Pregnancy can cause a lot of interesting changes in a woman's body. As a Pilates instructor, I've found that some of these changes can be prevented or rehabilitated.
Here are some basic and safe exercises to help new moms regain abdominal strength, who have discovered that after having children, their abdominal wall has a slight separation in the linea alba; also known as a diastasis recti. The first three exercises are very basic but very important to rebuilding a strong foundation after pregnancy. The latter three are also basic, but a little more challenging, especially with rehabbing a diastasis recti or after having a cesarean section.
Simply and remarkably, you can strengthen your abdominals by just breathing. Strong exhales contract the abdominal muscles, which engages and strengthens the muscles.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the mat and place your hands around your waistline.
Now you’re just going to take a deep inhale through your nose, then exhale through your mouth by making a ‘shushing’ sound, like you’re telling someone to “shush” OR a long ‘Ha’ sound like you're fogging a mirror.
Either way is fine; just find the one that works best for you. By doing this, you should feel your waistline shrinking because you’re contracting your internal and external oblique muscles. These muscles fit us like a corset and when we exhale deeply it’s like our corset has tightened.
Do this a few times and feel your muscles tighten and engage. Isn’t amazing that you can strengthen your abdominal muscles by just breathing?!
As a mom, I’m sure your doctor mentioned practicing your kegel contractions during your pregnancy. If not, get on it!
A kegel contraction is an internal contraction that will engage and help strengthen our transversus abdominus muscle. This contraction is what you use when you have to use the bathroom really bad but you have to hold it.
The ‘TA’ is an important muscle for supporting our low backs; it fits us like the lumbar support belts Costco workers tend to wear. This muscle is very important when rehabbing after baby, especially in addition to having a diastasis recti. The great thing about kegel contractions is that you can do them anywhere, anytime. (I’m doing them while writing this) You may find them difficult at first. Maybe you can’t do it or maybe you can’t hold it for very long. Not to worry, they take a little practice. Start by holding them for 5 seconds then increase your time as you can. Practice as often as you like.
In addition to kegels, squats and other glute exercises are great for rehabilitating the pelvic floor.
Again, lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on your hipbones; by doing this you can feel if your transversus is engaging or not. Now tilt your pelvis as if you were tucking your bum, which will imprint your low back to the floor. By using your breath and engaging the kegel contraction you are strengthening your abdominal muscles. You can practice this 8-10 times.
This exercises uses the hamstrings, glutes and abdominals. Focus on the abdominals and breathe (exhale) while rolling the hips up and off of the mat into a bridge. Start by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet planted on the mat, hip-distance apart.
Take a big inhale, then exhale as you go into a pelvic tilt and roll up one vertebra at a time. Hold at the top for an inhale; then exhale as you roll down, again one vertebra at a time and focus on keeping the abs engaged.
When done properly, Heel slides are very effective for strengthening the abdominals. Start by lying flat on your back, hands on your hip bones, knees bent, feet flat to the mat, hip-distance apart. Inhale as you stretch one leg out on the mat, exhale to engage the abdominals and use the abdominals to slide the leg in slowly by dragging your heel along the mat. Alternate sides repeating 5 or so on each side. If you’re not feeling the abdominals working during the heel slide, try slowing down the movement and pay close attention to your breath and abdominal engagement.
Table Top Hold
Lie flat on the mat and bring your hands to your side. Slowly bring one leg up at a time by using your abdominals making your legs into a tabletop. Hold for 1 minute to start, or less if needed, then slowly increase the hold time as it gets easier. Make sure that the abdominals stay flat and that your back doesn’t arch as you're holding your legs up.
Lie flat on your back and slowly bring one leg up at a time just as you did for tabletop hold. As you inhale, lower one foot down toward the mat as if you were going to dip your toe into the pool. Exhale to engage the abdominals, then slowly lift the leg back to start position. You can either alternate legs and do 8 repetitions on one side then move to the other side.