In September, 2014 I had the opportunity to assist at a StrongFirst Level I SFG Certification in Philadelphia. I was a little nervous because I just had my first baby in May, 2014, and I wasn’t confident I could pass the technique and snatch test to recertify. Happily, I can say I did, and I did it well. I even did a get-up with a 20kg size bell! Since that victorious day I have hit multiple personal records with my lifts and am currently training for the Iron Maiden.
What enabled me to regain the strength to complete the test and to perform better than I ever had prior to pregnancy? The starting point was reconnecting to my “core.”
Solving the Mystery of “The Core”
You have probably heard trainers talk about strengthening your core, right? But what the heck is your “core” anyway?
Recently, I was at the dentist office and I chatted with the hygienist about strength training. She said her trainer told her to “find her core.” She said she looked everywhere, even in the car, and couldn’t find it.
I discussed the core with my friend and colleague, Dr. Sarah Hnath, a physical therapist and CSCS trainer who specializes in pregnancy and postpartum training. She said the “core” is actually a group of four muscles that, believe it or not, does not include “the abs,” or at least the typical six-pack abs that most people refer to. The muscles that comprise the core are:
- Transverse abdominis
- Pelvic floor
Dr. Hnath refers to these four muscles as the building blocks of all movement:
“Without proper use of all core muscles and good strength and coordination with activity, people are setting themselves up for injuries and conditions such as low back pain and incontinence, as well as missing the key component to better movement and performance.”
The Dangers of Exercise After Pregnancy
No matter her pre-pregnancy fitness level, every woman should spend a good amount of time re-strengthening her pelvic floor and abdominal wall before advancing on to weighted exercises.
The first six to ten weeks after giving birth are typically spent taking care of your newborn while allowing your body to heal from the trauma of childbirth. The length of recovery can vary depending on a number of things like whether or not you had a vaginal delivery or a cesarean. Once the doctor gives the okay to start exercising, many women are determined to jump right into their old training routine or start a new one because they want to shed their pregnancy weight and get their bodies back.
But even if you are cleared to begin exercising again, it is advised to wait at least twelve weeks after giving birth before you do any exercises that specifically target the rectus abdominis — like sit-ups, crunches, and planks — because they increase intra-abdominal pressure, which puts added stress on the pelvic floor and low back.
According to Dr. Hnath, doing exercises too early that directly target the rectus abdominis as opposed to the transverse abdominis can cause diastasis recti since the layer of connective tissue that separates the rectus abdominis (the linea alba) is still under the effect of relaxin and other pregnancy hormones. Since the integrity of many other areas, including the joints of your hips and spine, can still also be destabilized by relaxin, putting your body under the stress of any heavy loaded exercises is not advised.
This long period of waiting to strength train and increase the intensity in your workouts again can be frustrating, but it is a great time to work on consciously rebuilding your core muscles before advancing on.
The following postpartum strength-training exercises helped me reconnect to my key core muscles, begin rebuilding my overall strength and improve my movement patterns while embracing my new “strong mom” body.
Postpartum Exercise Phase I
TVA Activation Drill: The transverse abdominis (TVA) is the deepest layer in your abdominal wall and can be difficult to connect to. You can find your TVA by lying on your back with your knees bent, placing your hands on your hip bones, and sliding your hands down approximately one inch. Cough. You will feel a muscle tighten up, and that is your transverse abdominis.
Pelvic Floor Activation: You can do this in any position. It’s the same action as trying stop yourself from peeing your pants.
Diaphragm Breathing: Lay on your back and place one hand below your rib cage and the other one on your chest. Breathe into the hand resting below your rib cage and allow the breath to travel up to your hand on your chest. Exhale out of your mouth and allow your breath to empty out of your chest first, then your belly. Repeat. You know you are breathing properly when you can breathe into your hand on your belly first as opposed to breathing from your chest, which is unfortunately how we tend to breathe.
Pallof Standing Cable Presses:
Lateral Cable Chops:
Postpartum Exercise Phase 2
After the twelve-week mark (and with your doctor’s approval), the following exercises will help strengthen your rectus abdominis and prepare you for heavier lifting:
TRX or Ring Ab Rollouts: Partial reps on your knees.
Front Load Carries: Overhead, rack, and farmer walks.
Postpartum Exercise Phase 3
After you’ve regained strength and stability in your entire mid-section, you can reintroduce compound strength exercises like swings, get-ups, and deadlifts.
I am confident I was successful in passing the technique and snatch test only four months postpartum because I took the time to restructure my “building blocks’ in a way that was progressive and respectful to my body.
Remember to talk to your doctor before starting any new program. Keep in mind that you might be motivated more than ever to get back to your old routine, but you are in a new body that went through a process that needs a lot of recovery. Be patient, take baby steps, and listen to your body. If you train with intention you will avoid injury-related pitfalls and continue to move toward your goals.