Before the pandemic, I taught barre fitness classes at a local studio. I loved it. After years of doing cardio and crash dieting, learning how to build strength, particularly lean muscle, changed my relationship with my body and with food. I found myself focusing more on strength and stamina, through yoga, barre, and running, and more on good nutrition than on calories. It was a paradigm shift that worked wonders for me. Exercise is essential to my mental health. Movement is medicine.
Fairly regularly in my classes, I would encounter a pre or postnatal woman who was concerned about her abs. Sometimes, the postnatal woman was very postnatal and still did not feel like her core strength was anywhere near where it was before babies. If you spend any time in women’s group fitness circles, you’re going to hear about two things 1) diastasis recti and 2) pelvic floor dysfunction. These issues are very common for women who have carried a baby and failing to address them can cause years of problems including back pain, the “mommy pooch” in the abs, incontinence, and/or peeing your pants when you sneeze. There’s a lot of jokes out there about the last one. I don’t think it’s funny. I think it’s a shameful sign of our culture’s inattention to women’s health that so many women feel like they have to just accept incontinence as a fact of life—the price you pay for having a baby. It’s not.
So, all that said, when I got pregnant I felt really good and strong and I went into the physical experience of carrying my daughter focused on good core and pelvic floor health so that I could deliver her and recover from it as best I could. I would like to share some of the resources I used along the way. If you are postpartum and experiencing issues with your abs or pelvic floor, it is never too late to work on healing.
A Note About Exercise Philosophy
I am a certified barre instructor, but I do not have certifications in pre- or postnatal training. I am also not a medical doctor. It really is best to talk to your healthcare provider about any concerns you have about your core or pelvic floor. If you have pelvic floor issues that are really troubling you (incontinence, painful sex, etc.) there are pelvic floor physiotherapists out there who specialize in these issues.
I am not going to lie to you and say that my appearance was not part of my mindset in this area, but what I tried to focus on in my training was function. My body has to carry me through my whole life. In my prenatal training, I was focused on the function of my body to carry and deliver my daughter. In my postnatal training, I focused on healing my body so that it could carry and support me through my days. I wanted to feel at home in my body again, when so much in my life had changed so dramatically. This was a mind-body issue as well, so getting my self-talk in order was part of the process. My daughter is almost 5 months old and I am within five pounds of where I started my pregnancy, but more importantly, I feel strong and I feel like myself without having tortured or deprived myself.
ETA: Also, upfront I want to acknowledge that birth experiences can impact recovery in ways that are beyond our control. Recovery from a c-section can look totally different from my experience below. My labor left me feeling really adrenaline high, so I started on my recovery pretty quickly. Take things at your own pace. Finally, I am at home which gives me a certain degree of flexibility with my time. Often, when I have time to do something for me, exercise is what I choose. You do you.
Okay, let’s get started.
Prenatal Core Tips
There is some debate about whether or not women should do ab exercises when they are pregnant. Those who say women should nix it are on that side because they are concerned about the aforementioned diastasis recti—separation of the abdominal muscles, specifically caused by thinning of the connective tissue between the two sides of your rectus abdominus (the six pack muscles). There are a ton of resources out there (links below) about this issue and I am not an expert. So, I will be brief. Some separation of the abs in pregnancy is moreorless inevitable because there has to be room for the baby belly to grow. Problems can arise when the separation in that connective tissue does not heal properly.
Abs and arms are my favorite areas to workout and I taught barre until I was 38 weeks pregnant. If I had still been in the studio, I would have likely just cued verbally and sat out much of the ab section of my classes, but with COVID I was teaching over Zoom and had to demo. Sometimes my sweet husband was a fitness model for me. Sometimes I pretended to do the exercises. A lot of the time I just modified. That was my approach to prenatal abs—MODIFY. The way I saw it, a strong core would help me carry the baby without putting too much strain on my body and then would help me push her out.
I treated preparing for delivery like training for a race. Labor is kind of an extreme sport, after all. So, as soon as I got pregnant, I started doing more core exercises during that first trimester, trying to get my core as strong as possible before I had to modify. My midwife told me that after 16 weeks, I didn’t really have abs anymore. So, during the second and third trimester, I no longer exercised the rectus abdominus and focused on my obliques, the muscles along the sides of your core. These muscles help with stability and support. What I visualized was the obliques forming a corset or a cradle holding the baby up. I was helped in this by the fact that I carried my daughter pretty high, but my focus was on maintaining stability in the core for that purpose.
My go-too exercises were:
- Heel reaches (standing with weights)
- Heel marches
- Bird Dog with Pulses
- Modified Russian Twist (Opening out to each side rather than twisting across)
- Hug the baby
To mix things up, I used a lot of exercises from the Instagram page of Becky at Good for the Swole. She has great pregnancy workouts and labor prep exercises.
To try to prevent injury to your abs during pregnancy, you want to avoid doing things that build pressure in the abdominal wall such as crunches, twists, lifting, and, after a certain point, bending over.
I also ran until the end of my second trimester, just not pushing too hard, and walked almost every day during my third trimester. I spent a lot of time on a yoga ball, too, doing hip rolls to try to get the baby to come out. Staying active was really important to helping me prepare mentally as well as physically.
Most women have it in their heads that they cannot workout for six weeks after delivery. This advice is about high impact exercise. My wise midwife did tell me to keep my hospital bands on for two weeks after I got home so I didn’t snap right back to chores and working out, but I think there is a key distinction between working out and doing restorative exercises. I started on restorative exercises almost as soon as we got home. My goal was to help my muscles to recover and heal without waiting so long that I lost muscle.
I felt very lucky that two of the fitness moms I follow on Instagram gave birth not long before me, so I followed their recovery plans loosely. The Belle Method was particularly awesome as she focused on slowly restoring and healing the core muscles. Nikki is great about making the connection between core function and pelvic floor function as well. I highly recommend her information on preparing for pushing, even if my daughter came too fast for me to actually put it to use (not complaining).
I really wanted to go right back to doing all the core moves I missed during pregnancy, but my visualization here was drawing my core muscles back together gently. I did not have any significant ab separation, but it is possible to actually work against your abs healing properly if you go too hard too soon. Keep modifying your core exercises as you build strength back. I avoided twists for a couple of months, until I felt like my core was healed and I am still using a core ball for modifications to keep from putting a strain on my abdominal wall while I build back, but I am seeing definition coming back to my muscles. Hurrah!
I think my recovery here went pretty smoothly for a couple of reasons: I’m tall, so there was less strain on my torso while pregnant and I did not push for a very long time. My daughter was born so fast, though, that my pelvic floor felt crazy. Like, I constantly felt like I had to pee. So giving my pelvic floor time to heal was a big motivator for taking things slowly. I focused on my arms and legs when I was dying to go harder, keeping it gentle with my abs: heel taps, modified Russian twists, bridges, etc.
After a couple of months, I felt up to increasing the intensity and I turned to Get Mom Strong for ideas for more exercises with particular attention to healing. I was able to run again, which felt amazing. Currently, I am doing a lot of yoga, walking daily, and doing strength training videos from MadFit on YouTube. Her dance workouts are great for when my mood needs a boost and my baby sometimes laughs at me, which is great.
A Note About Nutrition
I cannot overstate the importance of nutrition. When I was pregnant, I tried to focus on clean eating and getting nutrient-dense food to the baby, but I also allowed myself indulgences sometimes too. I gained almost exactly 35 pounds during my pregnancy. I was not comfortable with it, but that is my own body image baggage. During pregnancy, I noticed a considerable dropoff in my muscle tone. I figured my body was giving it over to my baby and I didn’t worry much about it (she was born with great muscle tone). But, nutrition would be key to building back. I made about a month’s worth of healthy freezer meals before I gave birth, to assist in this department. Some women lose a ton of weight right after delivery because they gain a lot of water weight. I was not one of those women. I basically just lost the weight of my daughter. After pregnancy, I did count calories for a couple of months, just to recalibrate myself to what a normal amount of food for me in a day was, but I did not diet. If I was hungry, I ate. I am not longer counting calories, but I am eating sensibly. (I also lose my appetite when stressed and it’s been a helluva couple months, right?) I do not believe in cutting out any major nutrients (carbs, fat, protein). I do not think it is sustainable, personally, and diet culture is really toxic. I am a vegetarian and mostly avoid dairy, for ethical reasons. I think as a side effect, this contributes to pretty clean eating. During pregnancy, I ate yogurt and ice cream but afterward I cut those back out. I also tried not to eat processed sugar. But Julio went through a baking phase and I enjoyed it. The focus was on nourishing and healing while gradually taking the weight off. Not bouncing back.
Also, I am exclusively breastfeeding and I did not see that help the weight come off, but I’ve never done otherwise, so I don’t actually know, but nursing mamas need at least 1800 calories a day, so if you feel compelled to count calories, keep that in mind.
I also got my thyroid hormones checked postpartum as part of my ongoing treatment for Hashimoto’s, but it is worth knowing that thyroid dysfunction postpartum is very common and worth checking for if you are losing or gaining weight quickly.
That’s all I’ve got, but here are some more resources. What has/has not worked for you?
Diastasis Recti: The Postpartum Problem Nobody Talks About
Birth Kweens: Prolapse, Pee Pants, and other Pelvic Floor Issues
Six Exercises for Rebuilding Your Core
Three Steps to Healing Diastasis Recti