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Abdominal Exercises During and Post-Pregnancy
C. W. Schurman, MS, CSCS 1/19/04
Once you are into the third trimester of your pregnancy and find it uncomfortable to lie on your back, or after you have recovered from giving birth and you manage to sneak in a little time to exercise, what are some good moves you can do to start to regain your pre-pregnancy abdominal condition? If you have had a C-section (major invasive abdominal surgery) it may take longer for you to return to traditional abdominal exercises lying on your back than if you had a traditional delivery. However, just as you could still do side-lying abdominal strengtheners for the obliques throughout most of your pregnancy, the exercises below are equally valid options within a week following delivery.
Before you start the exercises, however, determine whether you have an extreme amount of diastasis, or rectus abdominus separation. To do so, lie flat on your back with your knees bent and feet shoulder width apart and flat on the floor. Place the fingers of your right hand on your belly just above your belly button so your fingers form a vertical line along your mid-section. Exhale and lift your head and shoulders just off the floor. The rectus abdominus muscles run vertically on either side of the stomach, and if you have a large gap between the recti (more than two finger widths) then you will need to perform modified crunches (or the exercises discussed here) until the gap shrinks to less than 2 finger widths. At that time itís safe to return to most abdominal exercises you were comfortable doing before pregnancy.
THIRD TRIMESTER and FIRST 1-2 WEEKS:
CONTRACT Ė RELAX (not pictured): this is a safe option for women who have given birth either traditionally or via C-section. Itís as simple as it sounds: tense or contract the muscles as though youíre trying to brace for a punch to the abdomen and hold for 5-10 seconds or as long as you can comfortably do so, then relax for 10 seconds and repeat for 6 repetitions (up to 2 minutes). Build to five minutes at a time. Be sure to try to breathe comfortably throughout.
SIDE-LYING OBLIQUES: In the third trimester and the first few weeks after giving birth, you may feel capable of doing the following exercise while lying in bed or on a mat on the floor. To perform the side-lying leg lift exercise lie on your side with head resting on your upper arm and spine in alignment. If you feel more comfortable with a pillow supporting your abdomen late in pregnancy, feel free to use one. Exhale and raise your top leg first, to be sure youíre comfortable doing so, and then on the next repetition, lift both legs at the same time if you can. Inhale as you lower the legs. Control the movement and try not to press too hard with your hand into the floor. Youíll feel your oblique muscles as well as the abductors (along the outer thigh of the top leg) contract to lift your legs. Perform 10-12 repetitions on each side for 1-3 sets.
STANDING DUMBBELL SIDE BENDS: This is another oblique exercise you may feel comfortable doing late in your pregnancy or just following delivery. It only requires a hand weight (dumbbells or ankle weights are fine, or grab a gallon jug of water--filled, it weighs as much as 7 pounds.) Stand with feet shoulder distance apart and hold onto a dumbbell in one hand. Before starting the movement, extend upward and out through the crown of your head to elongate the spine, and then as you inhale, bend straight to the side (toward the hand that has the weight) as far as comfortable, and exhale to return to vertical. Repeat for desired number of repetitions, then shift the weight to the other hand and repeat on the other side. Do 1-3 sets of 12 repetitions each.
PELVIC TILT: To retrain the lower abdominals to work in conjunction with the lower back, lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor (just as you were doing to test for diastasis). Feel free to support your neck with a rolled up towel if thatís more comfortable. Start this exercise with a neutral spine--i.e. if you put your hand just below the small of your back you should feel about an inch of space between your back and the floor. Without contracting the gluteus (buttocks) muscles or pushing your feet into the floor, focus instead on tensing the abdominal muscles to slowly tilt the pelvis backwards. Exhale as you press the lower back into the floor (which will rock the pelvis back) and inhale as you release the back and pelvis to neutral spine position. Repeat for 2-3 sets of 12-15 repetitions. IF you still have a diastasis and want to provide a little support for the abdominals, wrap your arms around your mid-section and pull slightly inward with your hands to act as a brace.
QUADRUPED BRACING: This exercise is a great one that combines upper body with core (abdominal and lower back) stability and will prepare you for doing traditional torso curls lying flat on the floor. Position yourself on hands and knees (feel free to place a towel under your knees to provide more support) with hands directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Keep the head neutral, looking straight down at the floor but not dropping below the level of your spine. On an exhale, gently raise your knees 1-2 inches off the floor, hold for 3-5 seconds, then replace the knees to the floor and repeat 8-10 times. Avoid lifting too high or this will be quite easy. Concentrate on tensing the abdominals and making both sides of the body work at the same time.
By the time you have mastered these exercises, it will be time to return to more traditional abdominal exercises, including those pictured elsewhere on our site including medicine ball core exercises with very light weight (see www.bodyresults.com/e2medballs2.asp and www.bodyresults.com/e2medballs.asp for more ideas.) Happy training, and congratulations on successful delivery of your new baby!