How To Strengthen Your Core After Pregnancy: Your Complete Guide
Core Exercises Post-Pregnancy
This blog post is your complete guide to training your core after having a baby - I’ll take you through my best 8 tips for getting a firmer, and stronger stomach.
Training your core is right up there on the list of priorities for women postpartum. Most women want to flatten their abs and get rid of the ‘mummy tummy’.
For a lot of women, it’s not just the aesthetic aspect - they feel that their core is “weak”, or they are very concerned with healing and rehabilitating the muscles after a c-section, or because they have diastasis recti or an umbilical hernia.
These 8 tips in this article apply to all of these scenarios (although in the future I will write separate blog posts on each one)
It frustrates me endlessly that a topic that is so important to so many women is so horribly butchered on the internet.
There is a LOT of rubbish out there - ranging from:
“only do these very gentle exercises after having a baby or your core will explode” to:
“hack away at your abdominal muscles an hour a day with the hardest exercises imaginable, even though your muscles are the weakest they’ve ever been”
If a lot of information on the internet seems to be a bit superficial, or seems to be missing something, this blog post should give you a lot of information and tools. I’m going to take you through 8 tips to not only strengthen your core postpartum, but to understand what the hell you’re doing too.
(By the end of it you’ll know more than most trainers)
If you want to be taken through it step-by-step, sign up for my 5-Day Postpartum Core Mini-Challenge below - I’ll take you step by step through everything that's in this blog post - including 3 separate core workouts, each one building on the last.
I put this mini-challenge together from my recent 10-Day Postpartum Challenge because I know that training the core safely AND effectively is so so important to so many women.
Regaining Core Strength, Tip #1: Understand how the core works
I know… BORING! But this is really important.
We love to talk about the “core” muscles - but few people understand what this REALLY means.
We can conceptualize the core as a coke can - it’s made up of the diaphragm at the top, the pelvic floor at the bottom, and the abdominal muscles that wrap around us, like a corset, and these tie into our back muscles.
These muscles work against Intra- Abdominal Pressure (IAP) to hold us upright and also create movement in the trunk and work together to stabilize us as we create movement with our limbs. The thing is, these muscles get stretched out during pregnancy, along with the connective tissue between them, and so they are weakened postpartum.
How To Strengthen Your Core Postpartum, Tip #2: Connect to the Muscles of the Core through the Breath.
The first step to strengthening your core postpartum is to truly connect to those muscles. They don’t JUST create movement, they are also involved intricately with breathing.
You’ll want to learn how to breathe using your diaphragm.
As you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and descends, pushing your pelvic organs south - your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles relax and stretch with this in-breath.
As you exhale, the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles recoil back to their original position, the abdominal organs are “pushed” back up and the diaphragm relaxes back up into the ribcage.
This tutorial takes you through it step-by-step so you can feel this in your own body.
The above tutorial will also show you how to identify unnecessary or unhelpful tightness or overactivity in the diaphragm or upper abdominal muscles - this is important so that they don’t create excess pressure on the lower abdominals and pelvic floor (the members of the ‘core’ that are most affected and weakened by pregnancy and birth).
It’s really important to do this, because YOU CAN’T STRENGTHEN MUSCLES YOU CAN’T CONNECT TO, or that you can't relax, for that matter, and unnecessary pressure from the top of the system may make it harder for your lower belly, pushing the muscles out (it may also make it harder to address pelvic floor issues like incontinence, a hypertonic pelvic floor or prolapse).
Post Pregnancy Ab Workout, Tip #3 - Start with GENTLE exercises that directly challenge the core canister.
Don’t just start by smashing away at your tummy muscles with really hard exercises - ‘feeling the burn’ and/or doing the hardest exercises imaginable isn’t what’s going to work.
Doing exercises that are TOO HARD will not get you results.
(And by the way, cookie-cutter programmes like the one below, won’t get you the results you want to regain core strength either.)
As impatient as you may be feeling, as fed up as you may be with your belly, and as much as I empathize with that sentiment, you do have to treat this like you’re recovering from an injury.
(This was me postpartum, and I can’t say I loved the belly)
You want to start with after post pregnancy exercises that gently challenge the abdominal muscles - it may surprise you just how gentle those exercises have to be in the beginning.
Give this short workout a go - it’s from my 10-day challenge. In just 10 minutes I take you through a basic breathing exercise and 4 simple core exercises.
You’re either going to find this hard (if you have a very severe diastasis recti, for example), too easy, or just right - it doesn’t matter which - it’s just a starting point. In later tips I’ll be showing you how to make it incrementally harder so that you can find the right level for you.
Remember: there is such a thing as exercises that are too HARD, but there is also such a thing as postpartum exercises that are TOO EASY. All exercise is about finding that sweet spot in between, where exercises and your overall programme are sufficiently challenging at your current level.
Again, if you want to be taken through these post pregnancy core workouts step-by-step, put your details in the box below and I’ll send it directly to your email over the next 5 days.
How To Regain Core Strength, Tip #4: Know what you’re looking for.
When I say 'know what you're looking for, I mean ‘bulging’ or ‘coning’ and LOOK AT and TOUCH your tummy when doing exercises.
When the exercises are too hard, and the abdominal muscles can’t cope with the demand placed on them, they “bulge” out, or sometimes “cone”
This is due to Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP) pressing up against the sides of the abdominal wall from the inside. When the muscles of the abdominal wall can’t cope with the demand, they ‘bulge’ forward, because that is where the most pressure is directed, and usually, the weakest point in the system.
This can be hard to visualize, so I made this video to explain it better, and to show you 4 examples of different bellies, doing different exercises.
And here is another short video I made - this particular client just loved to hack away at her abs, and had zero concept of what her abdominal muscles were actually doing.
In the above video, you can see the pressure poke through the linea alba, as well as the entire rectus abdominis bulging forward.
It’s important to actually LOOK AT and TOUCH your abdominal muscles when doing exercises so that you know what is happening there.
How To Strengthen Your Core After Pregnancy, Tip #5: Try Harder Exercises
The exercises in the first core workout might be just right for you, but they might also be a bit too easy.
How do you know?
You try ab exercises that are slightly harder - if you can do them without bulging, then you should be working at this level (or maybe even a harder level).
Doing exercises that are TOO EASY will not get you results. Your body won’t have a reason to adapt.
Here’s the second core workout in my 10-day challenge:
We start with another breathing exercise, and then I take you through slightly more challenging versions of the exercises we did in the first video.
You want to pay attention to what your abdominal muscles are doing throughout.
If you find these exercises too challenging - that is to say, if your tummy muscles bulge out and you can’t control it, you’ll want to stick to easier exercises for a while (like the ones in the first workout) and you’ll probably be able to progress to these exercises after a week or two.
After Pregnancy Exercise, Tip #6 - PROGRESSION, PROGRESSION, PROGRESSION!! You do actually have to move on to more difficult exercises periodically - you can’t just do the ‘easy’ and ‘gentle’ postpartum exercises forever and expect to have a flat tummy (or six pack) or to make your core any stronger.
This is why so many people don’t get results with some of the most popular postpartum programmes:
I get messages like this all the time.
While it’s awesome that they have introduced the idea of starting gently to many women and to the fitness industry, they usually don’t progress beyond that, and often they create fear around certain movements, calling them ‘dangerous’.
Even if the exercises in the first or second core workout are hard for you when you start, at some point you will need to progress on from there and move onto harder exercises.
It will probably take some time, but you do actually want to progress onto exercises like crunches, sit ups and planks - it’s just about bridging the gap to these more demanding exercises.
Here’s the third core workout of my 10-day challenge for you to try:
While it won’t take you all the way to the END of this journey, it will take you to a slightly harder level than the one before - including crunches.
Give it a go and see what I’m talking about.
Post Pregnancy Ab Workouts, Tip #7 - DON’T BE AFRAID!!
Don’t listen to the fear-mongering.
Your body is strong and resilient and movement is not dangerous.
I know there’s a lot online like “you should never do crunches or sit ups or whatever” - but truthfully, there’s no such thing as ‘dangerous movements’, just a) movements that you aren’t prepared for and b) shitty technique.
(Hence the importance of learning good technique and getting the level right for you)
There’s a balance here - don’t just smash away at your abs willy-nilly, but also don’t just stick to the really easy exercises forever - know when bulging or coning is happening, see what you can do to stop it from happening, but don’t be fearful of it. Know that it’s a sign that you need to regress the movement, for now, but also don’t panic that it might be “doing damage”
Also don’t be fearful of other types of movement - live your life, do what you want to do - don’t move around like a cardboard cut-out figure for fear of ‘making it worse’. These claims are largely unfounded and serve to get you to buy ‘safe’ programmes.
Strengthen Your Core After Pregnancy, Tip #8 - Don’t neglect the rest of your body!
I know your core is important to you, I know you hate the way it looks and want to do something about it - but don’t neglect the rest of your body!! If you’re doing 2-3 hours of core-focused exercises every week, and not doing anything to strengthen the rest of your body, this is NOT a balanced postpartum (or any) programme.
What about your back? Your bum? Legs? Arms? - all these body parts are JUST as important as your core. They are just as essential (if not more) in coping with the demands of day-to-day life. You should also focus on strengthening these body parts too.
Try this strength workout - it’s also a part of my 10-day challenge:
It’s just the first strength workout of 3, so jump on my 10-Day Postpartum Challenge - I'll take you through 3 strength workouts, 3 mobility workouts and 3 core workouts
And if you haven’t already I’m going to recommend you put your details in below to receive these 3 core workouts and go through them one by one over the next 5 days
Main Takeaways On Strengthening Your Core Postpartum
So that’s pretty much what you need to know about core training postpartum. Here are the main takeaways:
Connect to the abdominal muscles first
Progress to HARDER core exercises over time
Don’t be afraid
Don’t neglect the rest of your body.
One final ‘bonus’ tip that I’d like to leave you with is that it’s important to know that it’s really normal to have weak abdominal muscles after having a baby, and to have a bit of a tummy. It’s important to know that this is normal, and that there isn’t anything WRONG with you.
With the right mindset, patience and the right programme (obviously my online programme) you can improve both how your tummy looks, AND how strong it feels.
It won’t happen overnight, no matter how hard you push yourself. Give it time, be consistent and be kind to yourself.
Jen Curtis is a pregnancy and postpartum fitness specialist who is passionate about helping women transform their bodies in a sustainable way.
The creator of The Complete Postpartum Programme, she is well-known for her no-BS approach, her dedication to facts, science and evidence and for debunking myths around nutrition and exercise.