Do you think of planks, sit-ups and crunches?
If yes, I want to challenge you to think outside the box and consider a new perspective on core exercises and postnatal core recovery.
Table of Contents
◾️Your Core Is More Than Just Your “Abs”
◾️ Why Is My Core So Weak After Pregnancy?
◾️ How Long Does It Take For Your Core To Recover After Pregnancy?
◾️ When Can You Start Core Exercises After Birth?
◾️ Your Core Recovery Program Begins Here.
◾️ Core Exercises To Avoid After Pregnancy
◾️ 6 Postpartum Core Exercises
◾️ Where Do You Go From Here?
If you want to save these exercises for later, you can also download a pdf exercise tracker containing the exercises + (more detailed) demos from this post.
Your Core Is More Than Just Your “Abs”
Your abdominal muscles (of which, the 6-pack is only the outermost layer) are just one component of your core.
Your innermost core consists of your deepest abdominal muscles (the transverse abdominis), your diaphragm, your spinal erectors and your pelvic floor muscles. Often, we call it the core “canister” because it forms an enclosed unit.
All of the core and pelvic floor muscles are impacted, to various degrees, by pregnancy.
But it’s disruption to the muscles of the deep core canister that underlies a lot of the typical postpartum symptoms.
Leaking. Feelings of heaviness or bulginess in the pelvic floor. Chronic diastasis recti. General feelings of being “weaker” than you were before.
When you’re core muscles aren’t firing well, you’re going to feel it.
Why Is My Core So Weak After Pregnancy?
Your core may not feel as weak as it did before your pregnancy (or even during your pregnancy) because the muscles are stretched and they’ve (temporarily) lost their ability to fire correctly.
The muscles of your deep floor are designed to work together reflexively. When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts downward, creating pressure in your abdomen. In response, your pelvic floor lengthens and your abdominal wall moves outward. On exhale, your diaphragm contracts upwards, your pelvic floor and your abs recoil.
On inhale, the whole core canister moves down, on inhale it moves up. Just like a piston.
Before you perform any distal movements (stuff with your arms or legs), your core muscles should reflexively contract to provide stability to your torso.
The growing fetus disrupts the up and down movement of the diaphragm and the coordinated movement of the deep core muscles.
Without that coordination, the reflexively stability is lost. Without a stable platform to leverage against, not only does your core feel weak, your arms and legs feel weaker too.
It’s like trying to shoot a cannon off a canoe.
In addition to a loss of coordination amongst the core muscles, the abdominal muscles and pelvic floor muscles are stretched. Stretched muscles can’t optimally contract and generate force.
How Long Does It Take For Your Core To Recover After Pregnancy?
Everyone develops abdominal separation during pregnancy, and this can impact the function of the core. In most people, the abdominal separation resolves by 6-8 weeks postpartum.
However, it will take longer to rebuild your core strength. Unfortunately, the timeline is going to vary person to person and depending on your goals.
When Can You Start Core Exercises After Birth?
In most cases, you can begin breathing based core exercises within days of giving birth. If breathing exercises make you uncomfortable or trigger bleeding, stop. If you have any hesitations, I encourage you to talk with your medical provider to make sure you can safely start.
After 2-4 weeks, depending on your delivery and individual postpartum recovery timeline, you may be able to start a few gentle core exercises. They should be no more difficult than your daily activities. If you had a C-section or severe vaginal tear (grade 3 or 4), you’ll want to wait 4-6 weeks to start.
Your Postpartum Core Recovery Program Begins Here.
When you begin your core rehab after pregnancy, you’ll begin with exercises that target the deep core. That’s your foundation. As you build your core strength, you’ll be able to move on to more traditional rotation and flexion exercises.
1) The first exercise is the Coordination Breath. This is where you learn to harness your breath to coordinate your deep core muscles.
2) Next, you’ll learn “the stack”. All of your core exercises should be performed from a starting place of rib cage-over-pelvis alignment. Sometimes I call that a “stacked” alignment and we can think of the whole torso, rib cage to pelvis as “the stack”.
The Pelvic Tilt exercise will help you find that lovely stacked alignment. You’ll be on your hands and knees, but I want you to be able to find this position again once you’re upright.
3) The nitty-gritty: Since the deep core is responsible for stabilization, you’ll target it by focusing on “anti” core exercises. ANTI-extension, ANTI-lateral flexion, ANTI-rotation.
All of these exercises should be performed from a stacked rib cage-over-pelvis alignment. Focus on exhaling on exertion. Fully relaxing and releasing on inhale.
4) You’ll also do a little glute work. Because the glutes work VERY closely with the deep core muscles. When it comes to glutes, you want to be able to lengthen as well as contract. The hip hinge ticks both of those boxes.
Core Exercises To Avoid After Pregnancy
Take this with a grain of salt.
Immediately post pregnancy, those go-to core moves- the plank, the sit-up, the crunch- they’re not your best choices. The sit-up and crunch target your outer abdominals. Starting with those muscles is like building a house on a cracked foundation.
You wouldn’t do that, right? You’d repair the foundation first.
The plank is a wonderful full core exercise, but it’s a little aggressive when you’re first starting out. You’ll be better able to do this move WELL and get the most out of it if you start with your breath and master a few foundational core exercises first.
These moves are not off the table for ever. I just recommend building a strong foundation first.
6 Postpartum Core Exercises:
These exercises are CORE exercises. Not abdominal exercises. Start by mastering the Coordination Breath, as this is a foundational skill that will really enable you to bring all your core muscles on board.
This is where you develop the skill of coordinating the muscles of your deep core and using them to manage intra abdominal pressure when you exert yourself.
1) Coordination Breath
Inhale into your diaphragm, allowing your rib cage to expand in 360 degrees. As you inhale, relax and release your belly and pelvic floor.
Exhale through pursed lips, like you’re blowing out birthday candles. At the same time, perform a gentle pelvic floor contraction (kegel). As you exhale, particularly towards the end of the exhale when you’re pushing out the last bits of air, you should feel your deep abs (including those lower abs below the belly button!) contract.
For detailed instruction on the Coordination Breath, download the No B.S. Guide to a Stronger, Drier Pregnancy and Postpartum.
2) Find your “stack”: Hands and Knees Pelvic Tilt
Inhale to tilt your pelvis forward. Exhale to tuck it under. This is not a cat-cow, there should be no movement in your upper torso. Perform 10 reps of this exercise as described, then find a neutral pelvis (in between forward and tucked pelvis) and hold for 3 breaths. Remember this position, this is your stack.
3) Anti-rotation: Pallof Press
Set up in a half-kneeling position and find your stack.
Inhale to prepare, exhale and push the band ahead of you with stick-straight arms. Pause for 2 seconds, inhale to bring it back in. This is a CORE exercise, not an arm exercise. If you don’t feel your core firing, move further away from the anchor point, slow the press down (to a count of 3) and make sure you are oriented perpendicular to your anchor.
You can find the band I use in the video here.
The Pallof press is an incredibly effective and versatile exercise that can be progressed to challenge you as you continue along your postpartum recovery. I encourage you to spend time getting a good feel for it!
4) Anti-extension: Heel Slides
Set up lying on your back, with your knees bent. Exhale to extend one leg, inhale to bring it back in. Minimize shifting side-to-side in your pelvis. And if you find that you can’t maintain the curve in your back, try a different heel slide variation.
5) Anti-lateral flexion: Side Plank
Set up on your side with your knees bent. Stack your shoulder over your elbow. As you come into the side plank, pull your elbow and knees towards one another to fire up your core.
6) Glutes and dynamic alignment: Hip Hinge
Find your stack. Inhale to sit your hips back towards the wall behind you. Knees softly bend, shins stay vertical, hamstrings and glutes should feel stretched. Exhale and engage your glutes to stand.
If you find it difficult to “find” your glutes in this exercise, you can check out these hip hinge drills.
Where Do You Go From Here?
In general, you’re ready to move on when you can comfortably do 3 sets of 15-20 reps of each of these. That might sound like a lot of reps, but at this stage of postpartum, you’re not only developing strength but you’re also restoring endurance.
When you’re ready, you can move on to more challenging, intermediate postnatal core exercises. Subscribe to my newsletter by downloading this workout and I’ll let you know when the intermediate exercises are released.
In the mean time, take a few weeks to really make the most of these.
I encourage you to also remember, you are more than your core and pelvic floor. For a strong postpartum recovery, you need to invest in full body strength training.
For customized, full-body strength training you can reach me via my contact form. I look forward to connecting!
Learn more about optimizing your postpartum exercise routine:
Disclaimer: Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to follow the link and make a purchase.
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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.