◾️ Why Should You Care About Your Low Abs?
◾️ Your Deep Core Is A Pressure System
◾️ Why Is It Hard To “Connect” With Your Low Abs?
◾️ Effective Strategies To Reconnect To Lower Abs
◾️ The Low Abs, Adductors and Pelvic Floor Connection
◾️ 3 Exercises to Strengthen Your Lower Abs
◾️ Helpful Cues
During postpartum fitness evaluations, I often run into a couple of recurring patterns:
A client is lying on their back, with knees slightly bent, and I ask them to inhale into their ribs and exhale like they’re blowing out candles.
Instead of seeing the whole abdomen draw in on exhale, the upper abs crunch down and the lower abs pooch out.
I have my client set up on their hands and knees. I ask them to tilt their pelvis forward and then tuck it under.
I ask if they can tuck it under without their glutes, but they can’t.
Instead of using the abs to help pull the pelvis under, they’re using their glutes to do the job.
Can you identify with either of these?
Both of these scenarios signal a common pattern–> difficulty engaging the lower abs (the abs below the belly button).
I actually love it when I run across these scenarios because:
1) It gives us a clear action item.
2) These patterns respond really well to exercise and verbal cuing.
Why Should You Care About Your Low Abs?
Think about when you exhale, like you’re blowing out birthday candles (or 100 birthday candles). At the end of the exhale, your deep abdominal muscles should contract – from your pubic bone all the way up to your sternum.
If you can’t engage your lower abs, or if it’s difficult for you to contract them, your deep core isn’t working as effectively as it could be.
➡️ Try it!! Try to blow out 100 birthday candles, slowly… Keep going. Get every last bit of air out. What do your abs do??
Your Deep Core Is A Pressure System
In essence, your deep core is a pressurized system that controls the stability within your abdomen.
It stabilizes your spine and torso by creating and dissipating internal pressure in response to exertion.
And your low abs are crucial to that system.
But if your lower abs aren’t reflexively contracting, they create a “weak link” that could potentially lead to problems.
Imagine a relay race team has one slower runner, it impacts the overall performance of the team. The other runners have to overcompensate, in turn affecting their performance and the team’s result.
Your deep core is a set of muscles that acts as a team. And weakness in one muscle impacts the entire system.
So here, I want to explore why it’s so hard to reconnect with your lower abdominals after pregnancy, and more importantly, what you can do about it.
Why Is It Hard To “Connect” With Your Low Abs?
Pregnancy brings about significant changes in your body, and these changes linger even after you’ve given birth.
Disconnection from the low abs is just one of these changes.
But understanding why this disconnect happens is the first step towards reconnecting.
Here are just a few reasons why it might be harder to engage your abs after pregnancy:
1) Stretched Muscles and Connective Tissue
During pregnancy, you abdominal muscles and connective tissues stretch to make space for your growing baby.
This is a good thing.
But, the strength a muscle of a muscle (the force it can produce) is related to its resting length. This is what we call the length-tension relationship. Basically, a muscle at its perfect length can create the most force.
Muscles that are chronically lengthened can’t generate as much force and are effectively weaker.
Muscles that have stretched for 9 months to support your sweet babe can’t generate the force that they once could.
But, given time and a little TLC? They absolutely can.
2) Diastasis recti
Diastasis recti (abdominal separation) is a specific condition in which the rectus abdominis muscles separate due to the stretching and weakening of the connective tissue (linea alba) that holds them together.
It occurs during 100% of pregnancies as the uterus expands and places increased pressure on the abdominal wall. In most cases, abdominal separation “heals” during the first 6-8 weeks post pregnancy. If it lasts longer, a physical therapist might assign a diagnosis of diastasis recti.
Diastasis recti is often thrown under the bus for all cases of weak abs and lower belly pooch- but it’s just one of many reasons why the low abs might be having a tough time.
3) Pelvic Orientation (Anterior Tilt)
An anterior pelvic tilt is a common physical compensation to growing a baby.
An anterior pelvic tilt occurs when the front of your pelvis drops and the back lifts, effectively lengthening and thus weakening the lower abs.
This lengthened position changes the resting length-tension relationship in your muscles, affecting your ability to strongly contract the lower abs.
4) Upper Ab Gripping
Gripping or overly activating the upper abs is a common tendency after pregnancy (or as a result of a lifetime of “sucking in”).
This disproportionate reliance on the upper abs can create an imbalance, leaving your lower abs under-utilized, weaker and more challenging to connect with.
5) C-section Scars and Nerve Disruption
Scarring from a C-section and related nerve disruption can also affect your ability to connect with your lower abs.
Effective Strategies To Reconnect To Lower Abs
A few of the tools I use to improve connection to the deep abs include things like body alignment (orientation) and 360 breathing, which we’ve talked about before. Addressing posture and breathing is especially important when the cause of disconnection is Diastasis, upper ab gripping or excessive anterior pelvic tilt.
Since I’ve written extensively about 360 breathing and body alignment, I’ll refer you to relevant blog posts (hyperlinked above) if you’d like to learn more.
Here, I’d like to spend our time talking about a super cool (and often overlooked) hack to activate the lower abs through the adductors and pelvic floor muscles. And this trick should be helpful regardless of WHY your low abs have been checked out.
The Low Abs, Adductors and Pelvic Floor Connection
The adductors (which are the muscles of your inner thigh) work synergistically with the pelvic floor. That is, when one activates, the other activates a little too.
And same goes with the pelvic floor and lower abs. In fact, when you do a kegel, you NEED the low abs to fire to support the last 30% of a max pelvic floor contraction.
Everything is connected.
Contracting the adductors and pelvic floor stimulate a response in the lower abs. And you can actually use the adductors and pelvic floor as somewhat of a “backdoor” into the low abs.
If you’re struggling to activate the lower abs directly, you can help stimulate them by contracting a ball between your thighs (squeezing your adductors) and/or performing a kegel (squeezing your pelvic floor muscles).
In the next section, I’ll offer you 3 exercises to try out this little “trick”.
3 Exercises to Strengthen Your Lower Abs
Here are a few abdominal exercises that I often use when we’re working to restore low abs.
No sit-ups or crunches here! Sit-ups and crunches initiate movement from the upper abs and aren’t a great tool for reconnect with the lower abdominal muscles
All three of these exercises address orientation, breathing and exploit the adductors and pelvic floor to facilitate a better lower abs activation.
1) 90/90 breathing with ball squeeze
This is more or less a simple connection breath in a 90/90 position, with the addition of a squeeze.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the wall. Hips and knees should be at 90 degrees. Your low back should be relatively flat, and it might be helpful to place a small pillow or towel roll under your head to help.
In this position, your pelvis and rib cage should be stacked.
Place a yoga block or pilates ball between your knees.
Inhale, letting your ribs expand in 360 degrees, feeling your back expand into the floor below you. Squeeze the ball or the block between your knees and exhale like you are blowing out 100 birthday candles. Your stomach muscles should contract towards the end of the exhale when you’re expelling the last bits of air.
2) Pelvic Tilt with Ball Squeeze
Pelvic tilts are one of the most effective exercises to strengthen the lower abs.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and place a soft ball between your knees. Gently squeeze the ball as you exhale and tuck your pelvis under. Imagine rotating your pelvis like a wheel, bringing your pubic bone closer to your chin.
Inhale to release the pressure on the ball and roll your pelvis back to neutral.
3) Box Plank Up-Down
Set up on hands and knees with a ball or yoga block between your knees. You can also set up with your forearms on an elevated surface, if more comfortable.
Ensure your pelvis and rib cage are stacked, you should not have a large curve in your low back.
Gently squeeze the ball and exhale like you’re blowing out candles, lift your knees an inch off the ground. Maintain the orientation of your rib cage and pelvis as you lift.
If you’re still struggling, try implementing the following cues in the exercises above:
1) Use visualization
Imagine drawing your hip bones together as you exhale. This can help to stimulate the lower abs.
2) Exhale from the Bottom Up
Begin your exhale by engaging your pelvic floor. This sequencing can help to stimulate the lower abs.
3) Use Kinesthetic Feedback
Place your hands on your lower abs and feel the muscles contract under your skin. This tactile feedback can be a powerful tool in re-establishing the mind-body connection.
👉🏼 Remember, patience and consistency are the key.
If you’re re-writing mind-body connections or addressing movement habits, you might not “get it” the first time.
Stick with it.
And if you need a little extra help? Reach out! I offer one-on-one postpartum personal training and one-time consultations to help you troubleshoot postpartum exercise problems. I’m always happy to connect!
My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things.
Laura Jawad holds a PhD and a personal training certification (NASM). She’s a Certified Prenatal & Postnatal Coach, Pregnancy & Postpartum Athleticism Coach, and Pregnancy and Postpartum Corrective Exercise Specialist. You can check out the rest of her alphabet soup here.