There is a lot of media hype in this world telling mothers that they need to look like they never had a baby as soon as possible after birth. I will be the first to tell you that no one NEEDS a flat belly. On the other hand, if you WANT one, I think you deserve accurate information about how to get there. Your abs changed in having a baby, but they are not the only part of you that experienced change. Thus, they are not the only thing to consider if you want your abs back (or for the first time!).
Here’s a list of other influencers that can affect belly shape after babies:
- breathing pattern
- pelvic floor
- abs, themselves
Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
How your breathing pattern affects your postpartum belly
The basics of breathing
When we inhale, we take in more air, so we need to allow the lungs to expand in some way. Conversely, when we exhale, we expel air out of our lungs, and the volume of the lungs decreases. If you move air in and out of your lungs in this way, you are breathing “correctly.” However, depending on your goals, there might be more or less efficient ways to accomplish this.
As an example, let’s consider the relationship between your abs and your breathing pattern.
Generally, we think of bending our spine as the role of our abs. But actually, they are far more important for creating stability in the spine and trunk. They have a secondary role in helping to expel air. They do this by narrowing and creating an upward pressure on the exhale. This pressure, coming up from below, helps to push air out following each inhale. It also has the added benefit of creating stability on the exhale, which is why we hear to exert effort timed with your exhale.
What does this mean for YOUR abs?
The more often you use your abs, the stronger they become. If you regularly use them to assist with breathing, it is like added reps of ab exercise all day long. To do this, your abs need the opportunity to contract and relax with each breath cycle. There are two important points to consider here.
First, the contraction part. When your abs contract, they need to be able to narrow your belly to force that air up and out. There are four layers of ab muscles, and each of them has a unique role in accomplishing this. All four layers endure a mega stretch during pregnancy and may or may not turn back on after delivery. If you can’t feel or see narrowing throughout your abs, from pubic bone to rib cage, you may need to address the function in one or more of these abdominal layers.
And second, the relaxation part. Muscles contract better when they relax first. Here’s a quick example: Contract your biceps. Now, contract them again. If you don’t relax in between, you don’t get much more the second time, do you? But if you relax and then contract again, you get a much better contraction. And you can repeat it over and over again.
The same is true for your abs. To get a good contraction on your exhale, your abs need to relax on your inhale. This means that the bottom of your rib cage should expand outward in all directions on your inhale.
Let’s test your breathing pattern and its affect on your abs
Start by imagining that you’re going to blow up a balloon. You want to begin with a great big inhale.
What happens when you inhale? Are your abs contracting or relaxing?
We need them to be relaxing. Our plan is to force air out into the balloon on the exhale. This means we need to expand the rib cage as much as possible on the inhale. This will give us the maximum ability to contract on the exhale.
Now, exhale. Imagine that you are filling a balloon with air. You can also try making a breathy ‘haaaaa’ sound.
What happens with your abs? Which way do they move?
If they participate well, they should contract and empty from the bottom up to expel all of the air.
Hopefully, this easy test gives you an indication of how your breathing pattern can affect your ab function and thus, your belly shape.
The impact of the pelvic floor on your postpartum belly
The pelvic floor usually receives credit for its role in the control of pee or poop and also for its participation in sex. But actually, the pelvic floor plays an important part in stabilizing the trunk as well. It provides an upward force from the bottom of the pelvis that helps to keep the organs in place and participates in the regulation of pressure.
When the pelvic floor, the diaphragm, and the deepest layer of abs work together, they modulate pressure within the trunk. This pressure helps to stabilize the spine and hip and provides a reliable base for all other motion to layer on top of. When this stable base isn’t present, other parts of the body are forced to compensate.
Because of its close relationship with the diaphragm and the deepest abs, the pelvic floor can both influence and be influenced by these other muscles. Muscles rarely work in isolation, so when one lacks function, it impacts the function of others with similar jobs.
This is exactly why the pelvic floor muscles can impact the shape of your postpartum belly. These two muscle groups attach to opposite sides of your pubic bone. Because of their close proximity and similar function, weak pelvic floor muscles can contribute to weak lower abdominals and thus, a protruding belly.
How hip function affects your postpartum belly
I mentioned above that your abs attach at the front of your pelvis. One of their roles is to pull upward from your pubic bone to provide stability to the pelvis. The counterpart to this should be your hips, and specifically gluteus maximus, pulling down from the back of the pelvis. We don’t tend to think of them that way, but basically, the muscles in your hips are the counterpart to your abs.
To have good abs, you need to have a strong bum. And vice versa. 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 to stabilize your pelvis. This tends to lead to tight hip flexors, and a tight or sore back.
It also has the effect of changing your posture by tilting your pelvis more forward (anterior pelvic tilt). This can result in a lower belly that looks larger than it would with a more balanced pelvis.
What about the effect of abs on belly shape?
It’s easy to understand that if you want better looking biceps, then you need to strengthen your biceps. The same is true for your abs. The difference is that it’s far more difficult to know if the exercise you choose for your abs is working as you intend. Simply, doing an exercise that someone labeled as “ab exercise” might not achieve the same desired outcome.
So, before you jump into planks or mountain climbers or leg lifts, understand these three things.
How to get the most from your abs:
1. The abs of a postpartum woman are a special beast. They have stretched super far, and they will need at least time to recover. For lots of women, they need more than time. According to research, 100% of women who make it to their due date will have a diastasis recti (abdominal separation).
Yes, you read that correctly. 100%. Here’s 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 pregnancy. (Here’s what you need to know about diastasis recti).
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 (hips, diaphragm, pelvic floor, etc–see above) is also functioning in a different way. Pregnancy doesn’t affect your abs in isolation. It affects your entire body, and everyone has a different body with unique goals. This is why it’s so important to find answers specific to YOU.
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) well, then it won’t really matter how good that 20 minute workout was.
How to find the right answers for you
Hopefully, you can see at this point that your breathing pattern, your pelvic floor, your hips, your posture, or your abs can all influence the shape of your postpartum belly. Finding the right answer for you can depend on a lot of variables, but it is highly likely that your answer will be different from your co-worker’s, your sister’s, or your best friends.
We all have different goals, different pregnancies and deliveries, and different life experiences. This is exactly why postpartum recovery can be such a frustrating experience. There is a lot more to it than a 6-week check-up and the green light to return to exercise. The gold standard for solving mysteries like these is always to see a pelvic floor physical therapist.
If for any reason one is not available to you, please check out my Mama Made Strong program. It is designed to improve your understanding of the changes that occur with pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum. It will help you to get a handle on your current function and guide you through how to make the changes most appropriate for your body.