Whether you're newly post-baby or it's been awhile since you exercised, these strategies will help you rebound with a core that's as strong as you need it to be.
There are some things you miss after having kids. "But fit abs are definitely not something you need to say goodbye to," says Michele Olson, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of sport science at Huntingdon College in Alabama, who has done tons of research on training those key core muscles.
Will your abs be weak when you initially emerge from 40 weeks of pregnancy? "Yes," Olson says, "because they've been overly elongated." But they won't be irretrievably stretched out like last year's Spanx. It's really the connective tissue, or fascia, of the abdominal wall—and not the muscles—that becomes more elastic to accommodate your growing bump. For your abs to tighten up, they actually need to regain their muscle memory, so to speak. "After pregnancy, your abdominals have to relearn working in their normal range," says Carrie Pagliano, a doctor of physical therapy at Georgetown University Medical Hospital, who has worked on rehabbing abs with postnatal women for 18 years. "The good news is that you can achieve great ab conditioning at all stages—whether it's three weeks after delivery or after you've had your third child."
First, find your fat-burning pace.
Once you've gotten the green light from your doc to exercise—or if it's been some time since you've had a child—and you're safely back at it, you need to work intervals into your cardio. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is as close as you can get to zeroing in on lingering abdominal fat. Numerous studies show that doing HIIT is more effective at burning off abs fat selectively (it mobilizes certain fat-releasing hormones called catecholamines) than doing steady cardio. Spin, take a sweaty circuit class, or simply alternate pushing your pace for a minute and then going easy for a minute. (Try this core-focused HIIT workout.)
Then rep to reach your deep abs.
Here's the deal: The reason compression moves—think navel-to-spine exercises like planks—have perennial appeal to us, post-baby or not, is that they draw in that deepest of abs muscles, the transverse abdominis. Often referred to as the TA or TVA by trainers, this muscle is unique in that it's the only one in your core that does a full 360 around your waist, and it therefore has superior cinch-you-in powers, Olson says. (These plank variations torch your core from all angles.)
That's a crucial property as you're trying to pull it all together after pregnancy—especially since you're also working on rekindling your abs' contracting power. "If you learn how to activate the TA, you get that deep, underlying tension on the fascia that helps build the foundation of your core and improve ab separation," Pagliano says. "And pretty much everyone has some separation in pregnancy." Many times, these mini gaps naturally patch themselves post-baby, she notes, but targeting the TA should get you there faster. (Curious whether your abs have any residual separation? Lie faceup on the floor with knees bent, and crunch up as you press your fingertips horizontally atop the center of your abs, a few inches above the belly button, to see if you feel any finger dipping lower than the rest. If so, there's your gap. Do the same just below the belly button.)
"Once you strengthen your TVA, you can move on to more intense exercises like jackknifes or plyometrics, which also recruit your superficial ab muscles—the obliques and rectus abdominis, aka six-pack muscles," says Anna Kaiser, founder of AKT studio in New York City. (She became a new mom in January.) "Then your ab strength and definition will come even quicker."
5 Post-Baby Abs Moves to Try
1. Tummy Toner: Sit on a stability ball (or a chair) with your feet planted on the floor. Inhale, expanding your belly, and then exhale, pulling your navel to your spine as deeply as you possibly can. Hold for 1 count, let your belly button halfway out, then forcefully pull it back in as you count "1" out loud (to make sure you’re not holding your breath). Do 20 reps, counting aloud. Rest (taking a big belly inhale and exhale) and repeat twice more.
2. Belly Burn: Start on the floor (or a yoga mat) on all fours. Press into your palms and round your back (like cat pose in yoga). Pull your navel to your spine, then do small pelvic pulses (tucking your pelvis with little thrusts), exhaling each time and pulling your navel deeper to your spine. Do 20 reps. Rest and repeat.
3. C Curve with Arm Extension: Sit on the floor with knees bent, feet flat, and a small Pilates ball (or a rolled-up towel) at the base of your spine. Round your lower back into the ball (so your torso forms a C shape), and draw your navel to your spine. Hold that position (but don't hold your breath) as you slowly swing your straight arms up, then lower them to the floor. Do 10 reps. Rest and repeat. (Scale up by holding 1- to 3-pound dumbbells.)
4. C Curve with Leg Extension: Start seated on the floor in the C-curve position with back rounded into a small Pilates ball or a rolled-up towel and navel pulled in to spine; keep hands by sides with fingertips touching the floor. Maintaining hold, lift and extend your right leg directly in front of you. Bending knee, return right foot to floor. Do 8 reps, then switch legs and repeat. Rest and repeat. (Scale down by grabbing behind your knees for support.)
5. C Curve with Twist: Repeat C curve with leg extension, this time very slowly twisting your torso toward the leg you lift. Start by lifting right leg and rotating torso and left shoulder toward right; return torso to center and lower leg. Do 8 reps, then switch sides and repeat. Rest and repeat.