For most of us women slogging it out in the gym, a ripped set of abs is the Holy Grail of our training.
It might come as a rude shock then to learn that a sculpted mid-section is the last thing you want if you’re planning to get pregnant.
A six pack will put you at greater risk of a number of health complications after you give birth, including the permanent abdominal muscle separation that gives way to a host of vanity issues such as ‘baby belly’ and more serious problems such as incontinence and lower back pain.
Fitness and nutrition expert Amelia Phillips, also co-founder of the lifestyle tool Voome, says that while core strength is important if you want to avoid post partum health issues, it’s your inner core that you want to work, not your six pack.
“The risk with having a six pack is if it is a lot stronger than your deep intra abdominal muscles, it creates an imbalance that can expose you to injury,” Amelia said. “To train your core away from being six-pack dominant avoid crunch style exercises and stick to deep abdominal exercises, such any plank variations, twisting movements (like Russian twists), and leg raises.
“Always draw your belly button towards your spine and don’t let your tummy ‘dome’ out. This is a sign that your deep muscles have failed and your six pack muscles have taken over.”
The good news is that if you’re not pregnant, you can improve your core strength in preparation for pregnancy in as little as two weeks with just ten minutes of exercise a few times per week.
However, if you’re already pregnant, now’s not the time to be doing a lot of core loading exercises. Crunches are definitely out. So are planks, unless you’re strong enough not to let your tummy dome. You can see whether you’re doming by lying on your back and trying to do a crunch. If you can see the dome, those exercises will exacerbate your ab separation.
You also want to avoid any movements that stretch your abs such as triangle pose or cobra pose.
If you are pregnant, your focus should be on stabilising exercises and your pelvic floor.
“From 1-16 weeks, or while you can still lay on your back, slow single leg raises are a great move for all fitness levels,” Amelia says.
“Adjust your knee bend according to your level. For the rest of your pregnancy, side planks are great so long as you can avoid the dome.
“But by far the MOST important core exercise is your pelvic floor – if you have ten minutes to train your core, spend eight on your pelvic floor and two on the rest of your core.
“Try to keep it up right the way through your pregnancy and your recovery will be a lot faster.”
Amelia says it’s normal to have some form of ab separation post pregnancy.
“In most cases it will improve from around eight weeks post partum,” she said. “In some cases, the ligaments will not return to pre pregnancy tautness, and in severe cases surgery may be required.
“While you’re in n hospital, ask the nurses if an onsite physiotherapist can assess you. They may prescribe a belly band, which I recommend to anyone regardless.
“Separation over two and a half fingers wide should be professionally assessed. At around six weeks post partum, I suggest visiting a physio clinic that specializes in women and have your ab separation and pelvic floor assessed before getting back into regular exercise.”
A mum of three kids under four, Amelia has personal experience with issues associated with core training pre and post partum.
“I can remember after having my first pushing it a little hard one week and feeling the pull of my rectus abdominis on the ligaments,” she said. “I was so worried I had done damage but luckily not.
“I’ve trained hundreds of mums and in many cases it’s the fit women that are highly susceptible. Their tight abs get stretched so much during pregnancy and their pre-disposition to recruiting them puts them at a higher risk. But if you can get familiar with the ‘dome’ and avoid it, then don’t stress about it because exercise is just so important for both mum and bub. Happy training!“