I was laying in the sun on the yoga mat rolled out on the patio while my perfect, 6-week daughter swung in the shade and a podcast was playing about the endlessly confusing and emotional journey of fitness in motherhood. Everything that was being said struck a chord with me… I just went through an exhausting nine-month transitional period, impatiently preparing for the future, and withstood an excruciating labor experience, but the hardest reality for me to swallow was that I had no idea how to approach the body that I was staring at in the mirror. For the female body to still remain resourceful after expending so much power and energy into a life-forming experience is an amazingly impressive ability. But this can still be incredibly depleting and rather intimidating when approaching how to care for your body once the rollercoaster of the immediate postpartum period has passed.
At my 6-week postpartum check, I got the O.K. to start exercising moderately again. I had a lot of questions that I knew they would not be able to answer: Where do I even start? How do I strengthen my core? How much is too much? Will I even know what my body needs anymore? Can I run? Bike? Jump? How in the world can I get an effective workout if I pee my pants every time I sit up in bed?
What Happens To Your Abs During Pregnancy?
In order to make room for the growing fetus, the ab muscles stretch, and the back muscles shorten. The linea alba, the collagen connective tissue that goes vertically down your abdomen separating your right and left abdominal muscles, thins and separates to each side. Because of the different distribution of weight and the production of relaxin*, the joints and ligaments within the pelvic get unstable and significantly weaker causing back pain and the infamous “pregnancy waddle.” [R]
What is Relaxin?
Relaxin is a two-chain peptide hormone that is in the insulin superfamily of hormones. Relaxin was originally discovered in a pregnant guinea pig as a hormone that lubricated the ligaments in the pelvis in order to prepare for birth. The hormone is primarily responsible for the softening and ripening of the cervix and heavily produced in the reproductive structures of many species. Because it was originally found in a pregnant mammal, relaxin was thought to only be active as a pregnancy hormone. However, as research increased and improved, it was found that the hormone is involved in many other physiological processes like the prostate gland in males impacting the mobility of sperm cells, the regulation of many other common hormones, kidney function, and the restructuring of collagen in other areas of the body besides the reproductive tract. Because of relaxin’s ability to lubricate joints and ligaments, old injuries are a lot more prone to flare up, causing a great amount of discomfort and pain. Pain in the lower back is common for mothers as the distribution of weight shifts when the baby grows, increasing weight and pressure in the pelvic structure. Relaxin peaks heavily during the 14-week mark and during labor, causing joint pain to also be an issue in the postpartum period. That is why functional and safe movement, as well as core stability exercises, are vital to the strength and comfort of mothers. [R]
Motherhood imposes many physical demands for your core. Ensuring your core is strong and stable is vital for everyday demands such as the list below.
Postpartum Physical Demands
Pushing a stroller
There is a tendency to hunch over and lockout our elbows when pushing our babies in a stroller. Instead, focus on keeping your chin up and head stacked on top of your hips and shoulders. Pull your shoulders together and lock them down, leading with the chest and softly bend your arms keeping a neutral wrist position. Engage your core and take comfortable strides.
Carrying the baby
Keeping spine in neutral alignment and shoulders pulled back and down. Keeping your hips tilted forward and your rib cage locked down, core being actively engaged. Try to carry your baby in the center of your body.
When sitting in the nursing chair, the tendency to hunch over the baby is normal. However, this can be prevented by propping your feet on a footrest and keeping your spine in a neutral position. Ensure that you are sitting where everything you need is within an easy reach.
Carrying the car seat
It is advised to carry the car seat as little as possible and strive to carry the baby in the body carrier or stroller. When picking up the car seat, bend over with a neutral spine, hold a soft bend in the knees, and engaging the core, keep the car seat as close to your body as possible. The best way to carry the seat is either like a laundry basket or let it hang from the elbow, using the bicep, rather than carrying it in the hands.
So what are some of the best exercises postpartum to build and strengthen your core?
4 Post Partum Core Exercises
1. Postpartum Core Exercise: Side Plank (on knees or one leg extended)
Start lying flat on the floor, turn over onto your left side and prop yourself up onto your left elbow. Keeping your left palm pressed to the floor, bring your heels to your bottom until your legs are in a 90-degree angle. Pick up your hips and hold that plank position on your knees. Keeping a straight line from head to knees, eyes ahead, and focusing on breathing fully and consistently throughout this movement. Once completed on the left, complete this on the right side.
Complete 4 sets of 20-60 second hold on either side.
If you can hold the side-knee-plank comfortably for one minute on either side and would like to make this movement harder, extend one or both legs. Keeping your body in a straight line from head to toes.
2. Postpartum Core Exercise: Hip Bridges
Lying flat on your back, bend your knees, bring your heels in towards your butt, and place the soles of your feet flat on the floor with your knees actively engaged so they are stacked directly above your ankles. With your arms extended down towards your hips and palms pressed firmly on the floor, lift your hips until your body is in a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Squeeze your butt cheeks and hold this position, breathing consciously into your diaphragm, for 3-5 seconds, then slowly lower your hips back down.
Complete 4-5 sets of 20 reps.
If you want to make this more challenging, place your feet on an elevated surface like a stair step or couch and complete the reps. To make it even more challenging, lift one heel off of the elevated surface, hold one leg in the air, and complete the reps using one leg.
3. Postpartum Core Exercise: Alternating Bird Dogs
Get into a tabletop position on your hands in knees with your shoulders directly about your wrists and hips directly above your knees. Pull your shoulders back and squeeze the shoulder blades together. Looking straight down at your hands, flatten your spine, squeeze your butt cheeks, and bring your ribcage down towards your hips, strictly engaging your core. Lift one arm pointing your fingers straight ahead while simultaneously lifting the opposite leg and pointing the toes directly back. Hold that position, actively breathing, for 3-5 seconds then bring your arm and leg back to the starting position, slow and controlled. Repeat on the other arm and opposite leg. Ensuring that your core is engaged, and ribcage is tucked between each rep.
Complete 4 sets of 20 reps (10 on each side).
4. Postpartum Core Exercise: Alternating Dead Bugs
Lying flat on your back, bend your knees and lift your legs so your knees are directly above your hips and legs are in a 90-degree angle. Lift your arms and fully extend them above you, pointing your fingers to the ceiling. Pull your shoulder blades off the floor. Suck your belly button up and into your spine, actively holding a strong hallow position, and keep your lower back sealed to the floor. Lower one arm, keeping it straight, until the bicep is next to your ear. Lower the opposite leg down, straightening it out completely and keeping the heel off the floor, until your body is in a straight line from shoulders to toes. Hold this position for 3-5 seconds, actively breathing, then slowly return the arm and leg to its starting position. Drop the other arm and opposite leg for the next repetition, ensuring that the lumbar spine is actively glued to the floor and the hallow position is held throughout each rep.
By incorporating these post-partum core exercises into your daily routine, you’ll be able to build your core stability and strength. Remember though, stability should be a priority for far longer than 6 weeks postpartum because the core and the pelvic floor muscles can take 9-12 months to fully recover.
Effective Postpartum Core Stability And Strengthening Exercises: Takeaway
In the end, the most important lesson to be learned during the postpartum period is patience and acceptance - patience for proper recovery and acceptance of the temporary condition that you are in. This will not last forever! Healing will come and strength will bloom with time and consistency.
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