Regaining core strength before high intensity workouts

Re-establishing core and pelvic floor strength before high intensity exercise following the birth of your baby is of great importance.

Post natal exercise

It is completely understandable that you would want to snap back in shape once baby arrives. But no matter how strong the desire to slip back in to those skinny jeans is, women should not forget the damage and potential long term health problems that ‘too soon’ high intensity exercise can induce.

Read my tips on how to focus and strengthen the core in preparation for higher intensity exercise programme.

The core & pelvic floor – A brief overview

The muscles in our core support the spine and make the important link between shoulder and hip stability. They consist mainly of the rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, internal and external obliques and erector spinae but include many other small muslces too. The pelvic floor as I have explained in previous articles (see how to do pelvic floor exercises) plays the role of supporting the pelvis and internal organs, so the importance of this being fully strengthened prior to high intensity workouts is huge.

Where to start?

Another mistake and misconception is that crunches are a good solution for flattening the abdominals. Crunch type exercises focus mainly on the rectus abs (six pack muscles) but as we can see from above there are loads more muscles in our core. Crunches not only have the potential to worsen diastasis recti (abdominal separation) but can in fact weaken the pelvic floor due to the pressure they can build in the abdominal cavity.

So until any diastasis recti has healed and you can are not experiencing any stress incontinence – even if only mild – you are not yet ready to resume high intensity workouts.

Complete core exercise programme

So we’ve established the problems that you may be experiencing and now you are ready to start re-building that core again. I have put together this easy to follow and progressive plan to help you get back the inner core strength to prepare you for higher intensity workouts. Everyone is different and every woman regardless of previous activity levels is unique. So please give this some thought and make the decision to get your old fitness level back safely and steadily.

As with all exercise programmes please ensure you have had medical clearance to exercise following the birth of your baby. And make sure you are warmed up and well hydrated before you start.

Choose one of the first 3 exercises to start the routine, depending on your post natal stage and level.

Exercise 1
Basic abdominal contractions (can begin soon after delivery for natural deliveries but wait until stiches have healed/been removed following c-section)

Method: Lying flat on your back, arms by side and allow lower back to sit in natural position (don’t force down). Inhale and as you exhale contract tummy area, hold for 5 seconds and relax.

REPS: Repeat 5-10 times but perform regularly through the day.

  • The idea of this exercise is to teach you how to isolate your abdominal muscles, without moving your back/spine.

Exercise 2 – Leg slides
(A progression from Exercise 1, once you have achieved the above introduce this exercise. Approximately 6-8 weeks post natal)

Method: Lying on your back as above, feet flat on the floor, slide one foot forward against the floor until straight. Repeat other side and perform slowly.

REPS: Repeat 10 times each side and once you can do around 20 on each side with ease move on to exercise 3.

  • This exercise allows you to build up strength in the transverse abs without putting strain on the lower back.

Exercise 3 – Leg Lowers

Method: Lie on your back as before but this time legs are raised off the floor at 90 degrees to your body. Keeping the lower back as flat as possible, slowly lower the heel to almost touch the floor, return slowly and repeat other side.

REPS: Repeat 10 times on each side and build up to two sets each side.

Exercise 4 – Plank

One of the most effective transverse ab exercises that can be done and also doesn’t take much time!

Method: I have covered the plank technique in my previous abdominal articles but you have two options. The standard plank involves being on your toes and forearms with the rest of the body being off the floor. The modified plank is the same only the knees can come onto the floor for additional support. This is a particularly good option for Mums experiencing any back problems or diastasis recti.

Contract the abdominals like a vacuum and hold for up to 1 minute, adapt over time and use the progressions such as leg lifts to challenge yourself.

Exercise 5 – Side plank
A variation of the plank but targeting the oblique muscles, which will help to regain shape in the waistline.

Method: Lie on your side ensuring that your body is in a straight line, bend the lower legs back so they are positioned across your body for support. From here use your upper arm to push your body weight up, keeping a straight line from shoulder, to hip, to knee. Once you have mastered this, raise your upper arm so it is pointing straight up to the sky. When you can do this with ease raise it further so it is pointing past your head, hence stretching the obliques even more.

REPS: Aim to hold for 30 seconds each side, repeat.

Over time you can build up to holding for 1 minute.

Exercise 6 – Dorsal raises
To strengthen the lower back.

Method: This time you are lying on your front with toes in contact with the floor. Position hands and arms to the lower back then gently raise your head and upper back off the floor until you can feel a slight ‘pinch’ in the lower back area. Do not over extend.

REPS: Repeat up to 10 times, aiming for 2 sets.

Pelvic floor exercises

Cool down:

Abdominal stretch – Sit upright on floor with legs crossed and reach behind with arms placing hands on the floor, pushing the abs and chest forward until you feel the tummy area stretch.

Lower back stretch – Lie on the floor and pull the knees into the chest with your arms.

When to move on to higher intensity workouts

So the nature of your post natal fitness routine may be different to before you became pregnant but I can guarantee the benefits in taking things slowly will enhance your fitness well beyond the post natal period. The plus side is that you could come out with an even stronger core than before if you do things sensibly – and what more motivation could you need than that?

Photography: Lululemon Athletica @Flickr 

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