I was chatting with a friend of mine recently, and she was telling me about her stomach woes. Her kids were 5 and 2, and she felt like she never got her tummy back after having them. She squeezed her belly and said “ugh, I need to get back to my crunches and ab exercises.”
Well, I bet we can all relate to that one. I don’t know a single mom that’s particularly thrilled about her tummy area after having babies. However, just like my friend, most moms are turning to the wrong solutions for taking care of their postpartum bellies without realizing it.
We happened to be shopping together at the time. So I said, "Hey, have you ever had your abs checked for Diastasis Recti?" She said no, so we did a quick assessment right there in the store, on the floor of the dressing room. After an assessment, we discovered that she had a 2 1/2 finger gap down her center line with very little tension through the connective tissues.
This was shocking to her and left her feeling a little confused. "I had no idea! So what do I do?"
Stop. Just stop.
First of all, I told her to stop doing crunches and sit-ups. And in fact, this advice is universal (postpartum or not, female or not). I see very few reasons why anyone should ever be doing these motions, which include crunches, sit-ups, bicycles, V-ups, flutter kicks, and the like.
And here are six reasons why:
1. They're totally non-functional. “Functional” means how your body (with its muscles, bones and joints) is designed to move in real life. The bending, crunching motion is what these muscles would do if your body was dead. But since it’s not dead, these muscles don’t primarily work like this...in other words they don’t function like this. Their primary job in a live human being is to brace and prevent movement of the torso, NOT create movement. You will always get the best training effect if you train your muscles for the job they do best. So think planks, side planks, and bird dogs. More on this later...
2. Crunching movements may lead to disc damage and other back problems. When you subject a spine to repetitive flexing movements (not what it’s designed to do, remember), it will eventually break down. The discs in your low back are not designed to be compressed in this manner again and again. If you have a perfectly healthy spine, a few crunches here and there won't hurt it, but you're looking for trouble if this is part of your regular routine. It hurts my back just seeing the horribly designed "ab & core workouts" out there that involve repetition after repetition of every crunching movement under the sun. Run away from that trainer or workout program if that's what you see!
3. Way too much work for muscles that are trying to heal. Throughout pregnancy, your abs get stretched to their limits, which also creates a natural gap between the rectus abdominis muscles and a thinning of the connective tissues in between. This is called Diastasis Recti. After pregnancy, however, these muscles are trying to heal, shorten and regain their optimal tension. Too much direct tension through these muscles can inhibit the healing process, and can, in many cases, make it worse.
4. Creates excessive internal pressure, which could lead to pelvic floor problems. When you bend and crunch through your core, the natural pressure that exists inside your abdomen has to get pushed somewhere. And for most moms, the weakest link is the pelvic floor muscles. The forces created when doing crunches and sit-ups could make your pelvic floor problems much worse.
5. Exacerbates problem areas. Most women are walking around with crazy tight hip flexors, bad posture through their pelvis and big muscle imbalances. We all sit way too much, whether it’s on the couch, in the car, or at a desk. That bend in the hips shortens the hip flexor muscles and tilts the pelvis under, which (surprise, surprise!) looks awfully similar to a sit-up or crunch. Short hip flexors and poor pelvic posture leads to weak abs, back problems, and hip problems.
6. Spot training doesn't work anyway. Most women doing crunches and sit-ups are doing it to "take care of their tummy", just like my friend. But for a svelte midsection, you have to think big picture. If you’d like a slimmer tummy, you HAVE to get your nutrition in check and then also train your ENTIRE body in a functional, metabolism boosting manner. Throwing a bunch of reps at your abs until they burn is not going to give you a six pack.
Well, ok then.
So what should you do...what’s a better alternative to all these crunches and sit-ups? What did I tell my friend when she was feeling discouraged and confused about her tummy?
1. Train your entire core (not just your abs) the way it was designed to function. This involves bracing, holding steady, being rigid and stabilizing during other movements. Picture your spine when you're moving, doing your best to not let the lower half of it bend, flex or twist. Practice breathing strongly through these movements to incorporate your diaphragm into your exercises. I recommend plank variations, side plank variations, dead bugs, bird dogs, physioball exercises like Stir-the-pot, and chopping lifts like the half kneeling chopping lift. All of these exercises work your entire core in a very functional manner.
2. Address any dysfunctions. If you have separated abs (Diastasis Recti) or pelvic floor dysfunction (leaking or pain), slow down and take care of this stuff. Who cares how whittled your stomach looks if your core is broken and you're in pain?! Not addressing these issues can lead to long term problems. Seek out a women's health physical therapist. Take the time to learn exercises that fix these problems and make you stronger than ever. (The Strong Mommas Membership provides exercises that help you work on these issues at home in just a couple minutes per day.)
3. Be fit and strong all over. The best thing you can do for your post-baby belly is to follow a total body functional strengthening program. When you consistently follow a routine that properly trains your entire body from head to toe (and teaches you how to eat right), you'll be surprised at how fit your postpartum body can be, abs and all.
If you're like my friend and have been doing all the wrong things for your abs and core, you need to shift and start doing the right things. Train smart, momma.
Don't really know where to start?
Become a Strong Momma and join my online membership program. Every month you get a fresh workout routine that trains your entire body, head to toe, including proper core exercises. You'll also have access to a 3-phase Diastasis Recti Healing protocol, which I recommend ALL postpartum mommas complete. You'll be stronger than you ever thought possible.
"I'm so much stronger now! My body feels entirely different. My only regret is not signing up sooner." -Lindsay, Strong Mommas Member
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Megan P. Dahlman
Hi friend! I'm a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, Precision Nutrition Certified Coach, Wife to Scott, and Mom to two crazy boys, Calvin & Peter. I train hard, eat well, rest just enough to keep going, and do my best to maintain a heavenly perspective. I'd love to coach you to do the same. Cheers!
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