I’ve had so many questions recently from friends and clients about how best to deal with postnatal abdominal muscles that I thought I would get some facts down here.
Firstly it probably makes sense to look at the structure of the midsection which consists of four interconnected layers of muscle: transversus abdominus (TA), internal oblique, external oblique and rectus abdominus (the six pack). These muscles should, in theory, all work together to create a natural corset. In pregnancy, due to the production of the hormone relaxin, these muscles can stretch extensively to accomodate the growing womb. In some women it is just a stretch, in 66% of women, and me included, the rectus abdominus muscle actually splits apart along the central piece of connective tissue (the central vertical line down the middle of the six pack muscle) called the linea alba. If a split occurs, it will vary in length from woman to woman.
After birth, the abdominal muscles are essentially blowing in the breeze for a week or two, giving the strange ‘jelly belly’ sensation and then nature goes some way to contract the muscles down again and how much this will happen naturally will depend on how toned the muscles were prior to pregnancy and how active you are. As the muscles have been so stretched, most women will need to do some work on their abs to fully contract them back down. Exercises will need to be done as regularly as possible in order to retain tension in the muscle fibres that will shorten the muscles and pull them back. Aesthetics aside, it is important to strengthen the abdominal section again in order to protect the lower back and achieve correct posture.
Before doing abdominal exercises postnatally, your trainer or gym instructor should do the ‘Rectus Abdominus Test’ to ascertain whether a split has occurred as this will dictate what sort of exercises you should start with. If a split has occurred, the muscles will realign to a certain extent but they will not fuse together again. Over time and with dedicated exercise it is possible to realign them and get them sitting snugly together again which will create a pretty flat stomach. In a few cases, it is incredibly hard to realign the rectus abdominus and sometimes, though rarely, surgery is required to prevent ‘doming’ of the underlying intestinal area. If you are unsure as to whether your muscles split or not and need some guidance as to the kind of exercises you should be doing then ask an exercise professional. Clearly if you are in London or local to me in Hertfordshire, I can do the test for you. Too many times I have had people coming to me having been previously advised to do the wrong exercises which can, at best, make no difference and, at worst, make the split worse. So get it checked and get exercising!