Among the many common (yet crazy) things that happen to your body when you have a baby is the fact that your uterus grows from the size of a pear to the size of a watermelon. As you might imagine, this creates some serious change in your midsection. Which is why strengthening your abdominal muscles while pregnant is so important—and the benefits don't end at delivery.
"In many ways, core strength keeps you safe, centered, and also prepared for childbirth—and it’s the same area you want to keep strong after," says Mahri Relin, founder of the exercise streaming platform Body Conceptions and a fitness trainer who specializes in pre- and postnatal workouts. As a new mom, she says, it can be harder to control your body because your center of gravity changes and certain ligaments are looser.
"Carrying and delivering a baby weakens your abdominal muscles and pelvic floor," explains Jackie Stone, MD, an OB/GYN with online women's health provider Maven Clinic. "This can cause problems with posture, strength, fecal and urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, and also issues with sexual satisfaction for some women."
"Core strength keeps you safe, centered, and prepared for childbirth—and it’s the same area you want to keep strong after."
Another common side effect of the miracle of life is that pregnancy and delivery—both natural births and cesarean sections—can cause a separation of the rectus abdominis muscles (the outer muscles you see in a six pack) called diastasis recti. (Here's how to perform a self-test to see if you have the condition, but consult your doc to confirm.)
One way to regain stability and heal pregnancy-related abdominal issues is through postnatal core workouts. But before getting back on the mat, "all women should check with their own health-care provider to make sure that they're healthy enough to exercise without any limitations," Dr. Stone advises. As a general rule, though, she recommends waiting about one to two weeks after a vaginal birth—"or until your body feels ready"—and about six weeks after a c-section before engaging in ab exercises.
Once you've got the okay from your MD, here are 5 abdominal exercises to work on strength and stability.
1. Pelvic tilts with diaphragmatic breathing
"What I always say post-pregnancy is you want to strengthen the muscles from the inside out," Relin says. You do this by focusing on the pelvic floor and transverse abdominis, which "are much deeper and sometimes called corset muscles because they kind of wrap around the lower part of your spine," she explains.
"After you have your baby, of course they’re stretched out, and you want to bring them back into this wrapped position. Functionally, that'll support the spine and 'dynamic stability'—the ability to move while retaining [balance] and control of your body."
Start on your hands and knees with a neutral spine. Inhale, then exhale as you curve your back into a "cat" shape, pulling the low abs toward your belly button as you exhale. Return to neutral spine and release the abs on the inhale.
Repeat three times, then add kegels with each round of cat pose. (You should be doing kegels daily to strengthen the pelvic floor, FYI.) The feeling is like pulling the pelvic floor up and into your body as you're simultaneously exhaling and pulling your abs into the low spine. Then release everything on the inhale. Repeat eight times with kegels.
2. Pelvic tilts on your back
Lie flat on your back with both legs bent into the body, hip-distance apart with both feet on the ground. Inhale and relax your abdominals, then exhale as you tilt your pelvis upward and pull your abs into your spine. Try not to engage the glutes as you tilt the pelvis (which means that you won't be lifting it all the way up to bridge position). On the inhale, lower your pelvis and release your abs. Repeat three times, then add kegels with each tilt.
You should feel like you're pulling the pelvic floor up and into your body on the tilt while simultaneously exhaling and pulling your abs into the low spine. Then release everything on the inhale. Repeat eight times.
3. Single-leg extensions
These next three exercises all deal with abdominal stabilization. Prepare by lying on your back and exhaling as you pull your abs into your spine. Continue breathing normally but maintain the feeling of the abs sucking in and engaging the whole time. Your feet should be flat on the floor with your knees bent and legs hip-distance apart.
Slowly straighten one leg, sliding your heel along the floor. Slide the leg back in, maintaining your abdominal engagement the whole time. Repeat eight times on each side.
4. Bent-leg heel taps
Make sure your low abs are engaged before you begin and remain engaged. Start with both legs bent at 90 degrees in tabletop position. Take one leg and tap the heel to the ground, then back to tabletop. Make sure your lower back doesn't lift off the ground. You can make this exercise harder by tapping the heels farther away from the body. Repeat eight times on each leg.
5. Raised-leg extensions
Make sure your low abs are engaged before you begin, and start with your legs bent at 90 degrees in tabletop position. Extend both legs a few inches out from the hips to a diagonal position, and then return to tabletop. Repeat with control 20 times.
Make sure that your lower back doesn't arch with this movement, and maintain engagement/pulling in with the abs at all times. You can make the exercise more difficult by extending the legs farther or lower. Keep your legs bent and reach them out higher if you feel too much strain in your back or hip flexors instead of your abs.
Welcome to the Well+Good Healthy Pregnancy Guide, a week-long series on how SoulCycle-loving, leggings-wearing, kale salad-obsessed women can bring wellness into the next nine months (and beyond).
When you're feeling stronger, here's a five-minute plank challenge and a four-minute core workout to try.
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