Abs After Baby: How To Heal Your Core After Pregnancy

Here's why abdominal exercises are the very first thing you should reintroduce to your workout routine after childbirth, plus a few specific ones to try.
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At her online pilates studio called BodyLove Pilates, Ali Handley helps mamas and soon-to-be mamas gain strength, endurance and stamina as they gear up for – and then recover from – the great (but arduous) gift of childbirth. This month, she's serving as our Guest Editor, and we're excited to dig a little deeper into her expertise and refresh our own exercise routines for summer. Whether or not you've experienced pregnancy, we think you'll dig her workout tips, like today's abdominal exercises (which are likely to work for all of us who could use a little more core strength). 

There's no denying it – having a baby wreaks havoc on your body. Once you're a new mom, you're tasked with putting it all back together, and the first hurdle is the repair and reactivation of your abdominals. 

During pregnancy, your abs separate to make room for your growing baby – a process called Diastasis Recti. It's crucial to reconnect your abs when you are postnatal, and it should be the first thing you do when returning to fitness. If you don't close the Diastasis, you'll maintain what is lovingly referred to as your "Mommy Tummy." That little low-belly pooch is actually the appearance of your abdominal organs, pushing and dropping forward where the abs are not joined. 

You need to summon patience, focus and lots of repetition – but if you can dedicate time to healing your Diastasis, you will be rid of your "Mommy Tummy" forever. Here a few simple moves to try, plus tips to ensure your workouts are safe and effective!

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1. Bellybutton to Spine

Set up – Get seated comfortably in neutral on a physioball, yoga block or bolster, or household chair. Just make sure you are evenly on your sitting bones.

INHALE through your nose and allow your belly to fill up with air and your stomach muscles to completely relax.

EXHALE a long, slow, even breath out your mouth as you imagine your TVA wrapping around your midsection, pulling your bellybutton in all the way to the spine, knitting the two sides of the abs together.

Reps – 20

TIP Place your hands on either side of your belly button and spread your fingers. As you exhale, knit your fingers together, gently encouraging the skin to come together as you pull your belly button in.

2. TVA Counting

Set up – Get seated comfortably in neutral on a physioball, yoga block or bolster, or household chair – just make sure you are evenly on your sitting bones. (You can do this exercise immediately after the first one above.)

INHALE through your nose and allow your belly to fill up with air and your stomach muscles to completely relax.

EXHALE a long, slow, even breath out your mouth as you imagine your TVA wrapping around your midsection, pulling your bellybutton in all the way to the spine. Keep your belly button on your spine and begin to count out loud. Start by counting to 10 and build to 25.

Challenge  Grab a sweatshirt and wrap it around your back, holding a sleeve in each hand. Cross the sleeves over your belly button so you are now holding the opposite sleeve. As you do the exercises, pull tightly on the sleeves and maintain the pressure as your begin to count. This is called splinting.

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3. Bird-Dog

Set up – All-fours position.

INHALE through your nose and allow your belly to fill up with air and your stomach muscles to completely relax.

EXHALE a long, slow, even breath out your mouth as you imagine your TVA wrapping around your midsection, pulling your bellybutton in all the way to the spine, knitting the two sides of the abs together. Then, reach your left arm and right leg out away from the body. Nothing in the spine should change.

INHALE through your nose again and bring the arm and leg back to the start position.

EXHALE out your mouth again and switch arms/legs.

REPS – 8 on each side

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4. Pelvic Tilt

SET-UP – Sit tall on your sitting bones with knees bent and feet parallel.

INHALE through your nose and feel your ribcage expand out and up to the sides.

EXHALE a long, slow, even breath out your mouth, feeling first your pelvic floor lift, next your TVA knitting together and oblique and six-pack also activating to hollow out your low abs. Gently rock your pelvis back off your sitting bones, creating a small C shape.

INHALE through your nose again, and maintain the pelvic tilt.

EXHALE out your mouth and imagine deepening the little C curve to come back up to the starting position.

Reps – 15

TIP – Less is more with this exercise. It is a small tilt of the pelvis requiring a deep connection of the abs.

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5. Heel Slide

SET-UP - Lie on your back with your knees bent, and find a neutral position of your pelvis by placing the heel of your hands on your hip bones and your middle fingers reaching toward your pubic bone. You want these three points to be in line with each other.

INHALE through your nose and allow your belly to fill up with air. Point your toes and reach your leg long and out along the mat until it is straight.

EXHALE a long, slow, even breath out your mouth as you first feel the wrap if your TVA around your midsection stabilizing the pelvis in the neutral position; next, flex your foot and slide your heel back in along the mat, but do not let anything else move. It's easy to hike the hip as you bring the leg back in, but make sure you resist this, and do the move with slow focus.

REPS - 8 on each leg

TIP – Before you begin this exercise, take a ball, yoga block or folded towels and place them between your knees. Inhale and breathe. Exhale and squeeze the object between your knees, focusing on the wrap of the TVA and how that stabilizes your pelvis in a neutral position.

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TIPS FOR ALL EXERCISES

1. Focus on your deep core. Your Transverse Abdominis (TVA) is a deep core muscle that wraps around your midsection, and when correctly engaged, it lengthens and cinches the waist, pulling the two sides of the abs closer together. This is the main muscle you want to target when you are working to lose your "Mommy Tummy." The TVA is a "thinking" muscle, which means you don't actually have to move to activate it. You have to find the mind-body connection as the action of the muscle – the more you think about it wrapping around the body and knitting the two sides together, the stronger it will become.

2. No crunches. Forget every traditional abdominal exercise you think should give you a flat tummy. A crunch is flexion of the spine and this activates the six-pack, shortening the muscles and pulling the abs away from each other, effectively making the Diastasis worse. You need to target the muscles of the deep core that pull the abs together, flattening and lengthening the torso. Any exercise that causes the 6-pack to turn on is a no-no – crunches, roll-ups, teasers, double legs in the air, and even planking – if you are not able to keep the deep core engaged.

3. Wear Spanx or a Belly Band. Shapewear is a wonderful tool to use when you are postnatal to encourage the stretched tissue and muscle fibers back together. I urge my clients to wear their Spanx home from the hospital and as much as possible in the first weeks and months as a new mom. The shapewear needs to cover the whole mid-section – so, just under your bra, all the way to your pubic bone – as this is where most women will have a Diastasis. The muscle that repairs the separation is the Transverse Abdominis (TVA – see above), and it is actually shaped like a corset, so wearing shapewear provides support to this muscle that is crucial in the repair of your abs.

4. Get up and down safely. While you are working to lose your "Mommy Tummy," you need to be careful how you get down and off the mat. From a seated position, slide all the way down until you are lying on your side; only when your head is completely down should 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.

p.s. Have you tried Ali's five best Pilates exercises to prep for childbirth