Myths of the Postpartum Body: Part 1 of 4
Myth #1: The problem with your postpartum body is you need to lose weight.
The goal of this blog is to demystify the changes in your post baby body. There’s a lot of pressure in today’s society to lose weight after your baby’s born. But maybe that’s not the right answer for you. Every woman is different, and so is every woman’s story.
To find your own answer, you need to have goals. Once you are specific about what you want, it gets a lot easier to be specific about how to get there. So, let’s get specific.
Do you need to lose weight?
I’m certainly not here to tell anyone that they do. There are all different kinds of bodies and all different kinds of beautiful in this world. But what I do intend is to help you know if losing weight will get you closer to YOUR goal. Because what really matters is that you love who you see in the mirror and that you are a version of yourself that makes you content.
The general consensus is that 5-9 lbs (or 11-16 kg) of fat gained during pregnancy is necessary for delivery and breastfeeding. This is not an amount of fat that generally shows itself in a woman’s face, arms, or legs. If you feel like any of these parts of you are larger than you prefer, then losing weight might be your ticket.
But what I really want to talk about is bellies. This is where the confusion lies…
Skin and your postpartum belly
When you look at your belly, the first thing you see is skin. Most likely, it’s different after growing those little loves of your life. The skin of pregnant ladies gets mega stretched out. Sometimes, it goes back to its previous self, and sometimes, it doesn’t. A lot of this has to do with genetics. Having multiple babies at once, having multiple consecutive babies, or gaining a substantial amount of weight could all play a factor because the skin just goes through more mechanical stress.
(There are a lot of people out there who will tell you that their magic potion for pregnant bellies or their unique diet are the answer for their beautiful belly skin, but there just isn’t research currently to back this up. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t eat well or keep yourself moisturized. It’s just to say that none of the magic tricks are backed by science.)
When skin gets stretched too far, it loses some of its elasticity. This will cause it to look wrinkly, like a balloon that’s been inflated for a while and then deflated. When growth happens so fast that the skin can’t accommodate quickly enough, then stretch marks occur. With stretch marks, the middle layer of skin literally tears to allow for this rapid growth. Initially, stretch marks will appear like pink stripes, but over time, they fade to a white or silver color.
Fascia and the belly of your post baby body
Under your skin is a layer of tissue that is less familiar to most people. You can think of fascia like the stringy, shiny, white stuff when you’re cutting up raw chicken. In the simplest terms, fascia is what connects skin to muscle.
If you see signs that your body experienced growth at a pace that your skin couldn’t keep up with, then it’s likely there was a certain amount of trauma to your fascia as well. This means that the skin isn’t as closely connected to the underlying layers anymore and translates into the fact that you probably won’t be able to see as much definition in your abs, no matter what you do. This doesn’t mean your abs can’t have amazing FUNCTION or that you won’t see any tone in your abs at all. It just means you might not see as much as you deserve for the effort that you put in.
Like skin, unfortunately, you can’t entirely reverse damage to fascia through conservative methods. (Although you can see substantial improvements by learning to load your fascia correctly—assuming that you are someone who doesn’t currently load correctly. You may appreciate this post about how many different aspects of the body can affect belly shape. Or this one on diastasis recti.)
Belly fat and your post baby body
Our bodies are genetically predisposed to distribute fat in certain places. You can’t change this. The first places to gain are generally the last to lose. Unlike skin or fascia, fat can change the shape of your belly. Fat can make your belly protrude. It can make you look like you’re still pregnant.
The solution to this is usually nutrition. (But hormones can play a factor too. If nutrition doesn’t seem to do it for you, be sure to get a professional to check for other factors.) There are a lot of different diets out there, and different ones work for different people. My general philosophy is to consistently make the best decisions I can make about food. On different days at different times, some of these decisions might be a lot better than others, but the consistency matters.
If you need help, go to an expert. Find a qualified nutritionist who understands your problems and can help your find the right solutions for your body.
The role of muscle
Did you know that your abs are not the only muscle group that effect the shape of your belly? This is actually Myth #2 in our 4-part series on the postpartum body. If you need more information on how other muscle groups (besides your abs) can affect the shape of your belly, please take a look at it.
In the meantime, let’s wrap things up with 3 simple tests to help you understand what’s going on with your belly and how it affects your post baby body.
3 simple tests:
1. The Pinch Test
Pinch your belly. Seriously. Pinch it all over.
Start by pinching the tiniest bit of skin and pulling it away from your body. If it feels like it’s tethered to something underneath of it and it doesn’t go very far, this is a pretty good indication that the fascia is still intact. If you pinch it and you can pull it away from the rest of your body for quite a ways, this is generally indicative of damage to your fascia. The degree that your skin pulls away is generally correlated with the amount of damage to your fascia. More pulling = more damage.
Try different places on your belly. If you’re not sure if you’re pulling a lot or a little, compare it to a different part of your body—like your forearm.
Now pinch as deep as you can. As much as you can pinch. Is it an inch? A handful? This is your fat. If you can grab a big ol’ handful of belly fat in the front—or wherever your belly protrudes—that’s likely at least part of your issue. But if you can’t pinch much more fat in the front of your belly than you can on the sides, then it’s not likely that fat is to blame.
You should now have a decent understanding of your skin, your fascia, and your fat. The last two tests will help you understand how your muscles affect your post baby body.
2. The Picture Test
Strip down to a level at which you feel comfortable. If you want, you can take all of your clothes off, but a sports bra and shorts is plenty (a fitted shirt, if you’re just not feeling it). Balance your camera somewhere so that it gets a good lens-full of your torso—shoulders to hips or head to toe, either will do. Then set the timer and go stand in front of it. Be sure to stand sideways, feet 90 degrees to the camera, and let it take your picture in profile.
If your standing posture (that picture you just took) involves you standing with your belly jutted out in front of you, you know at this point if you can blame that on fat. (You also know that you can’t really blame it on skin or fascia.) It’s entirely possible that there could be more than one culprit, i.e. fat and muscle. But if you don’t have enough fat to explain the shape of your belly, then your standing posture is the problem. You are standing in a way that keeps your abs on a stretch all the time.
Muscles cannot get a good contraction when they are too stretched out. Just like a pregnant woman can’t get a great contraction of her abs, neither can any other woman standing with her belly poked out in front of her. The answer to this problem is to work on your posture. If you’d like to know how, I have a free course that will teach you exactly that. It’s called A Flatter Belly Without Weight Loss, and you can find it here.
And lastly, test #3…
3. The Load Test
In standing, put your hand on your belly. Take a moment to notice what it feels like. Now, pick up something relatively heavy—a kettlebell, a jug of milk or laundry detergent, your kid. But preferably something you can pick up with one-hand so that the other hand remains on your belly. What did you feel with the hand on your belly? When you added a load, did your belly draw inward away from your hand? Or did it press outward into your hand? Did it do nothing at all? Now, move that load out in front of you, away from your body. What did your belly do this time?
If you had beautiful posture in test #2, but your belly moves outward under a load, then your problem is one of strength or of your muscle firing pattern. What is a muscle firing pattern? I thought you might ask.
For every task that we perform, our brain coordinates which muscles are recruited to help with the task and tells them who needs to work in what order. For a variety of reasons—previous injury, pregnancy, lifestyle, even genetic factors—this firing pattern can get out of sequence. You may still be able to perform a task but with a less than desirable outcome. This less than desirable outcome may result in injury over time or it may simply result in a belly that sticks out because you are unintentionally practicing sticking it out all the time.
How do you change this? You learn a different muscle firing pattern. And if that sounds like gobbledy-gook, well, that’s why I designed the Mama Made Strong program.
Weight loss for your post baby body. Maybe. Maybe not.
As with most things I’ve discussed, you need to know what’s causing your problem to be able to change it. You can work all day on your abs, but if you have too much body fat, no one will ever see the product of your efforts. On the other hand, you can work all day on your abs, but if you need to address your posture or change the way you breathe, none of your efforts will ever make it to your abs. So, it might be about weight loss or it might not be. You need answers for your body.
Postpartum programs should not be like a group exercise class. If you want results specific to you, then do exercises specific to you. If you could use a free online course to learn better posture, A Flatter Belly Without Weight Loss might be just what you’re looking for.