How to Properly Engage your Core During Pregnancy and Postpartum

Women’s Health

The core is a very complex set of muscles.

Not because there are so many and the anatomy is complicated, but because it can be challenging to learn how to properly engage them.

Many in the fitness industry use “belly button to spine” as a cue for core engagement, but that usually only contracts part of it (if people can even do it correctly).

This leaves people with a dysfunctional core, wondering why all the crunches and planks aren’t getting rid of their mommy tummy.

This blog is going to break down everything that includes the core, both during pregnancy and postpartum. Because while they aren’t really different in engagement, there are different goals of the contractions.

Anatomy of the Abdominal Muscles

There are a lot of muscles that make up the core, depending on who you ask it can range from 20-35 muscle groups.

The core is known as the trunk, so from the ribcage to the hips, and in all directions around the body.

We are only going to focus on 3 main muscles, as those are the bulk of the core contraction.

These three muscles are the Transverse Abdominis (TA), rectus abdominis and external obliques.

The external obliques are the outer most abdominal muscles that run from the bottom of your ribcage to the top of the pelvis.

These muscles are visible along your sides.

The next muscle in is your rectus abdominis.

This runs along the center of your stomach and is known as the 6 pack muscle. It attaches at the split of your ribs (right below your breast line) and attaches at the pelvis.

The inner most core muscle is the transverse abdominis, and is known as the corset. This muscle attaches on either side of your spine and wraps around the entire circumference of your torso, and then attaches to the bottom of the ribcage and the top of the pelvis.

This muscle is also a support system, it protects our inner organs, and helps with posture and stabilizing the spine.

A common question, especially those postpartum, is “what muscle is below my belly button”. That Is typically where there is that “bulge”.

And the answer is, really all 3 of these muscles are there, because they all attach at the top of the pelvis.

This is why we need to learn how to properly engage the TA, so that the rectus abdominis and external obliques can follow suit and lay flat.

Now that we know the anatomy, let’s learn how proper core engagement works.

How to properly engage the core muscles

Core engagement is complicated, and takes practice.

It is more than just “sucking in”, bearing down, or doing crunches until it burns. If you are not properly engaging your core, you aren’t actually strengthening it.

And that could be causing  more harm than good.

So, do this with me.

Get in a seated position on a hard flat surface, or lying on your back.

If seated, make sure your ribs are stacked over your pelvis.

And if you are lying, make sure you are in a relaxed position with knees bent.

Take a deep breath in through your nose and into your diaphragm (ribcage).

As you slowly, and deeply, exhale through your mouth, make an “s” sound and think about the core muscles wrapping around from the sides and pulling together like a corset or zipper up the front of your belly.

Helpful cues include: imagine drawing your hipbones together, pulling your obliques in towards your belly button, pulling the ribcage down and knitting both sides together.

This takes a lot of practice and concentration. And it may even feel weird at first if you have never properly executed this contraction before, but this is what is proper core engagement.

It may also help you to start your contraction at the pelvic floor. So initiate the feeling of holding in a fart, or picking up a paper with your vagina. As you continue to exhale, wrap your core muscles and “zip” up your abdominals until the air is fully exhaled.

When you are first starting to work on this, take it slow. Just work on the breathing and contraction and don’t add in any other movements.

Once that is easier, you can add in movements.

What happens to the abdomen during pregnancy 

Pregnancy is a beautiful thing, but it can also be really hard on the body.

Not only are you growing a human, but you also have to make space for it.

Let’s start with a little anatomy again.

We know the core muscles now, but there is also connective tissue within the core that helps with structure and movement.

The tissue that holds the rectus abdominis together is called the linea alba. It goes directly down the midline of the stomach.

It keeps the core together, but it also stretches and expands when it needs to (like during pregnancy).

This connective tissue stretches to allow the belly to grow while keeping room for all the organs to do their job.

So, what happens to your abs during pregnancy? Your rectus abdominis actually moves to the side and the linea alba stretches to take the pressure of the growing belly.

Why are my abs separating is another common question – and it is to make room for the baby. Your muscles can only stretch so far, and not as far as connective tissue. So the abdominals move to the side and the connective tissue takes over.

After pregnancy, this connective tissue goes back down to pre-pregnancy structure and elasticity. BUT, only if you are properly engaging the core with your breathing and exercises.

So as you get further and further into pregnancy, that connective tissue is stretching more and more.

In order to protect this, it is important to move in a way that does not add more pressure.

Things like rolling onto your side before getting out of bed.

Pressing up with your hands when getting out of a chair.

Getting onto all 4’s when getting off the floor.

You get the picture. You want to do whatever you can to avoid pushing on that connective tissue, it already has enough tension on it.

Tips for proper engagement during pregnancy

While it may seem challenging, and counterintuitive, to work on your core strength during pregnancy..but it is crucial.

You first have to remember that core engagement is much different from just doing crunches and sit ups.

Core and pelvic floor engagement during pregnancy is going to help with carrying the baby and preparing for birth.

Growing a human is a lot on the body, so working the right muscles can make us that the weight of the baby on the core and pelvic floor can be handled by the body, and not just tolerated.

The first thing to remember is you DO NOT want any coning or bread-loafing of the linea alba or midline at any time during an exercise.

If that occurs, the movement is too challenging and you should stop.

This is why later in pregnancy you are to roll onto your side to get out of bed. The abdominals have separated so much that they are no longer able to contract and keep pressure in your core, which causes the doming.

Working the core and pelvic floor during pregnancy needs to happen when you are concentrating and working ONLY on that.

You don’t want to do complex core exercises, but rather just proper breathing and pelvic floor contracts to prepare for birth.

Things like belly breathing on all 4’s, pelvic tilts, are going to be helpful.

You also want to make sure that before ANY exercise you do while pregnant, you contract your TA and hold baby in before performing.

We want a functional core, so that means slowing down and taking ego out of the picture.

Warning signs/causes for concern

I am a believer in professionals, good professionals.

Which is why I recommend all women see a pelvic floor physical therapist (physiotherapist)  during pregnancy and after delivery.

They are the true warriors when it comes to working the pelvic floor and making sure it is functional.

I say this because thee are some warning signs or symptoms that may cause you to seek help.

During pregnancy these include:

• feeling of heaviness or dragging

• difficulty emptying bowels

• difficulty with functional tasks like walking or lifting

• low back, sacroiliac or hip pain

• pain with intercourse

• needing to go to the toilet all the time

• leaking urine when coughing or sneezing

• feeling like something is “falling out”

All of these are signs of pelvic floor dysfunction and you want to get it looked at and treated right away.

For postpartum, many of the concerns are the similar.

• Diastasis recti (separation of the abs that has not come back together with time or your own rehab)

• leaking urine or feces when coughing or sneezing

• pain during intercourse

• pelvic pain

• low back pain

We have professionals in different areas for a reason. Don’t drag out not feeling good or having a good experience because you don’t think you “should” need help through your journey.

The core and pelvic floor work together when they are functioning properly, but it also takes a lot of work to learn how to get them to work.

I hope this blog has taught you something about your core and pelvic floor, how to contract them, how it works, and what to do during pregnancy and postpartum.

Stay tuned for a workout program for both categories to help you feel your best while carrying your babe, or after you deliver.

If you enjoyed this blog, please do me a favor and share it on social media. Your two minute share can truly help spread the word and help so many women during their journey.

Haley Rowe June 8, 2022