Next Friday I will be starting Mama & Babe FIT, a strength training class for new moms and their babies at The Mama Tribe, a new wellness studio in Oak Park. This is something I’ve wanted to do for years, so I’m incredibly excited that it’s finally happening. But to be honest, the class that I’m about to teach looks nothing like I initially envisioned it.
When my son Dariusz was born in 2011, I thought it would be so much fun to do a mom-baby workout class. We would all toss our babies in the air, race them around in strollers, and do fun, creative moves like sit-ups while holding our babies. I was so psyched about this concept that I looked into franchising with Stroller Strides (now FIT4MOM) while I was pregnant with my second son.
Then I had Mateusz. I tried to get right back into my usual workout routine, but my body wasn’t having it. My arms and legs felt strong, but my core muscles didn’t know what to do. I had leakage issues when I jumped or tried to sprint. I felt imbalanced from constantly lugging a car seat on the right side of my body. And despite gaining only 25 pounds during my pregnancy, I had a belly pooch that wasn’t going away.
Being pretty tuned in to my body, I knew I couldn’t just power through this mess. So I sought out help. I did a lot of reading online (Julie Wiebe, Diana Lee, MuTu System), consulted with multiple physical therapists (Ann Wendel, Sandy Hilton, Sarah Haag, Danielle Duley), and dug into personal trainer Jessie Mundell’s course on training postpartum women.
What I know now is that almost all of my previous beliefs about postpartum exercise were wrong. Here’s why.
Most of your favorite, go-to abdominal exercises are most likely a bad idea.
When you think of training your abs, what are the first few exercises that come to mind? Crunches? Sit-ups? Planks?
All of these are potentially harmful for a woman who’s recently delivered a baby. The problem with moves like sit-ups and crunches is that they can cause your belly to bulge up or out if you are not properly engaging your lower abs and pelvic floor (muscles that tend to be weakened in postpartum women). This bulging can prevent your already-stretched and weakened abdominal muscles from healing and can contribute to pelvic floor dysfunction and diastasis recti—that tummy pooch look that you’re trying to fix.
If performed improperly (believe me, this is the case more often than not), planks can also be a culprit, as they can put downward pressure on your core and pelvic floor.
You could be doing kegels like a champ, but seeing no improvement down there.
When most of us think of kegels, we think of lying on our backs and pretending to stop the flow of urine. But stress urinary incontinence is not always as simple as having a weak pelvic floor—which is why you could be performing hundreds of kegel repetitions a day, and still feel like things aren’t back to normal.
To successfully rehab your pelvic floor muscles, you need to coordinate their firing with your other deep core stabilizing muscles and with your breathing. This requires getting to know your diaphragm and transverse abdominis (lower abs) and incorporating these muscles into your pelvic floor work.
Note: Another reason kegels don’t work for some women is that they actually have a hypertonic (overly tight) pelvic floor. The only way to really know for sure whether you are contracting the right muscles is to see a physical therapist for an internal exam.
Somehow, crunches, sit-ups and planks have become the Bud, Miller and Coors of core training. Just as there are thousands of craft beers that have much more to offer, there are thousands of more effective core exercises.
I suspect I’m going to make a lot of enemies with this one, but here goes.New moms: You just carried another person around inside your abdomen for nine months. If you do absolutely nothing to rehab your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles, and then head out for a run at six-weeks postpartum, you are putting yourself at risk for injury.
Your deep core muscles play a huge role in stabilizing your body while running, so if they are not working properly, you end up compensating and are more susceptible to injuries including patellofemoral syndrome, IT band syndrome, groin pulls and more.
What’s more, running can actually make minor incontinence issues worse, because of the constant downward pressure that running places on the pelvic floor muscles and connective tissue.
That’s not to say you should not run after having a baby, or even that you have to wait a year. What matters is that you do the work necessary to restore your pelvic floor and other core muscles before you jump into a 10K training plan.
There are other ways to work your core than crunches, sit-ups and planks. And they can be super challenging and effective.
Somehow, crunches, sit-ups and planks have become the Bud, Miller and Coors of core training. And just like the beer companies, this is probably because of their accessibility and good marketing. But as we know, there are thousands of amazing craft beers out there that have much more to offer—it just might take a little effort to discover them. The same goes for core exercises.
Postpartum core training should focus on the deep central stabilizing muscles, including the transverse abdominis (deep lower abs), multifidus (deep spinal stabilizers) and of course, the pelvic floor muscles. Some exercises that do a great job of working these muscles include dead bug variations, reverse curl-ups and other exercises that involve drawing your belly in toward your spine.
It’s also a good idea to incorporate hip/glute exercises, such as bridging and clamshells; and anti-rotation exercises such as pallof presses and farmers walks, which work the obliques by forcing you to stay neutral while being pulled to one side. Jessie Mundell has written an awesome blog that shares some great postpartum core exercises:
So there you have it. I still have plenty to learn about postpartum exercise and training the pelvic floor. I’m just the messenger—a concerned mama and personal trainer, eager to get out the message about postnatal training. And I can’t wait to get started.