Myths of the Postpartum Body: Part 2 of 4
Myth #2: Ab work is key if you want a flatter postpartum belly.
Maybe. It depends on your postpartum belly.
Does this sound a bit reminiscent of last week’s post? It should. I really want to make the point that if you want results, you need to tailor your efforts to your specific body. Exactly the right exercise for one woman can be exactly the wrong exercise for the next woman.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying everyone should have a flat postpartum belly. If you don’t care about that sort of thing, more power to you. It takes all different kinds of people to make the world go around, and this blog post probably isn’t for you. But if you’re like the rest of us—myself included—you might be amazed by how many things can affect the shape of your belly.
Are you curious? Here’s my list:
- breathing pattern
- pelvic floor
- abs themselves
Ready for a closer look?
Your breathing pattern and your postpartum belly
The basics of breathing
First, there’s inhalation (breathing in) and exhalation (breathing out). And then there’s breathing at rest and breathing under exertion. There are a lot of different muscles that have roles in each of these components of breathing, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s relate it to your abs.
What role do your abs play in breathing? Along with some little muscles between your ribs, your abdominals are the muscles responsible for exhaling with force—blowing up a balloon or breathing while exerting effort as in running or performing a challenging exercise.
Ready to test your own breathing pattern?
To do it, you need to force a big exhale. First, take a good inhale and then make a very breath-y ‘haaaaa’ sound. Or blow up an imaginary (or real, if you prefer) balloon. Which way did your abs move? Most likely inward, but now you have to say up or down. Did the contraction of your abs start at the bottom and move up or start at the top and move down?
When your abs participate in a good exhale, they should be emptying from the bottom up to expel all of the air. We can agree that if the goal is to force air out, it would be highly ineffective to be pushing down, right? Where exactly do you want that air to come out?
Now, maybe you passed this test with flying colors. And if you did, please keep reading for more exciting insights. But in case you didn’t, I hope it now makes sense why ineffective breathing means ineffective abs. And ineffective abs will definitely have an impact on the shape of your postpartum belly. At least to some degree, they are the shape of your belly.
Your pelvic floor and your postpartum belly
The pelvic floor tends to be one of those topics no one really wants to talk about. But it’s just another group of muscles. And we don’t have problems talking about muscles, right? We like to dream of the amazing feats they can accomplish or the changes they make in the shape of our bodies.
But when it comes to pelvic floors, all we can think of is poop and pee and maybe sex. Well, first of all please tell me one mother anywhere who does not—or has not—spent a substantial portion of her life talking about either poop, pee, or sex. We are experts on these topics. We are plenty capable of talking about it.
And second of all, your pelvic floor DOES allow you to accomplish amazing feats, and it DOES change the shape of your body. Because of its role in closing the bottom of the pelvis, the pelvic floor plays a substantial part in stabilizing the trunk. It provides an upward force from the bottom that not only keeps your organs on the inside but also provides internal pressure to help stablize your spine. And a stable spine is important for almost all amazing feats.
Additionally, your pelvic floor muscles can TOTALLY impact the shape of your postpartum belly. They attach to the front your pubic bone. Also attached here are your abdominals. Because of this close proximity, the function and strength in one muscle group affects the function and strength in the other. Weak pelvic floor muscles, especially in the front of the pelvic floor, can totally contribute to weak lower abdominals and lead to a protruding belly.
Myth #3 is all about the pelvic floor and some of the misconceptions that arise. If you’d like more info, please take a look.
Your hips and your postpartum belly
We don’t tend to think of them that way, but basically, the muscles in your hips are the counterpart to your abs. In the previous section, we talked about how your abs start on the front of your pelvis. Their job is to pull up on the front of your pelvis for forceful exhalation and for stabilizing your spine. But they can’t do their job very well if there isn’t a counterbalancing force pulling down on your pelvis from the back.
This is the job of the hip muscles—in particular, gluteus maximus (GMax). Myth #4 will give you the low down on why a nice bum goes far beyond aesthetics.
To have good abs, you need to have a strong bum. Otherwise, it’s a bit like playing tug-of-war by yourself. You might get stronger if you regularly pull on that rope, but you will get a lot stronger a lot faster if someone else is pulling on the other end. If your abs are the ones pulling the rope, your hips are the someone else pulling on the other end.
When your glutes and your abs don’t provide this counter balance to each other, the alternative is usually to use your hip flexors and the little muscles in your back. This tends to lead to tight hip flexors, and tight hip flexors cause all kinds of problems, including back pain, weak abdominals, and protruding bellies.
The abs of your postpartum belly
You might wonder why I saved abs for last in a discussion about postpartum bellies. It’s because I know that you already know this. When you think about having a better belly, you automatically think about doing abdominal exercises. I don’t need to explain this part. Regardless of anything I say, you’re probably going to do ab workouts.
But before you jump to those planks or mountain climbers or leg lifts or whatever your ab work of choice is—
There are 3 things you should know:
1. The abs of a postpartum woman are a special beast. They have been through a lot, and they are not just like they used to be. 100% of women who make it to their due date will have a diastasis recti (abdominal separation). Yes, you read that correctly. 100%. (Want to read the research?). This is not a death sentence. It is a normal compensation of growing humans. Lots of these are self-resolving. But it does mean that you shouldn’t jump right back into what you did pre-pregnancy or even during your pregnancy. (If you’d like all the important details on what you REALLY need to know about diastasis recti, it’s all here).
2. The ab workouts that worked for you previously might not accomplish the same thing anymore. And if they don’t, it’s probably because some other part of you (remember what we talked about above?) isn’t doing its job. Pregnancy doesn’t affect your abs in isolation. It affects your entire body, and it doesn’t affect everyone the same way. This is why it’s so important to tailor your workouts to YOUR body.
3. And lastly, you have four layers of abdominal muscles, and each layer has a muscle on the right and a muscle on the left. That’s 8 different muscles that are directly responsible for the shape of your postpartum belly. Your posture, your habits, and your lifestyle can all have an impact on these muscles outside of your workouts. You might be doing all the right exercises but if you stand or work in such a way that you never engage a particular muscle (or group of muscles) very well, then it won’t really matter how good that 20 minute workout was.
What does all of this mean for you?
Well, I was hoping you might ask. By now, I think you can see that the frustrations you’ve had with your postpartum belly might actually be caused by your breathing pattern, your pelvic floor, your hips, or your abs themselves. If you’d like more information on how to unravel these mysteries, this is exactly why I created the Mama Made Strong program.
There’s more to postpartum recovery than a 6-week check-up or the green light to return to exercise. The gold standard for solving these mysteries is always to see a pelvic floor physical therapist. In my opinion, this should be a standard of care.
If you were paying attention to my list in the beginning of how many things can affect the shape of your belly, you might have noticed that I never got to the part where I discussed your posture. Well, I saved you a treat. If you’re interested, here’s a free online course for you all about posture. It will show you the far-reaching effect of one small piece of the postpartum puzzle.