Exercise After Pregnancy

Postpartum Abdominal Reconditioning, Postpartum Fitness and Exercise: Abdominal Reconditioning After Pregnancy

So you've had your baby and now it's time to do crunches, lots and lots of crunches, to get your abs back in shape again. Right? Well, actually no. Fitness and exercise after pregnancy is a lot more complicated than that. In fact, exercises like crunches may actually do more harm than good in the initial postpartum period.

To appreciate the subtleties of exercise after pregnancy and particularly postpartum abdominal reconditioning, it's helpful have a basic understanding of the structure and functions of your abdominal wall.

Postpartum Fitness and Exercise: Abdominal Wall Structure and Functions

The abdominal wall is comprised of four main pairs of muscle tissue, each with right and left sides, which cover and support the abdominal cavity.

Muscle Layers of the Abdomen:

  • Rectus abdominis
  • External oblique
  • Internal oblique
  • Transverse abdominis
Illustration of Rectus Abdominis muscle

The Rectus Abdominis

Nicknamed the "six pack", the rectus abdominis runs vertically from the sternum to the pubic bone. Its primary job is spine flexion, particularly in the supine position. Exercises like crunches flex the upper spine, which move the ribcage closer to pelvis. Pelvic tilts and reverse rolls flex the lower spine, which move the pelvis closer to the ribcage.

A narrow band of connective tissue (the linea alba) runs down the body's midline between the rectus abdominis. During pregnancy, the linea alba widens and becomes thinner in response to hormones and the force of expanding uterus.

Abdominal separation, (diastasis recti) a fairly common occurrence during the latter part of pregnancy and the postpartum period, causes the right and left sides of the rectus abdominis to separate along the linea alba. (See the Diastasis Recti page of this web site for more details.)

The External Oblique and Internal Oblique

The external oblique is the most exterior layer of the abdominal wall and runs diagonally from the ribs toward the midline. The internal oblique lies underneath the external oblique and has diagonal fibers that run in the opposite direction. Together, they form an X shape across your torso. You can think of the top half of the X as the external oblique and the bottom half of the X as the internal oblique. These two muscles always work together and perform lateral spine flexion (side bends) and assist in spine rotation.


Illustration of External Oblique muscle Illustration of Internal Oblique muscle

Illustration of Transverse Abdominis muscle

The Transverse Abdominis

The deepest layer of the abdominal wall, and the most important in postpartum exercise, is the transverse abdominis. It's fibers run across the abdomen and performs abdominal compression, which draws the belly inward, and narrows the waist. Fitness trainers refer to this muscle as the body's "internal girdle." Interestingly, unlike most skeletal muscles, the transverse abdominis does not move bone.

After pregnancy, contraction of the transverse abdominis acts like an internal splint, helping to close abdominal separation from the inside. It's the body's most important core stabilizer and is responsible for re-flattening the abdominal wall after pregnancy.

As you'll see below, the first step in exercise after pregnancy and rebuilding the abdominal wall is the development of strength and functional control in the transverse abdominis.


Exercise After Pregnancy/Postpartum Fitness: Post Natal Abdominal Reconditioning

Two main concepts must be understood and utilized to quickly, safely, and effectively strengthen and flatten your abdominal wall after pregnancy.

First, a critical component for restoring your abs and the development of core strength is learning to control the shape of your abdominal wall during exercise. To do this, you need to train your abs to pull back in toward your spine during exertion. The quickest and safest way to develop a flat abdominal wall after pregnancy is to perform special postpartum exercises that specifically develop this essential skill.

Second, dynamic stability is the other key component of postpartum reconditioning and exercise after pregnancy. This term may sound like a contradiction. However, it refers to the ability to maintain proper position during exercise. Because you have both loose joints and weakened abs after pregnancy, it is particularly easy for the weight and force of your limbs to pull your pelvis, spine, or shoulder girdle out of good alignment. When your bones are out of proper positioning, muscle functioning is impaired, which greatly reduces the effectiveness of exercise. After pregnancy, you must learn to recognize and eliminate undesired movement during exercise. dynamic stability is an essential skill that enables you to develop core strength, promotes healthy spinal function, and prevents injury.

For more on how pregnancy affects muscles and joints please consult the Physiological Adaptations During Pregnancy and Pregnancy and Postpartum Discomforts pages of this web site.

Exercise After Pregnancy/Postpartum Fitness and Exercise: Caesarian Delivery Delays Postpartum Abdominal Reconditioning

A caesarian delivery is major abdominal surgery and postpartum reconditioning must be delayed until you have made a complete medical recovery. Generally it takes about 4 to 6 weeks for your stitches to heal and if you've experienced no other complications, your doctor will give you the "green-light" for exercise after this time. If you've had a "C", consult with your doctor before starting postpartum exercise.

All new mothers should resume walking as soon as possible after a caesarian delivery. Walking increases blood flow circulation, which helps to speed healing. In the initial days after a "C", try to walk for a short time—start with 15 to 20 minutes—every day. Slowly increase the amount of time walked by 5 minutes every session or so, building up to where you can walk for 30 minutes without undo fatigue. After this point, try to walk for 30 minutes on most days of the week. When walking with your baby, use a stroller rather than a front pack or sling, which can stress your abdomen or incision.

Postpartum Exercise: Tips for Caesarian Recovery

  • Delay abdominal reconditioning until 4 to 6 weeks postpartum.
  • Avoid lifting and carrying heavy objects.
  • When rising from the supine position, first roll over onto your side and then use your arms to help push your self up to a sitting position.
  • Gentle massage along your scar will help to reduce adhesions and ease discomfort.
  • If you develop a cough and /or sneezing from allergies or a respiratory illness in the few months after a caesarian delivery, place a large pillow across your belly and gently press it into your abdomen to provide support for your scar and to help ease discomfort.

Scar tissue is very strong and after your stitches have healed you may begin postnatal abdominal conditioning exercises without fear of injury to your incision site or to your abdominal wall.

Photo of crunch with poor form
Photo of crunch with proper form

Exercise After Pregnancy/Postpartum Exercise: The REAL Secret to Flat Abs

The real secret to flattening the abdominal wall after pregnancy is to recondition from the inside out. This is done by first building strength, and then functional control, in the deepest abdominal muscle, the transverse abdominis or TvA. You want to avoid starting reconditioning with traditional exercises like crunches and oblique curls, which strengthen the external layers, the rectus abdominis and the external oblique. After pregnancy it's all too easy for these external layers to overpower relatively weaker TvA. This causes the abdominal wall to bulge outward during exertion.

Notice the difference in the shape of the abdomen. The model here is almost 7 mos. postpartum, and her abdominal wall has already shortened and firmed up quite a bit. The ballooning of the abdomen is much more pronounced for those with more abdominal laxity.

In sports and fitness training, what you practice is what you get, i.e., muscle specificity theory. If you allow the abs to balloon during exercise, that is what you are unintentionally training your abs to do. (Yikes!) More importantly, expansion of the abdominal wall worsens abdominal separation and contributes to many postpartum problems, such as lower back pain, pelvic instability, postural problems, and urinary stress incontinence.

Lack of strength and functional control in the TvA is the most common pitfall for all new moms. Most women, who have tried to recondition their abs the traditional way, with lots of crunches, end up with unsatisfactory results. Their abs grow stronger, but never flatten. Their bellies, particularly below the waist, protrude and stay round.

Postpartum Exercise/Postnatal Fitness: Functional Imbalances from Improper Exercise After Pregnancy

Routinely exercising the external muscles while neglecting the deepest layer results in a functional imbalance within the abdominal wall. Poor neuromuscular patterning results, which inhibits the development of dynamic stability and core strength. This sets the stage for many types of back problems, and is a clear example of how form follows function in the body.

Exercise After Pregnancy/Postpartum Exercise: Impacts on Spinal Alignment and Postnatal Posture

As you now know, reliance on supine (on the back) abdominal exercises that flex the upper spine, including most traditional abdominal exercises, many Pilates mat exercises, and some yoga poses, should be avoided immediately after pregnancy. In postpartum women, the curve of the upper back has increased significantly; a kyphotic posture, (see the Physiological Adaptation During Pregnancy page of this web site) . This is why so many new moms feel "hunched over" after childbirth. Habitually performing exercises that flex the upper spine aggravates the problem. It is far better for new moms to focus on lower spine flexion, which improves pelvic alignment, and to perform abdominal exercises where the upper spine is stabilized in the neutral neutral position.

Exercise After Pregnancy/Postpartum Workouts: How to Get the Best Results

The safest, fastest, and most effective way for you to whittle your waist and develop a nice hour-glass shape into your torso, is to start postpartum exercises and abdominal reconditioning with exercises that isolate and strengthen your TvA. After this muscle has become strong again, you can then progressively add in exercises that work external layers, all the while maintaining a flat abdominal profile. Using this method, you will not only flatten and re-tone your abs, but just as importantly, you will train all four layers of the abdominal wall to function synergistically.

Exercise After Pregnancy/Postpartum Exercise: Even if You're Post Postpartum, It's Never too Late to Correct a Problem

Don't panic if you've had a baby in the last year (or even longer) and have been consistently "crunching" your external abdominals. It's never too late to retrain your abs from the inside out. With the right exercises in the right order, you can teach yourself this important skill and make significant improvements in the shape of your abdomen that will take inches off your waistline.

Janna BeforeJanna After
Photo of women with round belly after having kidsPhoto of women with flat belly after exercise

Janna's Story:
Janna's problem was a common one. A mother of two children, aged 4.5 years and almost 22 months, she was at the point of desperation. Even though she was fit, had gotten back down to her ideal body weight, exercised regularly, she STILL LOOKED PREGNANT! (Not surprisingly, she had been trying to rehab her abs with the wrong exercises.)

She learned the BeFit-Mom system, strengthened her TvA, trained the muscle to function properly as a stabilizer, and you can see the terrific results from these before and after photos. As you can see, Janna lost inches from her waist and tummy and now takes pride in her hour glass figure. Both images are unaltered.

In Janna's Own Words:
Thanks to you Helene, nobody asks me if I'm pregnant anymore. For folks who are in the same boat...I'm 4'11", and after two pregnancies, my ab tone was shot, despite my being extremely fit, otherwise. I looked 3 months pregnant. This formal 2 piece dress was tailored for me in June, I met with (Helene) in Aug/Sep/Oct three times, and by December, the skirt was falling off me, and had to be pinned on. I lost not one pound of weight, it was ALL muscle tone, thanks to your help Helene...I got my body back!!!! Thank you so much!!!

Exercise After Pregnancy/Postpartum Exercise Fitness: Muscular Imbalances in the Torso

Pregnancy creates system wide changes in your body. As a result of the postural changes of pregnancy, (increased curves in both the lower back and upper back) specific muscle groups have become too tight, while other muscle groups have weakened. To fully rebound from pregnancy, and develop a body that not only looks good, but feel great and functions well, you need to address all of these changes.

Muscle groups that become too tight as a result of pregnancy:

  • Hip flexors
  • Lower back
  • Thighs
  • Chest
  • Shoulders, (particularly muscles that elevate the shoulder blades)
  • Back of the Neck

Muscle groups that weaken as a result of pregnancy:

  • Pelvic floor
  • Upper Back Muscles
  • External rotators of the shoulder
  • Buttocks
  • Front of the neck
  • Abdominal Wall*

*The abdominal wall is not just weak after pregnancy, it's also too long, a condition called laxity. This is why the abdomen feels mushy and droops directly after childbirth. This extreme lack of tone (remember it is temporary) often shocks many first time moms.

Exercise After Pregnancy/Postpartum Fitness: The BeFit-Mom Functional Approach to Postnatal Exercise Programming

The BeFit-Mom program is far and away the best way to recondition after pregnancy. Why? Because it is the only postnatal reconditioning program that applies proven methods of exercise science to all of the unique physiological problems that new mothers face.

The exercises are designed to systematically remedy all of the changes that pregnancy has created in your body. Each exercise has been carefully selected, so that you achieve several different goals in each, making the system incredibly efficient, so that your get the most out of each exercise session.

The exercises are progressive, both within each workout, and from workout to workout, so that the skills you learn in the beginning, provide the technical foundation for what comes next, further speeding results.

Photo of women doing postpartum stability exercise

You'll also learn a series of unique and powerful postpartum fitness techniques that I created after my son was born, and then went on to refine in my many years of teaching postnatal fitness classes. Techniques that you'll only find in BeFit-Mom programming. Here's an example of one of my special postpartum exercises.

The model (six weeks postpartum) is performing a Heel Slide with Belly Scoop. Belly Scooping is a postnatal exercise technique that combines a pelvic tilt—done solely by working the abs, no squeezing of the buttocks, as is taught in most fitness regimes—with a strong co-contraction of the TvA. This double move causes the abdomen to move closer to the spine, and become concave in shape. (I'd like to claim that I invented this move, but it is a variation of the Martha Graham modern dance contraction.) As the heel pushes away, the abdominals must work harder to maintain the proper positioning.

This one exercise improves pelvic alignment, tones the abs, flattens the abdominal wall, shortens muscle fibers, develops dynamic stability, and trains synergistic functioning between the external and internal layers of the abdominal wall.

In contrast, the vast majority of other postpartum fitness programs offer new moms generic, beginner level, standard gym exercises. Why? Your postpartum body is anything but generic. Specific changes in alignment have taken place. Specific muscular imbalances have occurred in your torso. And your connective tissues, particularly at the body's midline, as well as all of your ligaments (which hold your joints in proper alignment) are too long.

Compare my postnatal fitness program with any other and you'll see the difference. Find a postpartum workout that uses crunches, mini-crunches, or head lifts? Push-ups? Or how about Tricep dips? It's not that these exercises are bad per se, (though there is growing consensus among core fitness specialists that crunches are at best over-rated) but they certainly don't belong in a postnatal program. And clearly, advocates of these types of exercises for new moms do not understand the basic principles of postpartum exercise physiology.

As we have seen, crunches flex the upper spine, increase the upper back curve, don't flatten the abdominal wall, and can make abdominal separation (diastasis recti) worse. Push-ups strengthen and tighten the chest muscles. Hello - the chest muscles are already too tight and need to be stretched after pregnancy. And Tricep dips? They cause inward rotation and elevation of the shoulders, exactly what we don't want, especially considering the amount off lifting and carrying that new moms do. These are just a few of the common errors found in most other postnatal exercise programming

Thousands of women, from the newly postpartum, to significantly post-postpartum, have gotten remarkable results from my program. Why not you?

BeFit-Mom offers you two ways to get back in shape fast, and become the best possible you: my award winning DVD "Bounce Back Fast! Post Natal Core Conditioning" and my widely acclaimed book, "Exercise After Pregnancy: How to Look and Feel Your Best" now in its second edition.

So what are you waiting for? Start now! The on ramp to your best self is just a click away.

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