One definition of core is “the central or most important part of something”. When people refer to their body’s “core strength”, they are talking about the muscles of the torso; lower back and abdominal area. I don’t think it is by coincidence that this region of the body is named the “core”. It is this region that maintains our posture and supports our functional movement. Therefore your core is indeed one of the most important parts in maintaining physical wellness and athleticism. It is the very base for creating a strong foundation to build upon.
Pregnancy definitely takes its toll on a woman’s core. It creates imbalances, stretches muscles and overall weakens the core. One of the major components in returning to physical activity postpartum is the healing, rebuilding and strengthening of these core muscles.
As most of you know, I am on a time constraint on regaining an elite level of fitness in order to competitively step on the line at the Olympic Trials this July. Therefore, throughout my pregnancy, I worked hard to keep pelvic floor and core strengthening exercises a major part of my daily training regimen. I practiced the exercises 5 days a week because I knew it would be important for my return to training postpartum. I then restarted these same exercises one week after the birth of my daughter in order to begin the restoration process.
This post is geared toward showing what these exercises have looked like for me. I am definitely more of a visual person, so I’ve included pictures below with a brief description of the movement. The key to remember in all of these exercises is to maintain a “base hold” (as I like to call it) which includes a kegal and holding in your transverse abdominal muscles (the underlying abdominal muscles that support your internal organs). If you aren’t sure how to engage this part of your core, I recommend seeking out a pelvic floor specialist, like I did. Mine was able to perform an ultrasound while I did the “base hold” to ensure proper muscle activation. Keep in mind that these exercises aren’t designed to give you that six-pack of abs BUT they are designed to get you back to your physical fitness routine much quicker – arguably a more important achievement.
*Note: I am not a certified medical professional and this post is not meant to prescribe a workout routine. This is merely a depiction of the exercises I performed, as assigned by my physical therapist. You should consult your own medical professional prior to beginning any exercise routine.
(^Yep, I had to go there!)
Wall Sits: Squat down with your hips/low back and shoulder blades sliding down against the wall and arms raised above your head, elbows pinned against your ears (be sure to place your feet far enough in front of your body as to not have your knees move beyond your ankles). Hold the wall sit and, while you do, perform 5 reps of your “base hold”. For each repetition, press your back flat against the wall by holding in your transverse ab muscles. Hold each repetition for 5-10 seconds, repeating for 5 reps. Start with one set of this exercise and move up as you are able – I never went beyond 2 sets.
Balance Floor Touch: Start by shifting your weight to one leg and raising the opposite knee as if doing a “high-knees” drill – be sure to keep your toe dorsal-flexed. Once you are stable, reach down and touch the floor in front of you, while keeping a flat back and extending your opposite heel/foot towards the back wall. Focus on holding a tight core and having good posture (I know, mine aren’t perfect but it’s always a work in progress, especially one week postpartum when these photos were taken!). After touching the floor, return to the beginning position by standing tall and swinging the rear leg through and back into high-knee position. Perform 10 reps per leg and repeat for 2-3 sets.
Bridge: Start by laying on your back, with your feet pulled in towards your butt. Press through your heels, lifting your hips towards the ceiling. Be sure that at the top, your hips aren’t sagging (pelvic tilting downward) and you aren’t arching your back. The goal is to finish with a straight line running from your shoulders through your hips to your knees. Lower back down slowly and repeat for 10 reps and 2-3 sets.
Shown below are two versions. I recommend starting with both feet flat and then, as you progress and that becomes less challenging, move to holding one leg up at a time, trying to keep your quads parallel throughout the movement and not letting your hips drop to one side.
Planks: The starting position is a normal front plank, with both elbows down, up on your toes and a straight line running from your heels through your hips and up your spine to your neck. Then, move to right-side and left-side planks to create a different stimulus and greater challenge. When doing so, focus on stacking your hips and shoulders perpendicular to the ground at the peak of the movement. Hold, and return back to a front plank before beginning your next rep. Perform 10 reps for 1-3 sets as you are able.
Side Hip Drops: Start in a neutral position, laying flat on your back* and feet flat on the floor with bent knees. Slowly drop one leg out to the side, maintaining the bend in the knee and holding the other leg as perpendicular to the floor as possible. Return to neutral and alternate back and forth for 10 each side. Perform 2-3 sets as able.
*Note: Women should be careful performing exercises on their back as they get past 20 weeks due to the weight the baby places on internal organs and veins. If you ever feel uncomfortable, dizzy or questionable at all, roll to your side and slowly sit up.
Heel Taps & Heel Slides: Start in the same position as the previous exercise, with feet on the floor and knees bent. For heel taps however, raise the leg to 90 degrees, maintaining the original bend throughout the movement. Then, gently tap the floor with your heel for 10 repetitions per leg. Repeat for 1-2 sets.
For heel slides, return to the original starting position, and then slowly slide one heel away from your body until it is straight. Hold for a second, then slowly slide it back in. Complete 10 reps per leg and 1-2 sets.
Chair Pose: Begin by standing tall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Then squat, reaching your butt backwards like you are going to sit in a chair and simultaneously raising your arms above your head until your biceps are pinned against your ears. Try to lower yourself until your quads are parallel to the ground, but don’t sacrifice the depth of the squat for form. Know your limits and work on improving them over time. The key is to keep your toes pointing forward, knees over your feet (not breaking inwards toward each other) and your arms and back straight. Focus on creating a straight line from your tailbone through your shoulders and neck, and finishing in your finger-tips. Practice holding this position for 15-30 seconds and performing 2-3 reps. Build both time and quantity as you get stronger and are able to correctly hold form.
Adductor Squeeze: For this exercise, you will need a pillow or folded towel and a chair. Start by sitting tall in the chair with feet pointing forward. Place the pillow or towel between your knees. Squeeze your knees together while conducting a base hold and maintain the sqeeze for a 10-15 second count. Repeat for 10 repetitions, adding a second set once it becomes easier.
Cat: Start the exercise on your hands and knees with a neutral/flat spine. Next, hold in your transverse abdominal muscles, arch your back and duck your chin toward your chest in one smooth movement. Hold this position for 5-10 seconds before returning to neutral. Do a total of 10 repetitions.
Bird-dogs: Start in the same position as the previous “cat” exercise. While doing a base hold (contracting your transverse abs), bring and opposite arm and leg off the ground. Extend the arm out in front of you, while the leg extends heel-first behind you towards the wall. Try to draw a straight line from your heel through your fingers down the center of your body. Hold for a 3 count before pulling both your arm and leg back under you, touching the knee and elbow if possible. Repeat the extension for 10 repetitions on each side, completing one side at a time. Do 2-3 sets on each side.
While I still have a lot of rebuilding and strengthening to do in order to get back to where I was pre-pregnancy, I know that by completing these exercises I am in a much better spot than I would have been, and have been able to get back to work quickly postpartum.
I wish you the best in your pregnancy journey and, if you have any questions at all regarding these exercises, remember you can always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be happy to clarify or expand on any of the movements above. Thanks for reading!