How to Build Core Strength Slowly and Safely Postpartum
A common concern for many women postpartum is the lack of strength and stability they feel from the inside-out. This is not surprising considering the dramatic shift in load their bodies have taken on to support a pregnancy. Then there is the effect of delivery on the pelvic floor, which is part of the core. Moms who have had C-sections also suffer a loss or strength and stability due to the trauma to the abdominal muscles at the incision site.
Many women want to resume exercises like planks and curl-ups to regain strength in their core (sorry, ladies, curl-ups don’t do anything for the core— they can actually make you more unstable if you have pelvic floor imbalance and/or diastasis recti. Click the links to read more about those conditions.)
The best way to regain core strength and stability is from the inside-out starting with breath-awareness, pelvic floor retraining, and activating the muscles on all six sides of the core slowly and intelligently. Below is a movement-based practice to explore daily (or, as often as you are able with focus and without rushing through). This practice includes movements for strengthening and lengthening— both are essential to rebuilding the core safely.
You must feel your breath in and out to safely explore any movement practice. If you feel you are holding your breath, you are changing the intra-abdominal pressure too much in the torso and you risk destabilizing the pelvic floor. Breathe. Breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Keep your breath steady and focused. Please get to know your pelvic floor before beginning the program below. You will be activating it and releasing it at will and the time you spend feeling it wholly will serve you for your life!
Begin your work reviewing the core foundations: Pelvic Floor Contraction and Relaxation (PFCR) exercises while lying on your back with your knees bent or by sitting upright and finding Optimal Postural Alignment of pelvis, ribs, and head, and the Birthday Candle Breath with the exhalation on the S consonant (blowing a steady exhale as if blowing out a birthday candle six feet away).
Move to Table Pose and flow from Cow Pose to Cat Pose on the rhythm of your breath while also engaging PFCR. Feel 10 of these flows as you inhale in Cow Pose (release pelvic floor) and exhale in Cat Pose (contract pelvic floor).
Add Locust Pose to strengthen the muscles in the back of the core:
1. Fold a blanket about one-foot wide and place it below your breast line on the middle ribs if you are nursing.
2. Lie on your belly. The blanket will elevate your breasts off the floor to minimize pressure on your mammary glands. (If you feel tender under your pubic bone, especially if you’ve had a C-section, you may want a second blanket folded wide and thin placed underneath.)
3. As you lie on your belly, align your feet, hips, ribs, and head. Then place your arms alongside your body and put your feet together. Inhale, lengthen your spine; exhale, raise your chest off the floor and lengthen through your hands with the palms facing your thighs. Keep your feet on the floor for now and rest down for one or two breaths. Repeat two or three more times.
If your shoulders don’t feel tight, you can explore this pose with your arms out ahead of you and palms facing each other. If it feels safe for your lower back (no lower back or pelvis pain on the first option) on the exhalation, you may lift your legs, bringing the toes only one or two inches off the floor. To keep length in your lower back, engage your pubic bone downward and forward as if it is scooping toward your nose.
Explore Clamshells, Inner/Outer Thigh Lift to strengthen the hips and gluteus muscles and stabilize the pelvis:
Clamshells, Inner/Outer Thigh Lift
1. Lie on your right side with your hips flexed and legs bent comfortably. Your knees are stacked, feet are together, and you are resting on your right forearm. Align your feet with your pelvis with lower ribs engaged.
2. Open your legs while keeping your toes touching. You will feel this action in the outside of the hip, and your legs will open and close like a clamshell.
3. Repeat this motion 10 times while working slowly with the rhythm of your breath.
4. Once you have completed the 10 Clamshells, straighten your right leg and lay your left knee over it on the floor. Alternatively, bend your left knee and place your left foot on the floor in front of your right thigh—whichever is more comfortable for you.
5. Inhale, extend through the heel.
6. Exhale, lift the right leg up for Inner Thigh Lifts. Pulse it up and down on the breath 10 times. You want to keep the movement small and controlled to target your adductors (inner thighs).
7. One you have completed the Inner Thigh Lift, straighten your left leg and lay it on top of your right leg. Roll the left thigh inward so your left toes point toward the floor.
8. Lift your left leg 10 times for Outer Thigh Lifts. Keep the movement small and controlled; there is no need to lift the leg more than hip height. Repeat the outer thigh lift nine more times.
Sit in Easy Pose (upright on the edge of a folded blanket with sitting bones perched to preserve the natural curve of the lower back). Place your right hand down to the side and side bend to the right while lengthening the left side with your hand extended. Breathe into the left side of the body for five breaths. Return upright, place the left hand down and side bend to the left with your right hand extended. Breathe into the right side of the body for five breaths. Strengthen the side body (the obliques) with Modified Side Plank:
Modified Side Plank
1. Keep your lower ribs engaged in and find equal length in both sides of the waist.
2. Rest on your right side with your legs in line with your torso. Place a small bend in the knees. Align the elbow under the shoulder and rest on the right forearm with the palm down and perpendicular to the shoulder. Engage the shoulder blades down the back.
3. Inhale, feeling the ribs in line with the pelvis without flaring out your lower ribs.
4. Exhale, grounding through the right forearm and hand while lifting your hips. Stabilize through the grounded knee on the mat.
5. Place your left hand either on the hip or extend it up so both upper arms are in a straight line.
6. Breathe five to eight breaths, then come down. Rest for a moment then repeat once or twice more.
7. Roll onto your left side and repeat the series.
Explore semi-supine toe taps to strengthen the front of the core:
Semi-Supine Toe Taps
1. Lie on your back with your knees bent about 90 degrees and feet hip distance apart on the floor.
2. Feel the length of your spine from the back of your head to the tailbone, then place both hands on the lower belly between your naval and pubic bone. Inhale into your lower belly.
3. Exhale, lifting the right foot and tap the toe to the floor about four inches farther out then bring it back to its starting position. Inhale into the lower belly with feet neutral.
4. Exhale, lifting the left foot and tap the toe to the floor about four inches farther out, then bring it back to the starting position.
5. Repeat for either side four to six more times. Use the hands on the lower belly to feel the movement initiating from the lower belly (the transverse abdominus muscle) and not from the hip flexor at the top of the thigh where it meets the hip. Move slowly and on the rhythm of the breath.
Roll onto your side and sit on the edge of a folded blanket for Staff Pose. Do 10 Birthday Candle Breaths here. You will further tone the transverse abdominus muscle with this breathing practice.
Come into Extended Child’s Pose for 10 natural breaths.
Come to Rest and Relaxation Pose on your back for three to five minutes.
Complete this sequence as often as you are able. If you are pressed for time, you can do pelvic floor contraction and release exercises with breath awareness to rebuild strength to the top and bottom of the core. Adding the Birthday Candle Breath will include toning for the transverse abdonimus while also helping to heal diastasis recti, if you have it.
Enjoy, be well, and please try the accompanying video. Share with anyone who you feel can benefit from this information and these practices.