December 5, 2022
So how do you do that? By first understanding what makes up your core. There are the superficial muscles otherwise known as the “outer unit” which includes the rectus abdominis (think six-pack abs) and oblique abdominals to name a few. Peel back the outer layers of the core and you’ll uncover the “inner unit”; otherwise known as the deep core which consists of the diaphragm, transversus abdominis (TA), pelvic floor (PF) and multifidus. These deep core muscles are responsible for stability since they are closest to the spine and play a role in alignment, shape of your waistline, and the foundation to your movement. They can be considered anticipatory muscles because they turn on to stabilize the body before you move; whether working out or in daily life.
Most postpartum women, and even women in general, have difficulty accessing and turning on these muscles to assist them during exercise and therefore aren’t truly connecting with their core. Modern sedentary lifestyle, for one, turns these muscles off, but most women aren’t taught to use them in the first place. So if you can’t access and activate these muscles, then they can’t turn on to stabilize and support you in your movement. They also won’t be able to regulate intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). If you lack control of IAP, pressure can be sent outwards on the abdominal wall causing doming or bulging which you want to avoid; especially if you have diastasis recti. Pressure could also be sent down onto the PF which may lead to pelvic pressure, incontinence, leaking, etc.
If you are constantly repeating a core exercise without accessing your diaphragm, transverse abdominals, and pelvic floor your brain will start to shut off communication with these muscles.
Retraining core exercises do specifically as they say – they retrain and re-sequence the way your body signals and activates your deep core. (Again, the deep core is your diaphragm,TA, PF, and multifidus.) It’s common for the body to fire the superficial muscles of the core (obliques and rectus abdominis), rather than the deep core, as it’s been the way your body has likely recruited these muscles for years. However you need to remember the deep core is what stabilizes the body and they work to not only support us during movement, but to prepare the body for load.
In my experience, most women enter pregnancy with an under active TA and diaphragm; even if they workout. Common misconceptions and cues still used today in fitness are you need to “pull belly button into spine” or “draw the belly in” which are okay, but they don’t translate well in practice. By isolating the area of the belly button and drawing it in towards your spine, you only work the midsection of your stomach and leave your lower TA static. It also places downward pressure on your pelvic floor and since your diaphragm has no place to move, you shift into chest breathing. Everything is affected just by activating the muscle improperly. The entire core should function together starting with a diaphragmatic breath and a gentle activation of the pelvic floor and transverse abdominals which are activating in all regions (lower, middle, upper).
So consider this whether you are postpartum or just a woman looking for answers in building core strength. Start with the foundations: diaphragmatic breathing and gentle core activations, bring your pelvic floor and transverse abdominals into play, avoid popping of the TA, and learn to allow all the muscles of the core to relax. If you can begin improving the mind-body connection and accessing the deep core with your movements/exercise, you’ll start to see results and guarantee a stronger, functioning core than you had before.