I was never big on planks and crunches. But damn, I had no idea how often I used my core in everyday life — standing on the subway, getting out of the bathtub, picking up objects — until I had my first child. That’s when everything changed: I delivered via an emergency C-section, and let’s just say I couldn’t even sit up to feed my newborn afterward.
Pregnancy is hard on your core to begin with, but C-sections are a very real surgery. It requires cutting or moving the fascia and separating your abdominal muscles in order to get to the uterus (and ultimately the baby). When you injure these muscles, it decreases their strength and their range of motion.
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“All the layers need time to heal,” says Emily Prouse, M.D., of Metropolitan OBGYN in Denver, who recommends about six to eight weeks of recovery time (no heavy lifting, light walking). “After the six-week mark, you can increase the intensity of exercise and start lifting a little weight,” she notes.
For me, walking was the first step to getting those muscles going again. And once I had healed from the incision, I knew it was time to work at regaining my core strength in a more targeted way. But when your belly feels like Jell-O and your midsection is weak from the stress of pregnancy and surgery, it can be hard to get back into the groove.
Here's what I learned from losing — and regaining — my core strength.
Weakness isn't forever.
I know it feels like you'll never be strong again, but you will recover. By the time my incision healed, I was already getting stronger and started to be able to walk more easily, pick up lighter things, and stand for longer periods of time to rock my baby. And in a way, because I needed a lot of help, it taught me to have more patience with myself. That, in turn, allowed me to have more patience with motherhood in general. Slow and steady is just fine.
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Don't judge your postpartum belly.
Your post-pregnancy belly probably won't bounce back right away. I was surprised that I still looked pregnant a few weeks after giving birth. The uterus takes time to return to its pre-pregnancy size, but what's cute with a baby in it doesn't feel so sexy once your child is born. I get it. I've been there. But it's important not to compare yourself to other postpartum parents or what you see in Hollywood.
Work your way up.
I started with the “easy” Core 1 class at my local CorePower studio, which involves a lot of plank variations. I took about three classes a week, then worked on a series of planks, mild crunches, and balance exercises at home the other two or three days. Eventually, I started doing barre, too, which made my core even stronger.
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“First and foremost, be patient and honor your body as you return to exercise — and of course, only do so with the recommendation of your doctor,” says Kathleen Sand, who has a Ph.D. in biomechanics and is the senior director of operations for CorePower Yoga’s Southern California studios.
No time for a studio or the gym? Try these exercises to strengthen your core at home, suggests Sand.
A. Plant palms firmly on the mat (think "jazz hands" on the ground) and stack shoulders vertically over wrists, with full extension of elbow joint (while being mindful to avoid hyperextension of elbow joint).
B. Ground down through balls of feet and reach heels back behind body while drawing kneecaps up toward hips. Draw belly button in and up. Gaze down toward the mat between palms to lengthen neck. (You can also try these plank variations when you’re ready.)
A. From standing, extend arms overhead, connect palms, and interlace thumbs.
B. Inhale to reach up, exhale, and then bend to the right. Anchor down through both feet, maintain hips and chest square to the front, and lengthen left side while bending spine to the right.
C. Maintain strength in both arms while reaching to the top right corner of the room, and hold for 3 to 5 breaths. Switch sides; repeat.
High Halfway Lift
A. Stand with a soft bend in knees, then bend over and align spine parallel to the floor. Place fingertips or palms on the front of each thigh.
B. Engage anterior core muscles by pulling belly in and up and lengthening the space between hip joints and armpits. Hold for 3 to 5 breaths, then release the pose by folding over or reaching fingers toward the ceiling.
(Up next: What Your First Few Weeks of Postpartum Exercise Should Look Like)