Postnatal exercise options can be confusing and daunting. Buggy classes, Postnatal Pilates, yoga, bootcamps and personal trainers all claiming to ‘get your body back’ are everywhere. Is PostNatal Pilates the answer to a flatter stomach after childbirth?
WHAT IS IT?
Pilates is derived from the work of Joseph Pilates, which he called “Contrology”. There is actually no definitive set of Pilates exercises – all Pilates taught now has been developed or adapted from his work. The underlying principle is to use controlled, slow movements to build core strength. It is a low impact, non aerobic form of exercises, performed either on mats / the floor, or using special studio machines called ‘reformers’.
Pilates exercises focus on using your “PowerHouse” which refers to the core muscles of the abdomen (front) , lower back (back), pelvic floor (underneath) and diaphragm (top). Training these muscles will re-align your posture, strengthen your back and alleviate back pain, as well give you flat abs. There is an emphasis on breathing and focus, and correctly engaging the core muscles whilst performing specific, subtle, but challenging exercises.
Pilates is often promoted as an ideal postnatal exercise class, on the basis that it is gentle and non impact, whilst promoting restorative core strength building after childbirth.
WHAT CAN IT DO?
The core strengthening / postural correcting / body awareness-raising potential of correctly performed Pilates can be extremely beneficial. Pilates can help you to find and then strengthen your deep core muscles, including your pelvic floor, and to build the foundations for a flat stomach and strong back. Pilates practitioners tend to be very aware of their body and posture, resulting in correct alignment and consequent relief from back pain. These aspects can all be particularly relevant and beneficial to postnatal women.
LIMITATIONS / WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR
You won’t lose fat on any significant level by only practising Pilates.
Pilates terminology in a class can be hard to follow, and the muscular actions seemingly difficult to learn. Instruction to ‘engage core muscles’, or ‘fire the powerhouse’ will often not resonate with a large proportion of the group. If the muscles aren’t engaged correctly, the exercise is ineffective, or even counter-productive.
There are a number of very common, or classic, Pilates moves which will exacerbate a diastasis recti or split abdominals unless the abdominal muscles are absolutely correctly engaged (and even then the movement will not do anything to close up a diastasis…). Examples are: straight leg lifts; roll-downs with straight legs; scissor legs (especially with head and neck lifted); 100’s if not properly adapted (bent legs and close monitoring that the transverse muscle is engaged correctly); anything that involves rolling or lifting the upper body from a lying down position with feet tucked under something or held down.
Be sure that your Pilates instructor is qualified to teach postnatal women. She / he should be competent to test you individually for a diastasis before you commence the class and explain which moves you will need to adapt or avoid. If an instructor gives you any of the above moves, or doesn’t seem to understand the meaning or implications of diastasis recti – find a different one!
IN MY HUMBLE OPINON…
Pilates is based on finding, focusing on and engaging the vital core muscles of the abdomen, pelvic floor and lower back, to build strength, stability and alignment. All essential elements of any remotely effective postnatal exercises programme. However, branded “Pilates” does not have a monopoly on achieving these aims and is not the whole story. You’ll also need to address your nutrition and do some interval training which includes resistance training in order to build lean muscle and lose fat.
There is a lot of crossover of exercise disciplines, and in my view no one ‘theory’ has the complete solution. Rarely is a ‘technique’ really unique or new. The principles of focussing the mind, combined with precise, controlled, flowing movement, and awareness of the breath could all be taken straight from ancient Yoga practice.
Modern, progressive exercise science and physiotherapy knows the importance of correct core muscle engagement within an effective functional resistance exercise program.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you been to a Pilates class and felt like everyone else is feeling something that you’re not? Are you a Pilates practitioner, teacher or class goer? Do you combine it with other forms of exercise, or practice pure Pilates? Your opinions, whether you agree with me or not, would be very welcome :)