Will my stomach ever return to what it was before pregnancy? That’s probably the most frequent question voiced by new moms regarding their postpartum bodies. During pregnancy, the biomechanical and hormonal changes cause a thinning and widening of the connective tissue between the two sides of the rectus abdominis muscles, creating more room for the baby to grow. This is called diastasis recti, and every pregnant woman will experience this condition to some degree as a normal response to pregnancy. After you give birth, your tummy may still protrude because of the thinned connective tissue and weakened abdominal muscles, and it can take time for your body to recover.
Although your tummy may feel loose and weak postpartum, you can begin rebuilding abdominal strength and function by starting a unique series of progressive steps called the Sahrmann exercises. Physical therapist Dr. Shirley Sahrmann designed the five exercises to specifically target weak postpartum abdominal muscles without putting stress on the lower back. Most women can start these exercises within several weeks postpartum after any incisions or tears are fully healed.
The basis for correctly performing each Sahrmann exercise is mastering the “basic breath.” Practice this technique before attempting the first move so that you learn to correctly isolate the muscles targeted in the series. For each of these exercises, work up to 20 repetitions for each leg before moving to the next level.
Lie on your back with knees bent, feet resting on the floor, and arms at your sides. Take a deep breath, expanding your belly as you inhale, and then tighten your abdominal muscles as you slowly exhale. Think of pulling your belly button down toward your spine as you contract the muscles. When you can continue to hold the contraction as you breathe in and out, you’re ready for the first exercise.
Sahrmann Exercise #1
In the basic breath position on the floor, take a deep breath and contract your abdominal muscles. Continue to hold the contraction as you slowly slide one leg out from the bent-knee position until it is straight, and then slowly slide it back to starting position. Relax your abdominal contraction, and then repeat the sequence with the opposite leg. Avoid flattening or arching your back as you do these exercises—your spine should remain in a fairly neutral position.
Sahrmann Exercise #2
Perform the basic breath, and as you hold the abdominal contraction, raise one knee up to a 90-degree angle, and then slowly straighten that leg until it’s horizontal to the floor. Return to starting position, and repeat the sequence with the opposite leg.
Sahrmann Exercise #3
Perform the basic breath, and as you hold the abdominal contraction, raise both knees up to a 90-degree angle. Slowly lower one leg down, keeping the knee bent until your foot touches the floor. Return to starting position, and repeat the sequence with the opposite leg.
Sahrmann Exercise #4
Perform the basic breath, and as you hold the abdominal contraction, raise both knees up to a 90-degree angle. Slowly extend one leg out, parallel with the floor but not touching it. Return to starting position, and repeat the sequence with the opposite leg.
Sahrmann Exercise #5
Perform the basic breath, and as you hold the abdominal contraction, lift both legs straight up from your hips to a 90-degree angle. Slowly lower both legs ten to 20 degrees—if your lower back starts to feel uncomfortable, ease up on the degree of movement.
Progress slowly and carefully with these exercises, taking time to master each before moving to the next level. If you continue to do these exercises three or four times a week, you’ll notice that your tummy will begin to flatten and firm up within a month or two.