Traditional abdominal exercises, such as sit-ups, put too much stress on a postpartum tummy and back, and are not recommended for new moms. Instead, I recommend a series of exercises developed by Shirley Sahrmann, a physical therapist who specializes in abdominal rehabilitation. These exercises are designed to target the area most weakened by pregnancy, (below the belly button) without creating stress on the back and abdomen.
- Lie on your back with your arms at your sides, knees bent and feet resting on the floor. Inhale and exhale a few times. Don’t flatten your back or tilt your pelvis, just let the natural curve in your back remain. Breath in slowly and deeply.
- Now breath out and tighten your tummy muscles, pulling your navel towards your spine. Remember to concentrate on contracting the muscles below your belly button and don’t flatten your back.
When you are able to contract and relax your abdominal muscles without moving your back you have learned to properly isolate the correct muscles. You can then try the first Sahrmann exercise.
Sahrmann Exercise #1
- Lie on the floor with knees bent and arms at your side.
- Hold your tummy in by doing your basic breath contraction. Keeping one knee leg bent, slowly slide the other leg out until it is straight with the floor, and then slide back up to bent knee position. Relax your tummy.
- Repeat the process for the other leg. Remember don’t flatten you back and keep the curve relaxed.
When your abdominal muscles are contracted it helps to stabilize your pelvis while your legs and lower tummy muscles work. This prevents strain in your back muscles, and trains your abdominal muscles to protect and support your spine.
When you can comfortable do 20 legs slides on each side you can move to the next step.
Sahrmann Exercise #2
- Lie on floor with knees bent and arms at side. Pull in on your tummy and hold, then raise one knee towards your chest and slowly straighten it out parallel to (about 2-3 inches above the floor) but not touching the floor. Return extended leg to starting position, knees bent, feet resting on floor, and relax your tummy.
- Repeat on opposite side, keeping one knee bent as you extend the other leg. Work up to five repetitions on each side without stopping, building to 20 repetitions or more on each side.
Sahrmann Exercise #3
- When you can comfortably do 20 of the #2 Sahrmann exercises with each leg you can move on to level 3.
- Use you basic breath as you bring your legs up one at a time towards your body with knees bent.
- Keep one leg bent as you slowly lower the other leg down to the floor and back up. Repeat on the opposite side, working up to ten times each leg.
Sahrmann Exercise #4
- If you can comfortable do 10 repetitions each leg of exercise #3 you’re ready to move on to #4.
- Do your basic breath as you bring both legs up and knees bent.
- Slowly extend one leg out parallel with the floor but not touching.
- Bring the leg back and repeat with opposite leg. Work up to 10 repetitions each leg.
Sahrmann Exercise #5
You may try this exercise when you can do step #4 twenty times each leg without discomfort, or your back and tummy arching.
- Bring both legs to your chest using your basic breath one at a time.
- Straighten both legs up at a 90 degree angle from your hip.
- Slowly lower your legs down together toward the floor. Go only as far as feels comfortable, and if you feel your back beginning to arch, bring your legs back up and lower legs again only to the point were you notice your back arching. Work up to 20 repetitions.
- If you notice back pain with this exercise, discontinue doing #5 and maintain at level #4.
With each repetition remember to keep breathing, contract your tummy as you move your leg, and don’t let you back pop up. If the arch in your back keeps popping up during the exercise it means you’re not strong enough to progress to this level, and need to go back to the previous exercise until you build greater strength.
Watch a video overview of these exercises:
Catherine Cram, MS, is the owner of Comprehensive Fitness Consulting, a company that provides pre- and postnatal fitness certifications and information to hospitals, health & wellness organizations and the military.