Getting your abs back after a c-section and post pregnancy can be a challenge, but there are some things you can do to make the process easier. Exercise is one of the main tools, but the key is finding the right exercises and the right difficulty for your current level of physical ability. Exercises that are too easy do not stimulate improvement, while exercises that are too hard will overstress muscles and slow your progress.
Of course, right after a pregnancy is not a good time to jump back into to your old routine and you definitely need to start off slow. On the other hand, if you avoid exercising your muscles altogether, they will not regain their previous levels of strength and endurance, so it is important to find the right balance.
This is especially true if you’ve had a c-section, in which case it typically takes 4 to 6 weeks for the incision to heal after the procedure. During this time, doing too much can slow recovery or create complications, such as tearing your stitches. However, even after a c-section, you don’t want to completely avoid using your abdominal muscles.
Initially, the most important thing is getting back your basic abdominal muscle function, which is done by improving the neurological connection between your brain and your muscles. In other words, making sure your muscles are able to contract correctly when your brain asks them too. It may seem like this should happen automatically, but a c-section or traditional childbirth can impair this connection.
There are even a significant number of people who have poor connections between their brain and their muscles simply from a lack of muscle use. This is actually fairly common with the muscles in the lower abdominal area, which are very important for getting your pre-pregnancy stomach back.
The place to start is by performing isometric contractions, which means your muscles are tense, but are not moving (shortening or lengthening) while contracting. One example of an isometric contraction is when you clench your fist tightly and hold it.
In terms of the lower abdominals, a good starting exercise is relaxing your body and pulling your belly button in towards your spine, then holding that position. This activates your transverse abdominis (TVA), which is an important muscle for spine stability, tightening your core, and progressing to more advanced exercises as you get stronger.
Another effective way to start retraining your muscles is to work on maintaining good posture. Sitting or standing straight with your head up, shoulders back (not slumping), and maintaining a neutral curve in your spine is not only good for your body, but it makes your core muscles work at a low intensity. This helps build endurance and it can initially help improve strength as well.
If you are able to maintain good posture and perform isometric contractions without any straining or discomfort, there are some other exercises you can include as well. Most notably, when sitting in a chair (with a back support) you can practice tightening your abs and flattening your low back against the back of the chair. If that feels fine, then you can perform the same ab tightening and back flattening movement standing against a wall.
With any of these exercises it is a good idea to hold your abdomen to provide extra support while contracting your muscles. This is especially true if you’ve had a c-section, in which case you should provide support to the area around your incision. This reduces unnecessary strain that could delay recovery.
After the initial 4 to 6 week recovery period you can start increasing the difficulty of your exercises, if allowed by your doctor. However, you should not drastically increase the difficulty since your muscles will probably be a long way from where they were before your pregnancy. For some examples of exercises to use at this point, take a look at the video on Abdominal Training to Prevent and Decrease Back Pain.
As you progress your abdominal training, be sure to avoid the common problem of spending too much time doing crunches and other exercises to train your rectus abdominis (the 6-pack muscle that runs vertically down your midsection). People typically train this muscle most, because it is the most visible ab muscle, but of the 4 abdominal muscles, it does not have a huge impact on getting your stomach back after a pregnancy.
You should definitely include some exercises to work the rectus abdominis, but the other abdominal muscles (TVA, internal and external obliques) are at least as important and probably more so. These other muscles not only help tighten your midsection, but they are important for protecting your spine and preventing low back pain as well.
It is also important to keep in mind that exercise is only one part of the equation and nutrition is just as important. These exercises will improve the strength and endurance of your abdominal muscles and help tighten and tone your midsection, but a good nutritional program is necessary to lose the extra weight gained during a pregnancy.
By eating healthy foods, maintaining a reasonable caloric intake, and consistently exercising your abdominals along with the rest of your muscles, you will be well on your way to getting your pre-pregnancy body back.
By Ross Harrison
VFT Fitness Expert
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