Post Natal Pilates At Home
Heather Thomas Shalabi of Flex Studio shares some simple post natal Pilates exercises to speed up your post-birth recovery.
Pilates offers the perfect post-natal workout and can be practiced by mothers in varying post-natal stages to aid the recovery process. Post-natal exercises are designed for optimum toning in minimum amount of time and are even suitable for mums with older children who feel they haven’t recovered their pre-pregnancy shape. Among other benefits, Pilates: strengthens the core control muscles of the lower abdominal region and pelvic floor, creating a muscular ‘corset’ to support the spine; strengthens and lengthens the back muscles; and blends toning and stretching to alleviate muscular tension arising from repetitive physical movement (bending over, carrying, nursing, et al).
It can also help participants re-discover pre-pregnancy body awareness by focusing on balance, posture and breath to facilitate movement. Furthermore, stimulating circulation will promote the reduction of excess water weight retained after delivery. Working with Pilates apparatus such as the Reformer is particularly effective post-partum, as the machines are assistive in their weight resistance and thus facilitate toning the abdominals, pelvic floor, thighs and buttocks.
Even without equipment however, new mums can effectively tone following a specially-designed post-natal mat Pilates workout. Following are key exercises to jump-start your post natal workout.
Exercises for Initial Recovery from Childbirth
1. Breath Work:
Lie on mat with knees bent, feet in alignment with Sitz bones; make sure you are in neutral spine, i.e. natural curve in lumbar spine, hip flexors soft.
- Concentrate on breathing W-I-D-E into the ribcage so ribs open out to the side (not puff up to the ceiling) on the inhale. Feel the ribs expand into the floor below you as you inhale. On the exhale, try to funnel your ribs down towards the navel without causing undue stress to rise in the throat or neck and without shifting the pelvis. It may be helpful to place hands on ribs to facilitate this action and/or to place a small towel in the lumbar curve to maintain neutral spine during the exercise. Notice the shoulders melting away from the ears as you engage the ribcage. This lateral breath is used throughout all Pilates exercises.
This exercise can also be done in a kneeling position (sitz bones on heels) with a thin towel or belt around the ribs. Facilitate the ‘funneling’ action in the ribs by gently tightening the towel on the exhale, a bit like a corset. This will help activate the correct muscles.
- Now focus on the lower abdominals, specifically the pelvic floor and the TA (tranversus abdominus). In addition to funneling the ribs on the exhale, now try to use that deep breath to pull the lower abs flat and wide across the hip bones. Think of smiling across your low waist, or of pulling a seatbelt low across your lap. Don’t suck your navel in! It may be helpful to place fingers just inside the hip bones and try to feel the toning or tightening of the TA as you exhale. Be patient – this muscle can take a while to find. Some people find the TA more easily if they start by activating the pelvic floor muscles; it can be helpful to have a small flexible ball or sponge to squeeze between the knees. Be careful not to pull the pelvis into posterior pelvic tilt (thus imprinting the spine on the mat) as you do this exercise.
2. Stabilization in Neutral Spine:
Still lying on your back as above, and keeping the core muscles active as in 1a & 1b above, begin to move the legs and thoracic (upper) spine.
a. Femur Arcs I. On an inhale, hinge the right leg up from the hip, keeping the angle at the knee constant; bring the leg up to 90° at the hip and knee. On the exhale, lower the leg to starting position being careful not to disturb the pelvis. Change sides and repeat as many sets as you need to, in order to find pelvic stabilization throughout the exercise
b. Leg Slides. Same starting position as above, only this time on an exhale, slide the right leg out along the mat until fully extended at the hip and knee. Inhale to slide the leg back in to the starting position. Repeat on the other side, and perform as many sets as you can. As before, the goal is not to disturb the pelvis.
c. Assisted Roll Up with Towel. This time lie on a thin, long towel (such as a “Good Morning” tea towel), allowing for a little slack above the head. Keeping the spine in neutral and the knees bent, take the towel in hand on either side of the head. Lift the towel up under the head, being certain not to initiate from the neck. Try to keep the neck muscles completely relaxed and the head heavy in the towel; maintain perfect neutral spine. Exhale and keep lifting the towel until the head neck and shoulders are off the mat; gaze should be directed at the knees and the ribcage area should be deeply contracted. Inhale to roll back down. Shoulders should slide away from the ears on the rollup, and elbows should be out to the side. A small ball can be squeezed between the knees to activate pelvic floor.
When the abdominals have strengthened, this exercise can be done without the towel and instead with the hands supporting the back of the neck (fingers laced together, “heels” of hands scooped up under the skull, where it meets the neck).
As a further progression, the ribcage can be rotated to the right and left (a ‘spiraling’ action across the center line of the body – not a side bend) at the top of the rollup. This exercise will activate the obliques. Pelvic stability is the key for this exercise to be effective.
Remember, for all the variations in exercise 2c, the key point is to keep the pelvis in neutral and NOT flex the spine. A lumbar curve should remain present. A small rolled towel can be placed in back of the knees to help maintain neutral (squeeze the calf and hamstring into the towel).
3. Imprinting the Spine:
To maintain deep TA activation when both feet are lifted off the floor, and thus protect the lower back, the spine imprints into the mat.
a. Belt Test Prep. Lie as above, with knees bent; this time take a belt (i.e. yoga belt) under the spine, directly opposite the navel. Exhale deeply as in A (Breath Work) above, but this time gently pull the back of the waist into the mat, taking a slight posterior pelvic tilt and thus imprinting the spine into the mat. The strength of this contraction is tested by tugging on the belt to see if it moves (i.e. can be pulled out from underneath you). The goal is not to let the belt move! Be certain you are pulling the lower abs flat and wide as you do this – if there is a little upward bulge in the lower abdomen, incorrect muscles are being activated (the RA, or rectus abdominus). If this happens, stop and try again. Don’t indulge the RA – it pulls the spine into flexion and thus ‘tugs’ on the lower back, and will aggravate any separation of the abdominals if present.
To progress this exercise, perform the belt test, then lift one leg at a time into tabletop position so both legs are up in the air. Then take the heels of the hands and press them firmly into the front of the knees; create resistance between the hands and the knees and keep the angle of the hip at 90°. Lengthen the spine muscles and pull the shoulders away from the ears; the arms should really be working as you do this. ‘Turn on’ the belt test muscles in this position as you exhale; then inhale and ‘turn off’ the tension. Repeat until tired or incorrect muscle recruitment starts to occur. Relax by pulling the knees to the chest and gently rocking the lower spine from side to side.
b. Femur Arcs II. Same as Femur Arcs I, but this time perform the ‘belt test’ first and lift both legs in the air, then alternate dipping the toes towards the mat. Repeat at least 6 sets.
c. Diamond Toe Dips. Same set-up as Femur Arcs II, but when legs are lifted into tabletop, take the big toes together and turn knees out to the side so legs make a diamond shape. Toes should arc away from nose. Dip toes down towards mat on an exhale and inhale legs back up to starting position. Repeat at least 6 sets.
For 2 and 3 above, it is very important that the back doesn’t arch away from the mat, nor should the pelvis swing. Your deep core muscles should be contracted to prevent any spinal or pelvic movement; the only thing happening is a hinging of the thighs – the femur head – in the hip socket. As first the legs may only move 1 or 2 cm towards the mat. That’s OK! The lower back may be compromised if these exercises are done incorrectly. Hands may be placed palm down under the lower ribs while performing these movements; keep an even, firm pressure on the hands with the ribs as the legs dip down. You can “self correct” this way.
Note: You should be at least six weeks post-partum and have physician’s approval to commence an exercise regime following delivery. If you are new to Pilates, it is strongly recommended that you work with a qualified Pilates practitioner before independently commencing Pilates at home, particularly if newly post-natal. Your instructor will check your abdominals to be certain they haven’t separated during pregnancy (rectus diastasis) and that you haven’t suffered any serious pelvic misalignment. If either of these conditions are detected, it is imperative that you work privately with your Pilates instructor or physical therapist before entering group classes or independent practice.
Written by Heather Thomas Shalabi of Flex Studio.
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