Core Strengthening WITHOUT Crunches & Sit Ups

Need to tone up your post-baby belly and think crunches & sit ups are the way to go? Think again!

Crunches and sit ups are not an effective or safe way to get in shape postpartum. These exercises put far too much strain on the already weakened abdominal wall moms suffer from after having children, and will actually make any abdominal separation (diastasis recti) worse. What does that mean? It means they will do more harm than good, and if you suffer from the appearance of a “mummy tummy,” they will only make your stomach look bigger. In addition, crunches and sit ups can lead to injury of the lower back (among other things) and cause poor posture.

Rather than waste time on these potentially damaging exercises, the best thing you can do is to learn how to make your entire day a core strengthening workout. For starters, try to pull your belly button up towards your head and in towards your spine. When you do that, you are engaging your abdominal muscles and strengthening the transverse abdominis muscle (the innermost layer of the abdominals). This will help you strengthen your core from the inside out, which is exactly what has to be done to develop a functionally strong core that will not only help you look your best, but will keep your body safe through all of the physical demands of motherhood.

Your abdominal muscles should be at least somewhat engaged all day – while picking up the kids, cooking, walking the dog, running errands, cleaning, exercising… EVERYTHING. Now that doesn’t mean that you should be pulling your stomach in so much that you can’t breathe normally. That is not what we have in mind. In the beginning you may feel like anytime you engage your stomach muscles you need to hold your breath or breathe shallow. In that case, you aren’t ready to keep your stomach muscles pulled in all day, and instead should just work on the techniques during deep abdominal exercises (see below). But the more you do the exercises, the easier it will become to breathe normally while keeping your abdominals engaged.

As your midsection gets stronger and you can safely keep your stomach muscles engaged throughout your day, you’ll be less likely to get injured, and you will look and feel taller and thinner. I know, you’re thinking there is no way you are going to walk around all day “sucking it in.” You will see – it isn’t going to feel like that’s what you’re doing. As your core gets stronger, it will become second nature to keep your abdominal muscles engaged. Without spending hours (or even minutes) in a gym, you can work simple exercises into your day that will get your core so strong that it will feel effortless to keep your abdominal muscles engaged.

Over the next several weeks I will post articles with detailed instructions for exercises that will help you safely and effectively strengthen your core, helping you achieve the flatter, more toned stomach that we all seek.

For now, cross crunches and sit ups off of your to-do list. Instead, start practicing these two basic exercises:

Contractions:

  • Pull your abdominals in towards your spine slowly and with control, and release your stomach back out slowly with control. Make sure you focus on all three sections of your abdominals pulling in as you do this: (1) your upper abdominals/rib cage, (2) your belly button, and (3) your lower abdominals (under your belly button). Work towards pulling all three areas back towards your spine with each contraction. It may help if you place your hands on your stomach so you can feel all three areas. Work on pulling these areas off of your hands each time you do a contraction. Even if it feels like you can’t move the upper and/or lower abdominals, keep trying. Before you know it you’ll be able to control those muscles and get those sections to pull in.
  • To make your contractions most effective, picture your stomach pulling back towards your spine in three steps: (1) stomach is “fully relaxed,” (2) stomach is pulled in “part way,” and (3) stomach is pulled in “as far as you possibly can go.” Try to start your contractions at level 2 with stomach pulled in “part way,” and then pull back to level 3, “as far as you possibly can go.” Each time you release the contraction, only release to level 2, “part way” – never to level 1, “fully relaxed.”
  • Try to keep your shoulders down away from your ears and your upper back relaxed during the contractions. It may be hard in the beginning to avoid tensing your shoulders and back, but as your abdominals get stronger it will be easier to isolate the stomach muscles and relax everything else.
  • Make sure you’re breathing as you do this exercise. It will help to count out loud – each time you pull back, say your number.
  • Work up to doing about 50 contractions per set, but starting with only a few at a time is fine. Be patient with yourself. Remember, quality is far more important than quantity.

Holds:

  • Pull your stomach in to level 3, “as far as you possibly can go” and just hold it there while breathing normally.
  • Again, you should be picturing your belly button pulling up and in, and your upper abdominals/rib cage and lower abdominals pulling in as well.  Place your hands on these areas to make sure that you are pulling them away from your hands.
  • Also try to keep your shoulders and upper back relaxed, and be sure to count out loud while holding.
  • Work up to holding for about 30 slow counts, but again, holding for just a few seconds in the beginning is fine too. Proper form is essential and should never be sacrificed just to make it through an exercise.

Working on engaging my core with contraction and hold exercises hours after giving birth to my son (with my daughter joining in of course)

The easiest position in which to do both contractions and holds is seated against a wall, cross legged (or with legs extended if that’s uncomfortable). Either way, the entire back should be pressed firmly against the wall, from the tailbone up to the shoulder blades. Sitting on a chair is also ok, but it’s best if the chair provides full back support. After getting the hang of the exercises and mastering the technique of engaging your core, you should start practicing the exercises in various positions (standing, sitting on a chair without back support, laying on your back, and laying on your sides). Our goal here is to develop functional strength, so it’s best to start getting those abdominal muscles used to working in various positions.

Let me know if you have any questions and be on the lookout for more core strengthening exercises soon!

~ Sheryl Wilson, Founder of Fitnotic

5 Responses to Core Strengthening WITHOUT Crunches & Sit Ups

  1. Amber:

    What do you think of “plank” position for building core strength?

    April 8, 2013 at 9:45 am
    • sheryl:

      When done safely (with core totally engaged), planks great. Planks are actually the subject of my next post in this series! Until then, be careful to make sure that you’re completely able to keep your abdominals pulled in towards your spine while holding the position. If not, make them easier by dropping to your knees or going to the wall.

      April 8, 2013 at 11:34 am
  2. Sara:

    Thank you for this article. I have a diastasis and have had to search online for information because I had no guidance from doctors after my c-section. I think there is a huge gap in post-natal care for all women who give birth. I was never offered PT, no one suggested an abdominal wrap or PT after major surgery…and all the articles from doctors say that an abdominal separation doesn’t cause women pain and will eventually go away. Yeah right male doctors! What planet are you living on?? Most articles from RNs have it right – and more fitness instructors LIKE YOU :-) should be providing women this information. All that to say thank you – I’ve just been so frustrated trying to find non-conflicting information about how to heal …

    April 24, 2013 at 1:43 am
  3. Sky-Lee:

    Great, simple, practical. Thanks.

    October 18, 2013 at 5:08 am
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