Within the last few weeks, I’ve gotten some questions from our moms in the gym regarding rehabbing their abdominal muscles since having their little bundle of joy. I started to hear a pattern of complaints with not feeling the midline stability required for our lifts. But before we talk about the effects of pregnancy on the abdomen, lets review some basic abdominal anatomy:
Rectus Abdominis: What you refer to as the “six pack” muscle. Used for stomach flexion movements a la sit ups and regular crunches.
External/Internal Obliques: Assist in spinal rotation. What you use during kayaks, pallof press, etc.
Transverse Abdominis: The body’s internal corset. What you use for strict crunches and hollows (hopefully). It’s also the muscle you use when you brace against an impending punch to the stomach. Most important muscle in midline stability and the muscle to focus on during and after pregnancy.
Be Fit Mom is a site that has a wealth of information on abdominal separation and exercises during/after pregnancy to rehabilitate it. Below she describes diastasis recti, or abdominal separation, which affects 30% of pregnant women.
The two right and left sides of the rectus abdominis-the “six-pack” muscle-spreads apart at the body’s midline, the linea alba. Widening and thinning of the mid line tissue occurs in response the force of the uterus pushing against the abdominal wall, in conjunction with pregnancy hormones that soften connective tissue. Separation can occur anytime in the last half of pregnancy but is most problematic after pregnancy when the abdominal wall is weak and does not provide adequate support for the torso and internal organs.
Generally, a one to two finger-width, or two-centimeter gap is considered normal and not problematic. In some cases, the condition resolves on its own, but for many women the mid line remains too wide after well after the initial 6-week postpartum period.
Often times, women eager to get back into shape post partum begin with abdominal flexion exercises such as crunches or sit ups. The problem with this is the transverse abdominals (like our strict crunches or hollows) don’t get worked. This can lead to a bulging stomach due to the bulging of the rectus abdominis combined with the inability of the transverse abdominis to hold them in. Here are a couple of movements for both pregnant and post partum women to start with:
1. Wall Crunch: Stand with your heels 12 inches away from the wall. Lean back so that your butt and shoulders are resting on the wall. Start by pressing your lower back against the wall. Then inhale, filling your lungs with air. Exhale with a loud hiss as you compress your abs into the wall. Pretend someone is tightening a corset around you as you hiss. During the first couple of reps, reach back and make sure your gluteals (butt muscles) are relaxed. After each rep, relax and allow your spine to naturally curve and allow the belly to naturally relax back to the start position. Watch videos on this site for more info (scroll halfway down the page).
2. Strict Crunch: This is good for women in their first trimesters OR post partum only. Start with laying down with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground as if you’re getting ready for a sit up. With both hands, find your hip bone on either side and meet your hands in the middle of your lower abs. Pull your lower back into the ground and flatten the area below your fingers. Again, imagine you are tightening a corset around your lower abdomen. Slightly bring your chest up to the ceiling (not head to thighs) but only come up if you can keep your lower abs from “puffing up.” The object is to keep the abs in.
3. Hollows: Start in the same position as the strict crunch. Bring both arms stretched up reaching back. Push your spine into the ground as you pull your abs down toward your spine. Bring your arms and shoulder blades a few inches off the ground. A more advanced version of this movement involves bring both the arms and legs up at the same time, but should only be attempted if you can keep the abdomen concave and keep the spine pressed firmly into the ground.
Check out this page for more information and exercises. She also posted a DIY test to see if you have diastasis recti. For those of you who want more coaching on these movements, shoot me an email and we’ll try to arrange a time where you can come in 15 minutes early for class so we can review them.
Bench Press 3×5 or Wendler
8 Ring Dips
12 Box Jumps
16 Kettlebell Snatches