Author Marianne Ryan explains why sit-ups and abdominal crunches won’t necessarily give you the flat post-baby tummy you want and gives 4 exercises that will.
If you want to get back in shape following pregnancy (even if your babies are all grown up), in particular if you want to get rid of your tummy, you may be tempted to start with some sit-ups or abdominal crunches because everyone knows that is the only way to a perfect washboard stomach, right? Wrong! The problem is not so much what these types of exercises are doing to your “six-pack” abdominal muscles, but the effect they are having on your lower abdominal muscles, which lie underneath your “six-pack” muscles.
In this post I will explain why sit-ups can actually give you a ‘pooch’ in your lower belly, rather than flattening it. So, instead of you wasting your time doing the wrong exercises, I will also teach you four simple exercises that will flatten your tummy and take less than 10 minutes per day.
The problem with sit-ups and crunches
You’ve probably been told a thousand times that the way to a flat tummy is to do hundreds of sit-ups and crunches, so why am I telling you otherwise? The thing is, performing sit-ups or crunches can cause your upper abdominals (your ‘six-pack’ muscles) to become over-trained and much stronger than your lower abdominals – what is referred to as a muscle imbalance. If this happens, each time you perform a sit-up or a crunch, the upper abdominal wall tightens and causes a ‘funnel pressure’, which presses down and into the lower abdominal area, pushing it out into an unsightly “pooch” in the lower tummy (see fig.1 above); and who wants that?
Here is a typical example of a muscle imbalance in the abdominal muscles. As you can see in figure 2, the women has a very tight waistline but a soft tummy below. This is because her upper abdominals are much stronger than her lower abdominals which produces excess downward pressure in the abdomen, causing her lower tummy to “pooch” outwards.
Here is another example of an Olympic Volleyball Player (figure 3). Her upper abdominals are so over-developed that her lower tummy looks puffy instead of flat.
So how do I get a flat tummy?
Here are four simple exercises you can do instead of sit-ups and crunches. They are designed to strengthen from the inside out ensuring that your deeper, lower abdominals are strengthened at the same time as you strengthen your “six-pack” muscles, preventing muscle imbalances and helping you develop a flat tummy.
(Note: Please read disclaimer prior to performing exercises)
Exercise 1: THE PELVIC-CORE STARTER
- Start Position: Lie comfortably on your back on a firm surface. Keep your head relaxed. You may use a thin pillow or folded towel under your head if you like. Place one or two pillows under your buttocks. After a week or so try it without the pillows.
- Bend your knees and hips keeping your feet flat on the ground, hip width apart.
- Place two fingers of each hand on the top part of your panty line, just inside your pelvis.
- Now, gently EXHALE and perform a pelvic floor contraction, as if you are trying to stop the flow of 1 or 2 drops of urine. Try to hold this contraction for 3 seconds. (Try slowly counting out loud, “O-n-e Mississippi, T-w-o Mississippi, T-h-r-e-e Mississippi”)
- Relax. Then perform 3 quick contractions, where you gently contract then relax your pelvic floor, remember to gently exhale with each contraction. (Try counting out loud, “One – Relax, Two – Relax, Three – Relax”)
- Now relax for 6 seconds.
- Do each set 10 times in a row, 3 times per day.
It should feel as if your abdomen is gently drawing in towards your spine, not bulging outwards as you contract your pelvic floor muscles. Don’t force it by pulling your belly button towards your spine; let it happen naturally. Remember to be gentle! Less is more. If you try too hard you will be working the outer layer of abdominals not your deeper core muscles.
Got it? Once you feel confident about doing this exercise correctly, try doing it in different positions while sitting, standing and even walking instead of just on a mat. Then try to fit it in during your normal daily activities; such as while you cook a meal, wait at a traffic light or while checking your Facebook page.
You can gradually build up to holding the long contraction for 5 seconds, then do 5 quick contractions and relax for 10 seconds in between each set.
Exercise 2: THE HEEL SLIDER – "The Hovercraft”
- Start Position: Lie comfortably on your back with your knees and hips bent keeping your feet flat on the ground, hip width apart. You can use a thin pillow or folded towel to support your head.
- Place both hands on your tummy, and spread your fingers so that your thumbs are touching the lower part of your rib cage and the tips of your fingers are touching the sides of your pelvis. (See hand placement in the image above.) Only your legs should move while you perform this exercise so use your hands to monitor excessive movement.
- First, gently exhale and count out loud the entire time you do this exercise.
- Then contract your deep abdominal muscles by doing the "pelvic-core starter" exercise (exercise 1, above).
- Next, lift the heel of one foot ¼ inch above the floor. Slowly slide that heel just above the ground, like a hovercraft, as you straighten your leg. Keep your heel above the ground and then return to the start position by slowly gliding your heel ¼ inch, like a hovercraft, back towards your buttocks. (Do this slowly; it should take about 5 seconds or “Mississippi counts” to straighten your leg and another 5 seconds to return to the start position)
- Make sure you don't wiggle your pelvis while you straighten and bend your leg!
- Repeat with the other leg.
- Do this 10 times on each leg and work up to 3 sets of 10.
Remember to continue gently exhaling or counting out loud while you do the heel slide in both directions.
Exercise 3: THE BRIDGE
- Start Position: Lie on your back with your knees and hips bent and hip width apart. You can use a thin pillow or folded towel to support your head.
- Your head and arms should be relaxed during the entire exercise.
- Put your weight on the heels of your feet and point your toes towards the ceiling so they are lifted off the floor.
- Next, gently EXHALE and count out loud as your do the entire exercise.
- Then lift your bottom off the floor, aiming for a straight line from your shoulders to your knees.
- Hold this position for a count of 3 then slowly lower your body back to the start position. Repeat this 10 times.
- Work up to holding the bridge position for 10 counts, then repeat 10 times.
Exercise 4: DIAGONAL “TAFFY PULLS” - “The Hitch Hiker”
- Start Position: Sit on a chair and hold an exercise band with both hands in the thumbs up position. Then place one hand at shoulder height and then other hand at hip height while holding the exercise band (see figure 7). (Note: Do not move your lower hand during the exercise.)
- Look at the hand that is at shoulder height and EXHALE or count out loud as you move it upwards in a diagonal, as if “hitching” a ride (figure 3).
- Continue moving your head and looking at the moving hand as you raise it upwards in a diagonal and then as you slowly lower it back to the start position.
- Do this 10 times on each side. Try to build up to doing 3 sets of 10 lifts in the sitting position.
- Once you feel strong enough and can do 3 sets of 10 in the sitting position, try to do this exercise when standing. Start with 1 set of 10 lifts on each side and gradually build up to 3 sets of 10 lifts.
You can see then that, although sit-ups and crunches can prevent you from flattening your tummy, there are alternative exercises you can do that can give you that washboard stomach you’ve always wanted. The exercises I have given here will help you make a start without taking up too much of your time. They are very simple and should take less than 10 minutes a day!
I’d love to hear how you get on with these exercises. Please share your experiences of toning your tummy, share your favorite flat stomach exercises or ask me a question in the comments box.
In my book, Baby Bod®, now available on Amazon.com, I explain the effects of pregnancy on the body, explore why exercises that are commonly advised are not necessarily the best exercise for you and offer some alternatives. Chapter 6 shows you the right way to do core exercises to get that slim profile every woman wants.
Marianne Ryan PT
MARIANNE RYAN PT, OCS is a physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist. She is the owner and Clinical Director of MRPT Physical Therapy, and a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association Media Corps. With more than 30 years' experience, she specializes in the treatment of the spine, pelvis and jaw, with particular emphasis on the treatment of prenatal and postpartum patients. She has taught physical therapy treatment and exercises for prenatal and postpartum women at the nurse midwifery program at Columbia University School of Nursing, and has also taught at the TMJ clinic at New York University Dental School. A much sought-after media guest, Marianne has appeared on dozens of national TV and radio shows, and has also been featured in Red Book, Fitness Magazine, USA Today, Shape Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. She was also featured in the film Drifting, a documentary about movement produced by the Tribeca Film Institute. Passionate about helping women to restore their stomachs after pregnancy and childbirth, Marianne is author of the book Baby Bod® - Turn Flab into Fab in 12 Weeks Flat (available on Amazon.com).