How to Safely Restore a Weak Core
One of the biggest complaints I hear from postpartum women is how weak their core is once they have had a baby. They suffer back pain, pelvic pain, and feel unstable in their daily activities with a baby/young child. Moms, this is a condition of postpartum life you do NOT have to accept! In this post, we will examine what exactly the core muscles are and explore a few practices to stabilize them. You can follow the accompanying YouTube Video for the practices I list here.
In the torso of the body, we have what’s called the “abdominal sac,” which is where we hold all of our abdominal and pelvic organs. There are many muscles surrounding it, but let’s look at the ones that make up the core. At the top of the abdominal sac is the breathing diaphragm, which I consider a core muscle! At the bottom of the abdominal sac is the pelvic floor, an intricate system of muscles that line the basin of the pelvis and contribute to core health. To read more about the pelvic floor, read this blog and watch this video.
Muscles are elastic in nature—they are designed to expand and contract and move along the directions of the fibers that make them up. Ideally, while moving in all directions and positions, we want to feel balanced and strong, yet flexible.
In the front and at the most recessive, or deepest, layer of the abdominal muscles and wrapping around the torso like a corset is the “transverse abdominis” or TA. This muscle attaches to the lumbar vertebrae at the lower back, wraps around the sides, attaches at the linea alba (the layer of connective tissue at the midline of the rectus abdominis muscle on the exterior of the abdomen), and attaches at the top of the pelvis and inguinal ligament. Furthermore, the TA connects with the breathing diaphragm beneath the lungs while the bottom of the TA attaches to the pubic bone.
The TA is called a “hugger” muscle because, when we exhale, it hugs in toward the deepest part of ourselves, thus assisting in exhalation. It braces to take on loads as we move, and it stabilizes the torso to prevent back and pelvic pain. This becomes important when we incorporate breathing practices into the movement practice for healing the abdominal muscles.
The “internal and external oblique” muscles are on the sides of the abdominal sac. The internal obliques lie between the TA and the external obliques. These muscles assist in breathing and moving the ribs and spine, with the external obliques also facilitating side bending. If they get too tight, the oblique muscles can pull on the most superficial layer of the abdominal muscles, the rectus abdominus. This will exacerbate diastasis recti (the split between the two halves of the rectus abdominus). Therefore, it is important to have as many opportunities to lengthen and release tensions in these muscles as it is to strengthen and tone them.
As part of any conditioning program, it’s also important to lengthen the oblique muscles as well as strengthen them. This includes lengthening and releasing the muscles attaching to the hip on which you tend to carry your baby a bit more than the other. You can find balance by lengthening it and breathing into it.
At the back of the abdominal sac lies the “multifidus,” which is a muscle that runs through the neck, upper, mid, and lower back along the spinal column. These muscles stabilize the joint complexes along the spine and protect each vertebra. Poor posture tends to collapse the spine and, thus, weaken the muscles of multifidus. Poor posture also leads to a collapse of the pelvis, which compromises the integrity of the pelvic floor. Do your best to stand and sit upright while evenly negotiating the weight of the items you carry (including your child) so you don’t compromise your optimal posture.
Two other important contributors to core health are the “iliopsoas” and the “adductors” muscles. The iliopsoas (pronounced “ill-io-soaz”) muscles are actually made of two muscles: the “psoas” and the “iliacus.” The iliopsoas muscles, which are longitudinal in nature, run on either side of the spinal column and attach to where the thigh bone meets the hip socket (the “lesser trochanter” of the femur).
The iliopsoas connects at the top with the central tendon of the thoracic diaphragm. This means any constricted breathing can directly affect the health of the iliopsoas muscle. This muscle has several important functions including flexing the hips and working as a weak adductor (thus, bringing the legs toward the midline of the body). It’s a key walking muscle that can become weak with poor postural habits.
The adductor muscles are a collection of six muscles that run along the inside of the thigh and work to bring the leg back to the midline of the body. All six adductor muscles connect to the pubic bone in some way. Because the iliopsoas muscles and the adductors meet the pelvic floor at a certain point, they also contribute to pelvic floor health and stability.
Keeping the muscles in a healthy relationship with each other when you’re in either a static or dynamic pose can inherently strengthen them. I say that because many people live with imbalance due to poor posture or misaligned movement patterns. That’s why I encourage a mother to sit tall, finding length in her lower belly and lower back and rising from the breastbone upward through the crown of her head while also keeping the lower ribs engaged and down. These actions alone will lengthen your spine and increase the length of the four main groups that surround the front, sides, and back of the abdominal sac as well as the tone and balance of the pelvic floor. By feeling that the spine is long, you can stabilize and release your iliopsoas muscles due to the relationship of posture and breath.
You have the chance to sit and breathe well whenever you nurse or bottle feed your baby, day or night. This means you can have a healthful practice anywhere, anytime as long as you are aware of the opportunities. A strong and stable core brings good posture, which facilitates optimal breathing. Better breathing helps regulate your cortisol levels (the fight-flight-freeze) hormone and reduce anxiety. You feel better about yourself because you feel more potent in how you present yourself to the world.
You can begin to safely restore your core with these gentle movement-based practices:
1. Sit on the edge of a firm, folded blanket and extend your legs out straight ahead. You can space your ankles a couple of inches apart from each other.
2. Flex your feet like you are standing on them and feel as if you are floating through the crown of the head.
3. Press your hands down on the blanket on either side of your hips. Feel that the lower belly is as long as the lower back and engage the deep core muscles from the pubic bone up to stay active in the pose.
4. Breathe five breaths.
Whenever you want to reestablish your pelvis/ribs/head postural alignment, Staff Pose is a good neutralizing pose to return to throughout your yoga practice.
Table Pose, Cow Pose, Cat Pose
1. Table Pose: Come onto all four, hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Keep your elbows slightly soft so the elbow creases face each other and not forward. Find length in the spine, keeping your lower ribs engaged inward to stay long in the front of the torso for.
2. Cow Pose: Inhale the breastbone forward and up while keeping the lower back as neutral and long as possible. Look up if it feels nice for the neck. We are concentrating the backbend in this pose in the upper back.
3. Cat Pose: Exhale while rounding your upper back, spreading your shoulder blades apart, and engaging your naval toward your spine to feel length in y lower belly and lower back. Do not suck in your belly; instead, seek to feel a deep core engagement.
4. Repeat the movements from Cow Pose to Cat Pose three to five times. Work slowly. To add PFCR, inhale and relax the pelvic floor on Cow Pose, then exhale and contract on Cat Pose. To add extra transverse abdominus toning, include the Birthday Candle Breath which I teach in my post on the pelvic floor here.
Bird Dog Pose
1. Engage your lower ribs toward the spine.
2. From Table Pose, extend your right arm forward parallel to the floor while extending the left leg back. Let your toes either touch the mat or lift your leg while rolling your inner thigh down.
3. Keep your lower ribs engaged in toward the spine. Also keep your pelvis balanced.
4. Breathe three to five breaths before returning to Table Pose. Repeat on other side. Then repeat this movement sequence three to five times. Explore Extended Child’s Pose.
Stay tuned to my YouTube channel (“Melissa Hurt” with my tree logo for Integrative Studio as my image) for more practices on safely restoring the core. The key to core health is breathing well and finding optimal alignment in your daily life. Carry your child in front and not on one hip as much as you can. Try to change what side you carry heavy bags and/or carry a car seat. The more you find balance in how you load the body, the better able you will be to restore your core with safe practices in daily life.