Drawing Your Belly Button To Your Spine Doesn’t Work For Many Postpartum Women – Transverse Abdominis Myths

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Don’t Just Draw In Your Belly Button – Ab Exercise Myths About The Transverse Abdominis For Postpartum Women In The Fitness And Rehab World

If you are anything like the postpartum women that I work with you are confused about how to strengthen your abs. You are doing everything that everyone is telling you to do and you still have a poochy abdomen.

The more I teach women how to use their ab muscles correctly after having a baby (or decades after having a baby), the more I realize that this is one big crazy confusing topic.

The Transverse Abdominis muscle is the key to having a strong, flat belly. The controversy is that there is no one standardized way that Fitness Instructors and Physical Therapists use to teach strengthening of this muscle.

You will find a million YouTube videos about this, often starring a Physical Therapist or Fitness Instructor with a 6 pack teaching you how to strengthen your TA (aka TVA). Here are a few of the common, and confusing, instructions that you may have tried.  I found these on a quick google search for “activating your TA” and “strengthening your TA”:

  • draw your belly button towards spine
  • draw your belly button to spine with a posterior pelvic tilt
  • cough to feel your abs tighten
  • huff, or say “ssshhh” while breathing out
  • tighten your abs like someone is going to punch you
  • do planks with a ball
  • perform the Stomach Vacuum
  • do a torso lift (aka crunch)
  • do lying tummy vacuums

These were on some pretty well known websites.

After following this seemingly good advice, you still don’t have a 6 pack. Or, your back still hurts while you are lifting your kid, and you think that you just aren’t working hard enough to get your strength back.

That’s where the frustration comes from. Who’s advice do you follow???

I would say that none of these instructions are completely wrong. They just aren’t as correct as they could be for the postpartum mom whose abs don’t naturally start working again.

All of these exercises WILL work to contract your TA if your body already has good coordination of the abdominal muscles, but they leave out a crucial step if your abs have lost coordination during the time you were pregnant or had back pain.

As my mentor, Diane Lee, says…

You can’t strengthen a muscle that your brain can’t find.

Coordination is the missing link.

Ultimately, this is what divides you from your friend or fitness instructor whose belly is looking great after having babies. Coordination. Her brain knows where her Transverse Abdominis is – and yours doesn’t. You might be making your belly pooch by accidentally contracting your TA and 5 other muscles that over power your TA, or not turning your TA on at all.

So the truth is in the pudding……… if your belly is looking flat, then you might be coordinating the right muscles. If you don’t have a flat belly from all of your efforts– then stop doing the ab exercises that you learned on the internet or in fitness class when your instructor told you to “pull your belly button towards your spine”.

But what SHOULD you do instead? Learn to use your TA the right way:

We find the best cues to activate the TA is to not think about the abs at all initially and focus on your pelvic floor muscles. Your brain is supposed to turn on all of the deep core muscles at the same time, so often using one muscle will actually turn on two muscles. Often, focusing on your pelvic floor helps prevent accidental over-contractions of other abdominal muscles.

We have a great 5 part blog series on working your Deep Core muscles that you can check out here.

Sometimes it’s a little more complex than that. For some of you, even this advice won’t be enough to find your TA in a coordinated way. In this case, you will need to dive even deeper to fix your poochy bellies.

You might need to relax even more before you begin to strengthen. You might be a rib gripper, you might have a too tight pelvic floor, or you might need better posture and alignment to actually use your ab muscles correctly.

Check out these blogs here:

Oh, and one more thing. You gotta be able to breathe. This is what makes this complicated.

Many of these TA articles on the web and YouTube videos casually say to “keep breathing” while you do the exercises, or “don’t hold your breath”. I think this needs to be more than just a casual reminder. I don’t let my clients progress past simple isometric TA exercises until they can Kegel and breathe at the same time.

I strongly believe in building a foundation of breathing while using your abs. Otherwise, how can you use your TA at a low effort while running one day? If you are holding your breath that will never work.

Coordinating your TA and pelvic floor muscles while breathing is the secret to not peeing your pants while on a trampoline or in Bootcamp class.

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Now, back to all of the bad advice for the postpartum exerciser. Should you completely avoid:

  • Drawing your belly button to your spine,
  • Sssshhhh-ing
  • Pelvic tilting
  • Vacuuming your stomach ?

No, of course not. It might actually be the verbal and kinesthetic cue to click your brain into activating your dormant TA.

But once you find your TA, once you know how to connect with it, it’s like finding the right light switch in your brain to turn it on. Then practice coordinating it while:

  • Breathing
  • Keeping your ribs relaxed
  • Keeping your legs, gluteals, butt relaxed

Then, and only THEN, are you ready add in real strengthening exercises like:

  • Planks
  • Crunches
  • Leg lifts (i.e. Pilates)
  • Running, weight lifting, bootcamp

If all of this resonates with you, really dedicate yourself to learning this coordination of your abs. Once you get it right you can use your deep core muscles with everything you do all day long. Get stronger with every lift and carry of your little ones.

We are here to help.

Check out our blog posts, ask a question in the comments, share this with friends.

We have a ton of free information to help you get this right. Plus, we have our helpful 15 Day Core Strength for Moms program that you can purchase to really get your abs working again to support your body and flatten your abs.

Here’s to clearing up the mysterious postpartum Transverse Abdominis once and for all,

Jennifer xx

 

4 Comments

  • Amanda says:

    I’m pretty sure I’m on the right track (I can breathe, run, wash dishes, etc while holding my belly in. Can’t run and wash dishes at the same time though!), but I have a question. I’ve heard instructors say to squeeze your glutes during a plank. I can’t really do this without feeling like I’m changing the whole thing. Is it me or is it them?

    • makingmomstrong says:

      Hi Amanda. Sounds like you’re doing a great job using your core well! And I have to say, if I could run and wash dishes at the same time I would be in heaven! Your question in a good one. I cue people to activate their glutes while doing a plank as well, because so much strength lies in those muscles and they’re an important part of the puzzle, making a plank more effective, and I feel, more stable. Unlike your quads, which must be activated to maintain a plan, your glutes aren’t actually required for the position.
      My guess is that you’re not just activating your glutes, but actually contracting them quite hard, or clenching them. If this is the case you will likely be pushing yourself into lumbar extension, or pushing your back into an arcing position and your belly toward the floor. Is this what’s happening? If it is, you are likely losing your core activation because it’s being overpowered by your glutes. Especially if you’re postpartum and your core is not as strong as it used to be. My advice is to try a more gentle glute contraction, say 30% of maximum, so that you feel these muscles activating but not overpowering your core. There is a delicate balance to these things that can get disrupted by growing a baby. Try this and let me know if it helps you. If not, we can try to figure out what’s going on. You’re also welcome to email us a couple pictures… one of a plank with no glutes and one of a plank with glutes, so we can see what your body is doing to compensate. Sorry for the long and geeky answer. Jen will chime in if she has other thoughts as well. Good luck and let me know how it goes!
      xo
      Meg

    • Love your answer Meg!!
      And great question Amanda. I think this kind of instruction to contract your gluts is the exact reason why most people are so confused about exercises. Meg is exactly right, if you contract your gluts primarily they might over power your back or abs – but of course they are on a little bit. I wonder if whomever coined this instruction didn’t know how to activate their pelvic floor well and is trying to compensate for a weak core.
      Instead we would tell someone to do a modified version of a plank until you are strong enough to do a plank with your deep core muscles on.
      Check out our YouTube video on how to do a plank correctly.
      Hope this all helps clear up the confusion that is out there!
      Jen

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