There are few exercises that you can vary as much as planks. If you do planks correctly (because yes, you can also do them incorrectly), you will exercise your whole body and not just your abs.

What should new mothers be aware of?

How do you know if you are ready for this exercise? 

Where do we draw the line?

Before I go any further, I would like to point out that I am against all those plank challenges where you have to hold the plank as long as you can and preferably keep on increasing the duration every day, or every time you do it. Why? Because I don’t see any point in it!

If you can hold a plank for 1 minute, what functional difference does it make if you can hold it for 3 minutes? Or 5 minutes? You say it’s just a bit of fun… the fun (and smart!) thing to do in my world is to make the plank harder and harder – and that’s what I recommend you do. What defines a strong core? Being able to hold a plank for 10 minutes? Doing 100 sit-ups per day? Somewhere along the line, the idea that ‘more is better!’ crept into the world of fitness. This applies to all kinds of exercise, not just planks. It’s one thing to increase the weight in a deadlift, but adding more time to a plank can be a counterproductive goal.

Streamlining and optimising your workouts is more my style than just working out or exercising anything and everything for the sake of it, or longer and longer to achieve the same effect as before. 

If you are a new mother with stretched abdominal muscles, planking may be too hard for you at the very beginning. Especially if you didn’t exercise before or during pregnancy. Gaining control of your core is what is important for you. This is true for ALL new mothers, but for some of you, it will take longer before you can start planking. Everyone is different – that’s what I’m saying. There is no black and white, do or die, when it comes to fitness for mums. There’s only YOU, and what YOU are able to do. But be smart. Don’t push through the pain, and don’t push through if something doesn’t feel right.

Let’s start from the beginning:

Your posture! Because of your baby bump, your centre of gravity changed during pregnancy: you arch your back more than you used to, you pull your buttocks under you to compensate for the weight, you have rounded shoulders because your breasts and bump were too heavy, and your hips are also tight because of your centre of gravity. So, your task will be to get your body to regain good posture with the help of exercise. Because if you DON’T exercise, these weakened (or tight) muscles will affect your everyday life in the form of back pain, hip pain, and pelvic floor problems. This makes it difficult to care for your baby.

To get an idea of what good posture looks like, see the picture below:

Picture to the left: neutral position – THIS is the position you are aiming for. It is very important to maintain this position in all exercises, and especially when doing planks, as many people complain about lower back pain. This is because they are not maintaining a neutral position or have not learned to engage their core muscles.

Picture to the right: arched back, rounded shoulders, weak core.

To find a neutral position: Lie on your back and bend your knees.

Observe 3 points: your pubic bone and each hip bone. These three should all be at the same height. Most commonly, the pubic bone sticks up because many people automatically want to push their lower back down against the floor. Don’t do that!  Adjust these three points and you’ll have a natural, neutral arch.

Now try standing. You can see in the picture that these points are all at the same height and the arch is natural, there is no over-arching. The buttocks are also automatically engaged. This movement you make with your pelvis is called hollowing, lifting the pelvic floor slightly and pulling the navel in towards the spine. If you want to increase activation without engaging the superficial muscles, you should focus on hollowing – especially if you are a new mother.

A rule of thumb I follow is that you should be able to do 10 hollowings where you can keep your stomach pulled in for 30 seconds (and be able to breathe at the same time!)  before you move on and try planking. 

All pregnant women suffer from diastasis recti, where the rectus abdominis is pulled into two parts as the uterus gets bigger. The rectus abdominis is held together by a tendon called the linea alba. This also stretches, becoming thinner, longer and wider. After you give birth it is not at all certain that the gap will close back up – many women have the separation for quite a while and sometimes don’t even realise. The result is a protruding stomach, despite lots of exercise. What these mothers may not have considered is that the exercises they are doing are not suitable for THEM. And the fact is that the fittest mothers can have the widest separations, precisely because of incorrect abdominal workouts from an early age because many believe they don’t need to build up their core for tougher workouts. Let me tell you – everyone needs to do that. 

Begin your core exercises with breathing exercises. This is where to start. Then you can start adding diagonal lifts, heel dips, etc. In other words, you need to start daring to load your core with heavier exercises, otherwise how will you develop your core strength and core control?

Photo iStockphoto
Illustration Trainimal Woman