With five weeks to go in my own pregnancy, I am starting to plan for the process of rebuilding my abdominal strength and getting back to my pre-pregnancy body. Unfortunately for me, I went into this pregnancy (my second) with little real ab strength to speak of, so my true goal is to get back to the shape I was in prior to my first pregnancy.
My first order of business is to figure out what happened to my abs during pregnancy. After some research, I discovered the following:
- Your uterus alone takes four weeks to get back to its pre-pregnancy size after you deliver your baby. (This has nothing to do with body fat percentage or ab strength, but it affects the way your stomach looks.)
- Your ab muscles will likely feel/act different after you give birth due to postpartum Diastasis Recti, a condition that most women deal with to varying degrees after giving birth.
- No matter what stage of the process you are in, whether you are still pregnant or you just gave birth, there are safe activities you can do to help keep your body fit.
How to help your uterus contract
Although not every mom chooses to breastfeed, it is a vital element in helping your body recover in an optimal way after giving birth. We’ve all heard about the great benefits of breastfeeding children, even if only for a short while, but few people discuss the benefits it offers to the mom! The hormones released to aid in the breastfeeding process are also responsible for certain parts of the mother’s recovery process.
“Immediately after birth, the repeated suckling of the baby releases oxytocin from the mother’s pituitary gland. This hormone not only signals the breasts to release milk to the baby (this is known as the milk ejection reflex, or “let-down”), but simultaneously produces contractions in the uterus. The resulting contractions prevent postpartum hemorrhage and promote uterine involution (the return to a nonpregnant state).”
What you need to know about Diastasis Recti
Diastasis Recti is a condition that occurs as your stomach grows and stretches during pregnancy.
“The rectus abdominus muscle consists of two sets of muscle bellies that run parallel and are held together by a connective tissue called the linea alba. This muscle runs from the end of the sternum to the pubic bone. As the uterus expands the muscle bellies can separate and the linea alba stretches thin. This creates what is called a diastasis recti.” http://intuitivehandspt.com/preventing-diastasis-recti-part-1/
Your activities during pregnancy and the stress you put on this muscle will determine the degree of separation you experience after you give birth. The strength of your abdominal muscles prior to pregnancy can also affect the severity of the separation your experience.
Steps to reduce your chance for diastasis recti during pregnancy
- Form the right habits!
- Continue your exercise routine
- Keep your abs strong
During your first trimester, you still have the option to start a new workout routine. As your pregnancy progresses you should reduce the amount with which you push yourself in terms of conditioning-style exercises (as I’m sure you are aware), but if your body is already accustomed to a certain type of workout, you will be able to continue in that for several more months.
There are, however, some important habits to start forming in early pregnancy to prepare for the later stages of pregnancy and recovery form delivery.
- Posture! For a four-page, in-depth article about pregnancy posture you can visit WebMD, but here are the highlights (in addition to shoulders back (without thrusting your ribcage forward) and head high, or standard good posture):
- Stretch the top of your head toward the ceiling.
- Pull your stomach in and up (as much as possible!). Do not tilt your pelvis forward or backward.
- Point your feet in the same direction, with your weight balanced evenly on both feet. The arches of your feet should be supported with low-heeled (but not flat) shoes to prevent stress on your back.
- What Is the Correct Way to Sit During Pregnancy?
- Sit up with your back straight and your shoulders back. Your buttocks should touch the back of your chair.
- Distribute your body weight evenly on both hips.
- Keep your hips and knees at a right angle.
- Feet should be flat on the floor and legs should not be crossed.
- Try to avoid sitting in the same position for more than 30 minutes.
- At work, adjust your chair height and workstation so you can sit up close to your desk. Rest your elbows and arms on your chair or desk, keeping your shoulders relaxed.
- When standing up from the sitting position, move to the front of the seat of your chair. Stand up by straightening your legs. Avoid bending forward at your waist. Upon standing, do several pregnancy-safe back stretches.
- Always consult your OB/GYN before adding new exercises, but you should be fine to continue the exercises you were already doing prior to pregnancy. If you don’t normally walk, I recommend that you add walking to your routine because that is the one activity you will be able to continue until the day you give birth. You will also be able to start walking again within a week or two after delivering (though you should discuss your personal situation with your doctor).
You should also continue general strength exercises like lunges, squats, pushups, pull ups and the like.
- If your abdominus rectus (or “six-pack”) muscle is strong and fit, you will have an easier time throughout your pregnancy and recovery. At this point it is still safe to do sit ups and planks. Those will not be permitted for much longer, so get as much out of them as you can before your baby bump makes an appearance.
- Stay active
- Continue with a modified exercise routine
- Keep up Diastasis-safe abdominal exercises
During your second trimester, you will notice more changes in your body. Don’t let swollen ankles or the general fatigue of pregnancy keep you from staying active, though!
Modify your exercise routine
- Eliminate: Pushups, planks, sit ups, crunches and burpees are no longer permissible. They all place unnatural strain on your abdominus rectus, and continuing to do them will make your Diastasis Recti worse.
- Introduce: Modified pushups such as incline pushups or, later on, wall pushups. Keep a close eye on your ab muscles during exercises to make sure there’s no bulge forming down the center of your stomach. That is a result of your ab muscles pulling apart, and every time you notice that bulge, the separation is getting worse. You should also introduce balancing exercises during this phase if you haven’t already. These subtle exercises will be all you have during the latter half of your third trimester, and they engage your abdominal muscles without placing strain on the center of the abdomnius rectus.
- Continue: Other strength exercises can be continued through your second trimester: lunges, squats and so on are all perfectly acceptable. Lunges are especially good because they do require natural stabilization, which engages your ab muscles in an DR-friendly way. You can also continue cardio such as jogging, just don’t go off-road, since the hormones in your system affect how stable you are on uneven ground. Don’t risk a fall!
- Posture is more important than ever!
- Eliminate abdominal workouts that are not diastasis recti-safe
- Walk, walk, walk
If you haven’t already, now is the time to get active before your bundle of joy joins the family! Don’t push your body during this trimester at all, but make sure that you continue to stay active and in motion.
- As you exercise, be very conscientious about your posture. One common problem with pregnancy posture is rib-thrusting. This happens when women push their baby bump out and as a result, arch their backs substantially. Work on keeping your ribcage down and back with everything you do, especially while walking. It’s going to take a long time to break this habit. But every chance you get, remember to bring them down and back and in line with your hipbones. When you bring the rib cage down and back the pressures even out and decreases the forces in the abdominal cavity, helping everything out.
- Keep a close eye on your abs as you work out. Don’t allow any doming or bulging in the middle. If a particular workout causes your belly to bulge in the middle, you are over-engaging your abdominus rectus and that will result in worse Diastasis Recti. Listen to your body. If you feel an increase in Braxton Hicks contractions, that is a sign you are pushing yourself too hard during workouts.
Take care of yourselves, ladies!