In today’s society, there is an expectation of women to ‘bounce back’ after giving birth. Any google search will produce many tips and links about how to ‘bounce back and get your body back’, ‘just like celebrity moms’. Many new moms feel the pressure to bounce back after birth without really knowing how to go about this daunting task while trying to adapt to life with a newborn, getting very little sleep and having very little time for herself.
Women are also often not provided with the best information about how to repair their bodies post-birth. A six week check up in South Africa often goes something like this:
‘Okay, everything is looking good, you can definitely start doing some crunches.’
And so the pursuit to get rid of the ‘mommy tummy’ starts. The gynae mentioned crunches, so that seems like a good starting point, and soon you are doing crunches and planks and the circuit at your local gym.
Unfortunately, without adequate guidance, women can actually worsen their postpartum condition by doing these mainstream exercises. Before you can ‘bounce back’ or get rid of the mommy tummy, you need to reconnect and heal your core first.
The Deep Core or Inner Unit
The deep core or Inner Unit consist of a box-like structure of muscles in the torso, that act to stabilise the entire body, especially the spine. The top of the box is the diaphragm muscles and bottom of the box is the pelvic floor muscles. The transverse abdominis (TVA), runs horizontally like a sheath or a corset and can be thought of as the sides of the box. The multifidus is the last muscle of the inner unit. The Multifidus is a very thin muscle that spans three joint segments deep within the spine and stabilises the joint at each segment, and acts as the posterior component of the inner unit.
Pregnancy restricts the movement of the diaphragm and stretches the TVA, it also causes all the muscles of the inner unit to become more relaxed, creating a need for postpartum women to specifically rehabilitate (re-strengthen) the diaphragm, TVA and pelvic floor muscles.
Rehabilitating the Inner Unit
The good news is that inner unit rehabilitation can start almost immediately as soon as a new mom feels ready after a vaginal delivery, and as soon as 2-3 weeks after after a C-section. A trained fitness professional, such as a Pre/Postnatal Corrective Exercise specialist, will be able to demonstrate and train the new mom on the rehabilitative exercises. The initial method for rehabilitating the inner unit is very gentle and focuses on deep breathing, body awareness, stabilising and activating the TVA, pelvic floor and diaphragm. Though gentle, these exercises are incredibly effective for reactivating dormant muscles and promoting healing of the inner unit. It is recommended that the new mom spends 4-6 weeks just on rebuilding the inner unit.
Once medical clearance to exercise has been obtained, and the core has been reactivated and any specific postpartum issues (such as diastasis recti) addressed, the next step is to start preparing your postpartum body for the new physical challenges you will face on a daily basis.
Functional exercises like squats, lunges, pushes, pulls, bending and twist will simulate daily activities that you will perform as a new mom, and strengthen your postpartum body to cope with the demands of a newborn.
The priority is to perform these exercises with good posture and to train efficient movement patterns for daily life.
The nature of these compound functional movements will also kickstart the process of getting back your pre-baby body, reducing body fat percentage, regaining strength and improving overall fitness.
Rather than ‘bounce back’, new moms are better encouraged to spend the first six to eight weeks postpartum to simply:
- Step back
- Take deep healing breaths for your core, reduce stress
- Reconnect with your core
- Connect with your baby
And then take meaningful steps towards incorporating functional exercises into an exercise program, to build a body that is connected, strong and healthy.