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:
- Are you a Butt Gripper or Chest Gripper, 6 Steps to Stop Chest Gripping
- Relax Your Way to a Strong Pelvic Floor
- Good standing posture
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.
Now, back to all of the bad advice for the postpartum exerciser. Should you completely avoid:
- Drawing your belly button to your spine,
- 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:
- Keeping your ribs relaxed
- Keeping your legs, gluteals, butt relaxed
Then, and only THEN, are you ready add in real strengthening exercises like:
- 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,