You’ve just had a baby and you’re getting out of the fog of the first few weeks. Your little one is starting to sleep more, and every little coo and smile melts your heart. You’re blissfully posting happy moments of your baby’s first days all over social media, and then it happens: Those tan, toned and sleek physiques of the fit-fluencers you loved to follow pre-baby are showing up on your news feed, and you’re reminded that the body you once had isn’t quite the same anymore.
While every mom dreams of getting her body back in shape after giving birth, it seems logical to just start doing a bunch of crunches. Surely this will make me feel good, you tell yourself.
“Not really—that won’t help your midsection at all,” warns Michele Olson, Ph.D. and professor of exercise science at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama. "Crunches only target one of several ab muscles—primarily the rectus abdominis—and that's the one that's most overstretched during pregnancy," she explains. Not only will going crunch-crazy get you iffy results, you'll also put too much pressure on this now-delicate, overburdened muscle.
The biggest mistake most women make is going back to the exercise routines they used to do. Anything is technically better than nothing, but experts recommend putting some thought behind the moves you do in the little time you have. (Not all workout moves are created equal—sure, you’re working your body, which is always a plus, but if you’re doing a bunch of random exercises, don’t expect the new layer of postpartum pudge to just melt away.)
The new fat you’re noticing around your midsection—a bloated belly that makes it hard to button your pre-baby jeans or that brand-new muffin top—is the pinch-an-inch stuff called subcutaneous fat that lies just below the first layer of skin, causing all these new bulges (and the dreaded belly pooch). We know you don’t love it, but the good news, says Olson, is that this subcutaneous fat is the first to go when you start dropping pounds after baby is born. Cardio, high-intensity interval sessions and long walks with your babe (aim for 45 minutes at least four or five days a week, Olson recommends) will do wonders to make this superficial layer of pudge disappear.
The next part is tackling your midsection. That toned tummy is under there somewhere! While crunches tone the top layer of abs, planks and other Pilates moves go deeper and tone more of your core.
“Training your whole core hits your six-pack muscles as well as your internal and external obliques—the muscles that run up the sides of your midsection from your ribs to your pelvis,” says Olson. “When strengthened, these muscles have the ability to pull your entire midsection in like a corset,” she says.
So, if your abs went AWOL postpartum, the secret is in a series of science-proven Pilates moves that hit all your ab muscles at once to truly help them make a comeback. Olson herself spent months testing the below moves in a lab!
“During those nine months you’re pregnant, the abdomen gets stretched like a rubber band,” she says. To snap things back into place, practice these seven belly-flattening moves to sculpt and cinch your core where it matters most.
Lie faceup and lift your legs over your hips, knees bent. Reach your arms straight up over your shoulders, then press your lower back into the floor. Slowly lower one arm and one leg at the same time, holding both just above the floor before returning to the start. Continue, alternating sides. Do 10 reps each side.
Lie on your side with your legs extended and stacked, and support your upper body with your elbow and forearm, placed directly beneath your shoulder. Lift your hips to align with your head and heels, and hold. Repeat on both sides. (To make it easier: Stack your knees and bend legs with feet pointing behind you as lift hips while keeping bottom knee on ground.) Do 10 reps each side.
Get on all fours with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips. Maintain a neutral spine as you extend one leg behind you and reach the opposite arm forward so both are parallel to the floor. Pause, then bend your knee and elbow and touch them underneath your body while maintaining your neutral spine. Do all reps on one side before switching. Do 10 reps each side.
Lie faceup on the floor and extend your legs straight up over your hips, toes pointed. Press your lower back into the floor and hold it there throughout the move. Lift your head, shoulders and upper back off the floor, and reach your fingers toward your feet, about 2 inches off the floor. Lower your legs a few inches and hold here as you pump your arms up and down in a small range of motion, inhaling for five pumps and exhaling for five pumps. Do 100 total pumps, then rest. (Make it easier: Start with fewer reps and work up to 100.)
Lie faceup on your back with your legs straight and arms reaching behind your head. Tighten your abs, then inhale while bringing your arms forward, parallel to your chin. Nod your head forward and try to hit each vertebra as you roll your body upward and forward from the hips, arms extending toward your feet. Inhale as you prepare to roll back down to the mat, going one vertebra at a time. Do 5 to 10 reps.
Lie faceup and draw your knees into your chest, toes pointed. Press your lower back into the floor, then exhale and lift your head, shoulders and upper back and wrap your hands around your knees. Inhale as you simultaneously reach your arms and legs in opposite directions, extending as far as possible without losing your lower-back position. Sweep your arms out to the sides and exhale as you return to the start. Do 10 reps.
Lie faceup, legs in the tabletop position, hands behind your ears. Lift your head and shoulders off the floor. Twist your midsection, bringing your right shoulder toward your left hip, with the left knee flexing inward. Extend the right leg up and out at a 45-degree angle. Repeat on the other side, bringing the left shoulder toward the right hip. Repeat for a total of 10 reps each side.