In this post, we’ll take you through what happens to your core during pregnancy, and how to effectively kickstart your healing and build a strong and functional core.
What Happens to Your Core During Pregnancy
Let’s begin by looking at the stresses placed on your abdominal muscles during pregnancy. All your abdominal muscles (transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis) connect at the midline of your body. They are connected by a tissue called the linea alba. As your belly grows during pregnancy, the linea alba tissue stretches to allow adequate space for your baby to grow, as you can see in the image on the right below.
The thinning and stretching of the linea alba tissue weakens it, which causes the left and right sides of the rectus abdominis (“6 pack”) muscle to drift further away from one another. This “wider than usual” separation between the left and right sides of the rectus abdominis muscle is known as Diastasis Recti (or “DR”). Diastasis refers to separation. Recti refers to the rectus abdominis muscle.
It is important to note that some degree of DR is a normal and necessary part of pregnancy. Your body was designed to do this. This means that virtually every person has some degree of DR in the immediate aftermath of childbirth. While some people may have a DR that heals within weeks, it is quite common to have persistent DR beyond one year postpartum. So, know that you are not alone, or somehow a failure, if you do have DR months or years past delivery.
DR often manifests as a torpedo-like protrusion down the center of the abdomen during movements that engage the abdominal muscles. You can see an example of this “coning” in the belly below.
Keys to Postpartum Core Recovery
There are essentially two key components to rebuilding your core following the stresses of pregnancy and childbirth:
1. Alleviate stress on the linea alba tissue so that it can heal
Remember that the linea alba is the tissue that connects the left and right sides of the rectus abdominis muscle. Pregnancy and childbirth weaken it, which causes the widening of the gap between the left and right sides of the rectus abdominis muscle. The good news is that the linea alba is like skin or bone. It can heal itself as long as its given the ability to do so by minimizing excess stress from being placed on it. This happens when your body is in neutral alignment. When your body is in neutral alignment — as is shown below by vertical stacking from ear-shoulder-hip-knee-ankle and ribs stacked vertically on top of pelvis — this alleviates undo tension from being placed on the soft tissues of the body.
When moving about during the day, try to practice keeping a straight line between your ear-shoulder-hip, especially when sitting and bending over. See examples below:
2. Rebuild the Core from the Inside Out
Just as building a house requires starting with a solid foundation, the same is true for your core. We must focus first on restoring strength to the deepest core muscles, specifically the muscles of the Core Canister shown below.
3 Postpartum Core Recovery Exercises
Now let’s discuss 5 powerful exercises that strengthen these critical Core Canister muscles. Move through the exercises below in numerical order (not progressing onto the next move until you’ve mastered the previous). Spend about 5-8 minutes (1-2 times per day) focusing on a few of the techniques until you gradually move through them. While these may not feel like the traditional core exercises you are used to, after 1-2 weeks of consistent daily practice, you will feel a difference.
- 360° Breathing: We call this the #1 most effective core exercise because it activates all your Core Canister muscles and gets them working together in harmony. Watch the video below, which explains not only how to perform the exercise, but how to incorporate it into all your movements to dramatically improve the effectiveness of every move you do. Master this move, and it’s like doing over 20,000 reps per day of the best core work there is.
2. 360° 2-Step Exhales: This is a progression on 360° Breathing that increases the activation in your transverse abdominis (TVA) — your largest and innermost abdominal muscle (AKA your body’s “inner girdle”).
3. PFAs-Slow and Fast: These exercises target the “floor of your core” or pelvic floor. These can be tricky to master at first, so the video below takes you on a step-by-step process to first find your pelvic floor muscles (HINT: your “pee-stopping” muscles are only the front!), then activate them, and finally coordinate your pelvic floor movement with your 360° Breathing.
Want Additional Resources?
For additional resources to help you recover, build strength, and get back to doing what you love, explore our Postpartum Training Programs. Or, for a more personalized approach, visit our Find a Coach page to find an expert trainer who can design and coach you through a customized training program.
Are you a Health & Fitness Professional?
If you are a health & fitness professional interested in coaching pre & postnatal clients, explore our ProNatal Education & Certification.