I’m starting with a little rant. Sit ups, crunches and ab curls, call them what you will, are possibly the worst exercise choice you could make after having a baby. Unfortunately, large organisations like Bounty are still recommending sit ups as a tried and tested way of getting a flat and toned tummy. This is not only incorrect but (in my opinion) shows a failure to care for the needs of a new mum. Show me the folk that this has been tested on and I might change my mind but until then, let me share with you some information based on fact and science which I hope will empower you to make an informed choice about your tummy muscles.
No amount of sit ups will give you a flat tummy. It is scientifically impossible. Your post baby tummy is not flat for the following reasons:
- It has spent the last nine months learning how to stretch (muscles have long memories). Your six pack actually grows extra cells, causing the muscles to lengthen in order to accommodate your baby bump. According to scientists this takes two years to return to it’s pre-pregnancy state.
- It takes time for your uterus to shrink back to its regular size and go back to it’s pre-pregnancy place.
- The most common reason for a fat tummy is FAT – and the only places you’ll lose fat are in the kitchen (nutrition is 80% of fat loss) and in the gym/park/church hall, wherever you choose to workout.
The humble sit up is literally a contraction of your rectus abdominus or six-pack muscles. If these are distended (as they commonly are post baby), performing sit ups could make the distention worse. If there’s fat on these muscles then all a sit up does is squidge the fat into big rolls and makes you feel rubbish about yourself.
Sit ups could make common post natal conditions like diastasis recti or pelvic floor dysfunction worse.
Pelvic floor dysfunction is the broad term used for any pelvic floor issues, ranging from accidental pees when you sneeze (stress incontinence) to pelvic organ prolapse. These issues are most common in post natal women and post menopausal women. When you perform a sit up, you increase the pressure inside your torso (you are literally squeezing it). Any weakness in the pelvic floor area could be worsened by repeated pressure on the area. There are worse things you can do for a weakened pelvic floor (running, jumping or high impact exercise being the top three) but ask any Pilates teacher which exercise is most likely to produce accidental farts from participants, and generally it involves loaded forward bending, like a crunch or roll-up.
Diastasis recti is the term used when the sheath that connects both sides of the six pack (which commonly stretches during pregnancy) does not return back to its pre-pregnancy state after birth. This means some women are left with a gap between the left and right sides of the six-pack. It won’t kill you but it is really important to focus on the deeper abdominal muscles, like the transversus abdominis (the big corset like muscles) and the pelvic floor before considering any loaded forward flexion or sit ups. Both my experience and the experience of the physiotherapists I work with has shown that focusing on the pelvic floor can really help ‘flatten’ any abdominal doming caused my diastasis recti.
But my doctor said …
I fully respect medical doctors but they are doctors of medicine and illness. There is a reason doctors refer their patients out to exercise specialists – because a doctor or GP is not an exercise specialist. I am! I would never prescribe you with drugs I know only through personal experience or try to diagnose your illness based on a few symptoms but I can explain a great deal about the post natal body and the associated exercise implications, which is why I work with, and educate medical professionals in my field of expertise.
What’s the difference between Pilates and sit ups?
Pilates is a whole body form of exercise. If you come away thinking, ‘ooh what a great ab workout’ you’ve possibly missed the point. It’s so much more than that. Too much for one rather longer than usual post about flat tummies (for more information check this post out: http://alittlefitter.com/2012/08/30/pilates-whats-all-the-fuss-about-why-bother/). In my post natal classes we start slowly, focusing acutely on the deep abdominal muscles and pelvic floor, really making sure that they are working effectively before sending you out to ‘melt fat’ (love that term – means nothing but wanted to get it into a post one day). No you won’t feel ‘the burn’ like you might in a gym abs blast class but you will be taking care of your still very delicate and very wonderful body.
For more information on nutrition for flat tummies check my most popular post: 10 ways to lose fat and get more energy.
Karen Laing is a pre and post natal exercise specialist and journalist. Karen teaches Pilates (including pregnancy specific classes) in Epping, Essex and London and blogs about fitness, women’s health and wellbeing at http://www.alittlefitter.com.
Karen co-directs Fit School with her husband Chris. They run fitness classes, ladies only training camps and Pilates classes in Epping and Essex.