When I work with prenatal and postnatal women, clients are always eager to work their abs. Pregnant women are looking to keep their abdominal muscles strong throughout pregnancy, while postpartum women are looking to get their flat tummies back. While they may need to work their abs, what they really need to work is their core, their whole core, not just the ‘six pack’ ab muscles.
I work exclusively with pregnant women and mothers so if there is ever a time when your midsection goes through immense and dramatic changes it’s through the childbearing years. It can be difficult to see your body changing so much, or to not feel like yourself physically (not to mention, mentally/emotionally) after the birth of your babe. So many women are drawn to intense ab exercises in order to ‘get back to their pre-baby body’ and some professionals even recommend it.
The truth is, you will need to work the core as a whole to regain strength in your body, from the inside out. Strengthening your core is a great way to reduce back pain, to help your balance, stand taller, even flatten the tummy after baby. I mean, it seems like a strong core can pretty much fix anything but what does “strengthening your core” actually mean? And what does that look like during pregnancy and postpartum?
What exactly is “the core”?
First off, let’s take a look at what your core actually is. There’s a lot more to your core than just your abdominal muscles. Your core, or Inner Unit, is actually comprised of 4 muscles, the transversus abdominals (TvA for short), the pelvic floor muscles, the diaphragm, and multifidus muscles.
I know right? I’m guessing there’s some muscles in there you’ve never even heard of! Well that’s what makes core training more complicated than just doing some sit-ups or planks.
These 4 muscles work together as a system to provide support and stability to your body and that is why it is essential to train this system throughout pregnancy. Your body undergoes a TONNE of changes during those 9 (plus) months and often your body gets pulled out of alignment because of these physical changes. Over the next few weeks we’ll explore these changes in more detail and how they affect our core muscles as well as our overall physical wellbeing throughout pregnancy and the postpartum period.
A dynamic system
Julie Wiebe, is a leading physiotherapist focusing on women’s health and describes the core muscles as 4 parts or gears of a system. She speaks of the importance of training these 4 muscles together as a team instead of focusing on each muscle individually. Each muscle works better when in conjunction with the others and the reason for this is that our natural breathing mechanics is a dynamic and constant system.
Every time you inhale, your diaphragm drops in order for your lungs to take in air. The diaphragm pushes down on your abdominal cavity and in order to make room for all of your abdominal contents, your belly expands outward slightly and your pelvic floor has to lower as well. On the exhale your pelvic floor draws back up, your belly draws inward slightly creating some tension around your spine for support and your diaphragm moves back to it’s original position as well. Pretty cool right? I find this process so amazing.
The diaphragm can become compromised throughout pregnancy due to postural changes as well as a growing baby that tends to push up on the lungs and diaphragm. It is common during pregnancy for women to shift their weight onto the front of their foot which can cause us to instinctively lift our ribcage as a way to stop us from falling flat on our face!
When we lift the ribcage the diaphragm is further compromised and taking a full breath is much harder. Give it a try. Julie Wiebe uses the image of a bell for this. Think of the bell ringing forward (ribs lifted) and try taking a breath in here. Then ring the bell back (ribs dropped) and try breathing in, in this position. Think of the bell being still and quiet (ribs in neutral alignment) and see if the breath blows easier and more full here.
Now that we’re encouraging the diaphragm to work more optimally, let’s check in with the pelvic floor. In order for the pelvic floor muscles to work their best we want to find a neutral position for the pelvis. You can try this by either sitting on a stability ball or sitting cross legged with your bum up on the edge of a blanket or yoga block. Feel for the tripod of the pelvis here, the two sitting bones on either bum cheek and the tail bone, and feel for equal weight in all 3 of those points.
With the pelvis set in a good neutral alignment and your ribcage stacked on top (bell quiet and still) take a breath into your ribcage. It may be helpful to place your hands around your ribcage (bra line area) and feel for expansion out into your hands as you breathe in. As you breathe in see if you can sense your pelvic floor muscles relaxing. If you’re on the ball you may feel a bit of heaviness as you inhale. On the exhale, do nothing and let your pelvic floor draw back up naturally and feel the ribcage deflate. Your belly will expand on the inhale and gently draw back in as you exhale.
Simple Yet Effective
There’s a great quote by Wendy Powell, creator of the MuTu System, a postnatal reconditioning program, who says, “You can’t strengthen muscles that you aren’t even talking to”. And to me, pelvic breathing is a basic and fundamental exercise and is a great way to start talking to muscles you probably weren’t even aware of. It also gets the 4 core muscles communicating with each other which may be new to you. This exercise is safe and super effective for pregnant women, new moms, not so new moms….well basically everyone!
A healthy and well functioning core is essential as your body changes throughout pregnancy and the postpartum period and helps to reduce back pain, pelvic pain, weakness of the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles, to mention a few things but is also essential in the birthing process and postpartum recovery. Moving forward we’ll look at some exercises to help your core muscles work together better so you can feel your best throughout pregnancy and motherhood.