Our wonderful female body is built for change and the most dramatic changes happen during pregnancy and birth. Although new mums tend to worry about how their bodies have changed and the concern about losing the pregnancy weight, there’s no rush to hit the gym or put on the running shoes. Rest and recuperation are more attractive options for mums than over-exertion to get fit and trim again.
Luckily, there are still exercises you can do immediately after delivery, which won’t hurt or drain you in any way. Instead, they promote quicker healing and easier movement so that you can care for your new baby with ease and comfort.
The two main muscles that experience the biggest changes during and after pregnancy are the abdominals and pelvic floor. Movement therapist Amy Tan shares two easy at home exercises that new mums can do to strengthen their core.
Abdominal muscles, specifically transversus abdominis
This muscle is the deepest layer amongst four layers in the abdominal muscle group and it functions as support for our core organs and back. As its muscle fibers are horizontal, imagine it like a corset wrapping around your entire waist. Without this muscle, we would have difficulty standing and sitting upright. Having supple and functional muscles in the abdominals also ensure a stronger back, thereby reducing the chances of back pain. These muscles wrap around our torso and meet the spinal muscles in our back, so as you are exercising the abdominals you are also waking up the back muscles in the lower back.
As your belly takes its beautiful shape during pregnancy, the abdominal muscles are gradually stretched to accommodate the growth of your baby and loses its elasticity. Restoring the tone of the transversus abdominis muscles is very important for new mothers because mothering requires very frequent bending over, picking up and carrying. A stronger and functioning core will make all these movements easier on your body without the aches and pains. Besides spending a lot of time bending forward like during feeding and bathing, mothers are also always tired too. Hence it is more likely that their posture becomes slouched or hunched forward over time.
- How do you know if you are doing the exercise right? Place your hands on the stomach and cough a little. You will feel your stomach tightening underneath your hands – that’s the transversus abdominis activating.
- New mothers should not perform any abdominal crunches. Diastasis recti, the separation of abdominal muscles along the linea alba, is a common occurrence during pregnancy and in most cases the muscles will join again naturally after birth. Performing abdominal crunches too early before this happens discourages the connective tissue of the muscles to close this gap and may cause long term separation in the abdominal muscles.
How to activate your transversus abdominis muscle
Pelvic floor muscles
The famous prescription of Kegel exercises during pregnancy is also as helpful for new mothers. The danger, though, is that without fully understanding the anatomical details of our pelvic floor muscles, we could end up neglecting an important point when practising the exercises.
For those of you who had given birth naturally, the first days tend to feel like a mess down there – one which you prefer to ignore. During natural birth, the pelvic floor muscles may have minor tears or sometimes an incision is made on these muscles when there’s an episiotomy performed. For mothers who had a Caesarian birth, these exercises are equally good to do as the pelvic floor muscles act as base support at the hips for the weight of the growing baby.
The pelvic floor muscles can be separated into the front and back sets. The front set relates to the urethra and vagina, and are engaged when you hold or halt urination. The back set controls the anal sphincter at the rectum and closes the exit point for the larger business behind. It’s important to be able to distinguish between the front and back muscles, so that you know you are exercising the right set. For mothers, the front set deserves more attention than the back.
The front set of muscles is the support system for organs and they carry the ‘contents’ of our guts. Weakened from childbirth, it is thus crucial to restore tone to this area so that it can resume its support function. The front set is also part of a deep postural stabilising muscles set, and assists in keeping a supported back and spine. It is only this front set that you want to focus on when you practise the exercises.
How to tone your pelvic floor
In the first few weeks after birth, you may find it difficult to feel this muscle activating. Don’t give up as every bit counts. With consistent practice, the muscle memory will kick in and slowly become awaken again.
Amy Tan is a movement therapist and educator who is the director of Zentrum, a movement-based healing center in Kuala Lumpur. She lives a free-range life on a farm and that’s where she’s raising her daughter.
Image Credit: Flickr user Sazzastical