After the birth of my daughter in 2016, it took me many, many months before I felt any type of connection with my core. Whether I was naive about the depth and length of the postpartum recovery period, or it was a reflection of just how much I needed to learn about proper core engagement, it took me a while to find the exercises that truly helped me to find my core connection again.
My old strategies of ‘just breathe and engage your core’ were not helpful at all because I had so many physical compensations from previous injuries, stress and my birth injuries. It truly felt like I was trying to rebuild my core from step one. Even basic core exercises prescribed in typical postnatal recovery plans seemed to leave me wondering if I was ever going feel supported in my core, less achy in my hips and less pain in my low back.
Through a lot of trial and error, postnatal exercise certifications, practice, working with physiotherapists and training other moms looking to reconnect with their core, I began to develop a much more robust toolbox of breathing, alignment and core strengthening exercises. If I can offer any advice to other moms looking to improve their core connection for less pain and more support for the activities you love to do, it’s this: it takes time, it takes practice, it takes patience, it often takes a personalized approach, and it is worth the effort. Building up my core strength was directly linked to improving my quality of life. It is much more enjoyable for me to play with my kids, get a stress-reducing workout in, chop fire wood, tackle my favourite hikes and move around in my daily life when I’m not experiencing the tightness , tension and pain that can come with an unconnected, discombobulated core.
Without further ado, here are 5 of my favourite exercises to help you connect with your core:
Side Lying Ribcage Breathing
In my humble opinion, this is the best place to start when you’re looking to improve your core connection. This breathing exercise can be done at a few weeks postpartum, and is a helpful tool to use any time when you’re feeling tense or tight through your upper, mid or lower back. It’s vital to get our rib cage moving rather than holding on to lots of tension. It’s even more helpful when we can pair our breathing with relaxation and gentle engagement of the pelvic floor muscles. The video below will walk you through how to do this.
Helps to improve rib cage expansion, pelvic floor awareness, pelvic floor relaxation and core/pelvic floor engagement.
Equipment: Mat + Small pilates ball
As you continue building up your core connection, you’ll want to practice a ‘stacked posture’ of keeping your ribs stacked over your hips. This position will be practiced while standing, hip hinging, or in quadruped exercises like this next exercise below.
Bear Posture with Block
Be sure to breathe into the back and sides of your rib cage, and to squeeze the block (or rolled up towel) to help engage your adductors as you draw your hip bones together on the front side of your lower belly area. Press your hands firmly into the mat as if you’re trying to press away from the floor. Listen to my cues on the video below for more guidance.
Helps to engage adductor (inner thigh) muscles, maintain ‘stacked’ alignment and to connect the shoulder and hip girdles.
Equipment: Mat and yoga block or rolled up towel.
Oftentimes, reconnecting with your core doesn’t involve completely re-inventing the wheel, it requires more purposeful positions and breathing to help your core muscles re-learn how to stabilize your trunk, and how to work together to fully support your torso. This next exercise is a great example of using slight changes in position to shift a classic ‘core move’, the side plank, into a more useful, engaging exercise.
Elevated Side Plank
Using an elevated surface to set up your side plank is a great strategy for decreasing the overall load on your shoulder girdle and torso muscles. Reconnecting with your core often requires time at lower loads or intensities to allow our breathing, alignment and strength to work together to manage pressure in our core canister. Don’t be afraid to work at lower intensities and easier positions as you’re finding that core connection. As my postpartum training mentors say, there is no ego in postpartum fitness.
Set your elbow up right underneath your shoulder, press your forearm and hand into the bench and stretch out through your top leg. Keep your underside leg bent, and allow yourself to put as much weight on the underside leg as needed. Extend your top arm overhead and breeeeeathe into the sides and back of your rib cage. Try rolling your top hip forward slightly and see how the load across your core changes.
Strengthens adductors (inner thigh muscles), obliques, improves shoulder stability.
Equipment: Bench or any sturdy elevated surface like a couch, coffee table or stair.
Creating a strong and stable core connection is more about learning to ‘bring all the friends to the party’ than trying to isolate one specific muscle. While there are specific instances in which isolation training (or de-training) can be helpful, the majority of our core work will involve strengthening the core muscles as a whole synergistic group. This is why there isn’t one specific exercise that will work for every single person to help core connection. Using reference points to help our whole body stabilize our torso is a helpful strategy in connecting with our core. The next exercise is a great example of using our arms and the wall as a reference point for better core connection and coordination.
Hands Against Wall Heel Drops
This exercise has a number of levels to increase and decrease the intensity and load. Level 1 includes keeping one foot on the floor while you extend the opposite leg. Level 2 involves keeping both legs lifted into table top position and dropping a bent knee to drop our heel to the floor. Level 3 involves keeping our legs in table top position and extending a straight leg to drop our heel to the floor. The most important cue for this exercise is to be sure to squeeze your elbows together and firmly press your hands into the wall as you perform the heel drops. Watch the video below for the full walk through of set up and breathing for this move.
Strengthens abdominal wall, torso stability.
Equipment: Mat and wall.
When we are talking about building up a stronger connection with our core, we aren’t talking solely about our ability to contract our abdominals. Yes, the abs play a big role in torso stability, but so do the hips, back and shoulders, and when standing, our feet play a huge role as well. The next exercise helps to engage the hamstrings, glutes and adductors for better hip stability.
Feet Elevated Hip Lift with Block
We truly cannot build an effective core connection without some ability to stabilize and control the movement of our hips. This exercise is a helpful starting point in setting up the pelvis position for better engagement of the glutes, hamstrings and adductors. Remember, we are working on ‘bringing all the friends’ to the party in this exercise rather than isolating a specific muscle group. Be sure to drag your heels down into the bench and back towards you as you perform the hip lift.
Strengthens glutes, hamstrings, adductors.
Equipment: Mat, Block (or rolled up towel), bench or other sturdy elevated surface like a coffee table, couch or stair.
The above exercises will give you a great place to start as you work on connecting and coordinating your core muscles. I don’t want you to be afraid to move as you’re building up your core connection, but I do want you to spend a bit of time each week practicing some basic breathing and core connecting. It’s less about getting it ‘perfect’ and more about consistent practice over time. Try adding these 5 moves for 2 sets of about 10 repetitions before you head out for a walk a couple times a week.
These exercises can be incredibly helpful when you’re dealing with back pain, hip pain, prolapse, diastasis recti or trouble connecting to your core or managing pressure, but the best strategy is always a session with a physiotherapist. They can help you to personalize your approach and can assist in manually releasing muscles that may be over-tight and compensating.
If you want more guidance in connecting with your core, then join my FREE 7 Day Glutes + Core Challenge. You’ll receive our 7 day workout guide complete with core strengthening workouts, breathing exercises, tons of coaching videos, follow along mobility flows and our Glutes + Core Guidebook. Click the image below to sign up and get started right away.