The best way to tone your tummy after pregnancy

If you’ve just had a baby and are itching to get back into shape, you might think sit-ups are a good place to begin toning your tummy. Guess again. Sit-ups are the last thing you should be doing! Instead of firming and tightening the stomach, they can actually lead to a bulging and protruding abdomen… hardly what you have in mind!

What Pregnancy does to your stomach muscles:

First a little background so you understand what’s happened to your body and what you need . During pregnancy the abdominal muscles stretch to accommodate the growing fetus, and sometimes the most superficial muscles (called rectus abdominis, or six-pack muscles) can split down the middle like a pants seam. This is a good thing because it allows room for the growing baby, said Cynthia Neville, director of women’s health rehabilitation at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. But when the split is too wide, it creates instability in the abdomen, trunk and pelvis.

The split should spontaneously reduce to less than 2 centimeters within a few weeks. But if the core muscles, which include pelvic-floor muscles and deep abdominals, are not working as a team, then Neville warns that “women may continue to have flabby, bulging, weak abs, or they may leak urine, or both.” (Women who undergo Caesarean sections have a different challenge because of the way surgery affects the abs.)

If you want to tighten up your stomach after pregnancy, the goal is to strengthen the abdominal and core muscles, and get them to work together properly.  The core muscles should be the first to kick into gear; if they’re not strong enough and you’re doing ab exercises that focus on the six-pack muscle, your stomach may bulge, Neville said.

The best way to retrain stomach muscles

It starts with learning to maintain a neutral position of the spine and pelvis – not too arched or flattened. This involves retraining the deep transverse muscles. Unfortunately, traditional stomach exercises like crunches tend to by-pass the transverse abs so no matter how many sit-ups you do, your transverse muscles will barely feel the effects.

Any fitness program that targets your core, like Pilates, will include stomach exercises that target the transverse abdominals. However, you often work these muscles without realizing it. Whenever you hold your stomach in, you are working the transverse abs. For instance, when doing lunges you must keep your back straight, which is accopmlished by tightening your abdominals, or more specifically your transverse abdominals.

“The key is to ‘remind’ the core to be the first to contract to prepare for the extremity movements until it becomes automatic,” Neville said. You can do this not just during exercise, but during everyday movement such as lifting the baby or pushing a stroller. Working these muscles will not only get you a flatter stomach, but may also lead to an improvement in your posture and fewer backaches.

Erin O’Brien Denton, a personal trainer (watch a clip from her DVD called “Postnatal Rescue“), recommends lying on your back and doing leg lifts, planks, and “bridges” (raising your pelvis off the ground) for the first three months after delivery “to teach the abs to lie sleekly against the abdominal wall.”  She also suggests an exercise in which you simply lifting the head and shoulders while pulling in the abdominals.

After you have mastered those motions, Denton suggests “the old-fashioned bicycle abdominal exercise, a variety of crunches (initiating the movement from both the upper and lower abdominal wall) and various plank exercises to start toning the abs.”

Transverse Exercises

Pregnancy details some exercises that target those hard to get to transverse muscles:

The No-Crunch Crunch

  • Start by lying on the floor with your knees bent and feet firmly on the floor.
  • Lightly place your hands just below and to the sides of your belly button. Firmly press two fingers from each hand into your lower abdomen.
  • Gently begin to draw your lower abdomen down towards the floor (picture a string pulling your navel towards the floor) but do not move your pelvis, raise your chest or hold your breath.
  • Stop drawing in your stomach as soon as you feel your muscles get tight. The muscles underneath your fingers should feel taut but the movement does not require a lot of effort. If you move too far, you will in fact stop working your transverse abs and begin to work your oblique muscles (your side abdominal muscles) instead.
  • Hold this position for 10 to 15 seconds, breathing normally the entire time.
  • Do ten repetitions.

    Scissor Kicks

  • Start by lying on the floor. Place your hands under your buttocks and keep your back pressed against the floor.
  • Raise one leg about 10 inches off the ground and slowly lower it back down. As you lower the one leg, raise the other.
  • Do three sets of ten repetitions.

    Pelvic Tilts

  • Lying on the floor with your back pressed against the floor, bend your knees keeping your feet on the ground.
  • Slowly lift your pelvis up and hold briefly before lowering slowly back down to the ground. Your upper body should remain on the floor throughout the movement.
  • Do three sets of 15 repetitions.

    Lifted-leg Push-up

    If you’re feeling very strong in your upper body, or if you just feel like multi-tasking during your workout, then give this challenging exercise a whirl.

  • Get into push-up position but keep your feet hip-width apart.
  • Raise one leg as high as you can and then do a regular push-up. Switch legs and repeat.
  • This is a pretty tough one, especially if you don’t have much upper-body strength, so just do as many as you can.
  • For an easier variation of this exercise, try this:

  • Get down on all fours with your hands positioned about shoulder-width apart, elbows slightly bent. Your knees should be together and positioned underneath your hips. To make the exercise more challenging, place your knees slightly behind you. Have your toes curled on the floor. Your heels should not be touching the floor.
  • Tighten your abs by drawing your navel in towards your spine. In a smooth, controlled motion, raise your knees off the ground. Your upper body should not move.
  • Hold for one breath and then slowly lower down.
  • Aim for three sets of ten.
  • These exercises will help strengthen your tummy and reduce the bulge. Pilates is also popular for this area. Even if you succeed in loosing all your pregnancy weight and firming your stomach muscles, you may notice that stomach skin is still stretched out and saggy. This is usually genetic, and not something that will improve with exercise.(Some women opt for a tummy tuck.)

    Abdominal separation after pregnancy is not uncommon.  If your stomach is bulging but feels frim, you may have a diastasis (space between the abdominal muscles). Talk to your doctor if you suspect this is the case.

    Image from ToneZone Pilates

    Post-Pregnancy: A no-fuss plan to get back into shape

    Congratulations! You have a new baby! Between taking care of your bundle of joy, keeping your house passably clean, perhaps taking care of other kids (and don’t forget the husband!) and various other duties, you barely find time to shower at the end of the day. So how is one expected to cook healthy, balanced meals and find time to exercise as well??

    Nutritional therapist Kate Cook and postnatal fitness instructor Lucy Wyndham-Read have written a new book called An Unfit Mother: How to get your Health, Shape and Sanity back after childbirth. “New mothers need a no-fuss plan to take control, without beating themselves up about slip-ups along the way.” Sounds good, doesn’t it?

    So how do you prevent yourself from feeling knackered (they’re British chicks. They use funny words)? Here are a few helpful tips, courtesy of Keep the Doctor Away:

    • Get motivated! Start making really small changes rather than trying to tackle a huge health program. You can easily feel overwhelmed at this time, and are much more likely to stick to the small changes and get bigger results.
    • Eat right! Don’t fall into the trap of snacking on junk because you don’t have time to prepare food. Instead, snack on “superfoods” such as nuts and seeds. They’re “full of zinc, a great food to balance the blood sugar and to ward off the blues.”
    • Forget the gym; exercise at home! You can tone your body with simple exercises such as this one: Start knitting the abdominals back to their pre-pregnancy state by simply pulling your belly button in tight towards your spine and holding for up to 10 seconds, then release. Do this several times a day. Not only does it tone your deepest abdominal muscle, but it will also help strengthen your lower back and improve your posture. You can start right now, as you read this!

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