I think it is fair to say most women (and men) are now conditioned to believe that six pack abs are the ultimate in a sign of core strength. Most people also think that the way to get six pack abs is through crunches and sit ups (or a variation on these classic movements).
This is a myth. Especially for post partum women. Here is why. Your abdominal wall is made up of layers. The ‘six pack’ is your external layer. Then there is a layer of muscle fibres below that, then the most important layer – your transverse abdominus (TA) – lies at the deepest part of your core. This set of muscle fibres is like a corset for your body. It connects at the spine, and wraps around the inner wall of your body, from your hips to your upper ribs.
Why is this important?
Having a strong deep core keeps your body stable. This means that it keeps your body upright and your pelvis in alignment. Having a weak deep core leads to poor posture, a continuation of the pelvic tilt that naturally occurs during pregnancy, and pain into the hip flexors and lower back.
Why sit ups and crunches won’t help.
Sit ups are the lazy person’s abdominal work. Yes, they may feel tough when you are doing them, but ultimately, they will not activate the deep core muscles and if you already have a weak deep core, performing these exercises is more likely to cause you injury in the low back and hip flexors. In addition to this, strengthening only the front, outer core muscles will put more pressure on your back if the outer abs grow stronger and the lower back remains weak. Think of it like having a brick wall on the front of your body, and a bouncy castle wall on the back. All the effort required to keep you standing up falls to the front of your body. Lower back pain here we come.
How you can get a really strong core.
Working the TA, particularly after pregnancy, is essential. Building a strong abdominal foundation will make you stronger in every movement you do throughout the day, and if aesthetics are important to you, will give you back that hour glass shape you are looking for. Working the deep core is no picnic. The exercises required to do this work are tough – for good reason – you are working muscles that traverse around a third of your torso, front and back. That said, these exercises are safe, you cannot hurt yourself doing them (remember, burning muscles are ok, pain is not!).
Which exercises can I do?
1. Breathing – yes really.
Lie on the floor. Keeping a neutral spine throughout this practice. Take a deep inhale into the belly (this activates the diaphragm which is also important for pelvic floor health). On your exhale, keep the spine neutral, so don’t sent your low back to the mat, draw the belly button in (you will feel the sides of the waist pull in and your back start to fire as well as your front abdominal wall. Inhale back into your belly, exhale again drawing belly to spine with a neutral back. Repeat up to 10 times.
The traditional plank is key to TA activation and strength training. Hand should be under the shoulders, feet hip width distance apart. Shoulders, hips and heels should be in a nice straight line. When you are here, press the ground away from the floor. Draw the belly button in and think about pressing the heels to the back of the room behind you. Also think about drawing the hands toward the heels. Hold for 3 breaths. Then repeat. You can build this up over time.
3. Side plank.
One of my favourite exercises, but you can cheat in side plank. You can do this on your hand or with your forearm down. Come on to your side. Step the top foot in front of the bottom foot. Lift the hips, draw the belly button in and hold. Again, you can hold this for 3 breaths. Then if you are feeling strong you can take some hip drops, lowering the hip to the floor but keeping everything else as it was. Repeat 3 times each side.
4. Hollow hold (or low boat pose).
This is a great mental challenge. Come to your back. Lift the shoulders off the mat, keep a neutral position with the neck (chin away from your chest). Arms extend forward (or by the ears if you are feeling like you want a bit of added challenge). Lift the legs to a point that you can keep the low back on the floor, pulling the belly button in. Hold for 5 breaths. Repeat 3 times, extending the breath count each time if you can.
What else can you do?
We work on the TA in every single one of our sessions. Whether you come to class, do PT with us or do Yoga, you will work this muscle – in yoga we work it a lot! We have more variations and challenges for your deep core so why not give us a try.