There's More To Postpartum Recovery Than Just Your Abs

The temptation to just focus on your abs after having a baby is strong, but a full-body approach can get better results.

Stephanie Stamas, PT, DPT, ATC, PRPC
Stephanie Stamas, PT, DPT, ATC, PRPC
Mom of a 2yo and 4yo. Doctor of Physical Therapy. Pelvic Floor Expert.
Last updated
February 21, 2023

When looking in the mirror weeks or months after having a baby, there’s often one area that moms’ eyes focus on - the stomach. It can be hard to connect to your body postpartum, especially with so many changes. It’s not bad to want to feel connected and strong in the body that grew and birthed a baby, but focusing on just the abs is a mistake. 

Your Core Is More Than Just Your Abs

The core is far more expansive than just the muscles in the front of the body. The superficial 6-pack muscles, called the rectus abdominis, get a lot of attention with Diastasis Recti, but these muscles work within a larger system, and addressing the whole system is crucial for healing.

So what’s your core? The simple answer is all the muscles from your ribcage to the pelvis. This includes 29 pairs of muscles that create an enclosed cylinder. This cylinder works together to create the stability you need to move, breathe, and function. 

The roof of the cylinder is the Diaphragm, our main breathing muscle. The diaphragm plays a crucial role in creating a piston-ing movement within the cylinder that is crucial for the pelvic floor, gut, and ab health. You can think of it as a drummer in a band - it set the rhythm necessary for all the other band members to perform successfully. This is why all postpartum recovery should start with breathwork. 

The floor of the cylinder is the pelvic floor and the girdle of muscles around the pelvis. Together, these muscles create stability in the pelvis that is required for all movement. The pelvic floor muscles are also responsible for bowel, bladder, and sexual function. 

In between the roof and floor is a complex system of deep and superficial muscles that work together to stabilize your spine, control internal abdominal pressure, maintain a healthy posture and resist different forces going through the body. Because of this, the core, and more specifically the deep core, is almost always active with any activity. In fact, research shows that the first muscle that turns on to lift your toe is a deep core muscle called the Transversus Abdominis.

All of the core muscles are impacted to a certain degree by pregnancy, but deep core weakness is most directly related to common postpartum complaints, including urinary incontinence (leaking), prolapse and feelings of heaviness, diastasis recti, and general feelings of disconnection to the body. The deep core includes the diaphragm, pelvic floor, transversus abdominis, and multifidus muscles.

A comprehensive approach to recovery is essential for retraining the deep core, then strengthening the superficial core, and then integrating the core stability into full body movement. Just focusing on ab work will not accomplish this.

Everything is Connected

A body part-specific approach is also not effective because it’s not the way the body works! Nothing in the body operates in isolation and everything is connected to everything else. For example, posture plays a huge role in the ability of the core muscles to engage. You can do a hundred crunches a day, but if you’re standing in poor posture, your ability to access your abs is limited. You can learn more about that here.

Pregnancy & Postpartum Affects the Whole Body

Although the abs may seem to be the most greatly affected area, the truth is that the whole body goes through changes during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum.  After going through a whole-body transformation, moms deserve a whole-body recovery approach. After all, we need whole-body strength for the job! 

If you struggle with an ab-focused mindset, try switching your goal to strengthening to be a strong, capable, active mom, versus strengthening for the mirror. It’s a great mental reset that can yield even better results.

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