If you’ve just had a baby and are itching to get back into shape, you might think sit-ups are a good place to begin toning your tummy. Guess again. Sit-ups are the last thing you should be doing! Instead of firming and tightening the stomach, they can actually lead to a bulging and protruding abdomen… hardly what you have in mind!
What Pregnancy does to your stomach muscles:
First a little background so you understand what’s happened to your body and what you need . During pregnancy the abdominal muscles stretch to accommodate the growing fetus, and sometimes the most superficial muscles (called rectus abdominis, or six-pack muscles) can split down the middle like a pants seam. This is a good thing because it allows room for the growing baby, said Cynthia Neville, director of women’s health rehabilitation at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. But when the split is too wide, it creates instability in the abdomen, trunk and pelvis.
The split should spontaneously reduce to less than 2 centimeters within a few weeks. But if the core muscles, which include pelvic-floor muscles and deep abdominals, are not working as a team, then Neville warns that “women may continue to have flabby, bulging, weak abs, or they may leak urine, or both.” (Women who undergo Caesarean sections have a different challenge because of the way surgery affects the abs.)
If you want to tighten up your stomach after pregnancy, the goal is to strengthen the abdominal and core muscles, and get them to work together properly. The core muscles should be the first to kick into gear; if they’re not strong enough and you’re doing ab exercises that focus on the six-pack muscle, your stomach may bulge, Neville said.
The best way to retrain stomach muscles
It starts with learning to maintain a neutral position of the spine and pelvis – not too arched or flattened. This involves retraining the deep transverse muscles. Unfortunately, traditional stomach exercises like crunches tend to by-pass the transverse abs so no matter how many sit-ups you do, your transverse muscles will barely feel the effects.
Any fitness program that targets your core, like Pilates, will include stomach exercises that target the transverse abdominals. However, you often work these muscles without realizing it. Whenever you hold your stomach in, you are working the transverse abs. For instance, when doing lunges you must keep your back straight, which is accopmlished by tightening your abdominals, or more specifically your transverse abdominals.
“The key is to ‘remind’ the core to be the first to contract to prepare for the extremity movements until it becomes automatic,” Neville said. You can do this not just during exercise, but during everyday movement such as lifting the baby or pushing a stroller. Working these muscles will not only get you a flatter stomach, but may also lead to an improvement in your posture and fewer backaches.
Erin O’Brien Denton, a personal trainer (watch a clip from her DVD called “Postnatal Rescue“), recommends lying on your back and doing leg lifts, planks, and “bridges” (raising your pelvis off the ground) for the first three months after delivery “to teach the abs to lie sleekly against the abdominal wall.” She also suggests an exercise in which you simply lifting the head and shoulders while pulling in the abdominals.
After you have mastered those motions, Denton suggests “the old-fashioned bicycle abdominal exercise, a variety of crunches (initiating the movement from both the upper and lower abdominal wall) and various plank exercises to start toning the abs.”
Pregnancy info.net details some exercises that target those hard to get to transverse muscles:
The No-Crunch Crunch
If you’re feeling very strong in your upper body, or if you just feel like multi-tasking during your workout, then give this challenging exercise a whirl.
For an easier variation of this exercise, try this:
These exercises will help strengthen your tummy and reduce the bulge. Pilates is also popular for this area. Even if you succeed in loosing all your pregnancy weight and firming your stomach muscles, you may notice that stomach skin is still stretched out and saggy. This is usually genetic, and not something that will improve with exercise.(Some women opt for a tummy tuck.)
Abdominal separation after pregnancy is not uncommon. If your stomach is bulging but feels frim, you may have a diastasis (space between the abdominal muscles). Talk to your doctor if you suspect this is the case.
Image from ToneZone Pilates