Nine months of pregnancy can give you not only a bouncing baby, but a bulging belly as well. Even if your weight is back to normal, stretched and weakened abdominal muscles can leave you with a paunch. What's more, for most women the stretching is accompanied by diastasis recti, a painless separation of the central abdominal muscle (which runs vertically from rib cage to pubic bone) that occurs as the belly expands during pregnancy, says Raul Artal, M.D., chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the St. Louis University School of Medicine.
In most cases, the gap will close up within a few months of delivery, but without exercise ab muscles will remain weak, which can lead to lower-back pain. But if you start doing regular situps, you could actually slow the healing process, says Catherine Cram, an exercise physiologist specializing in postpartum fitness in Middleton, WI. Also, standard situps don't target the lower abs, which is where most of the stretching and weakening occurs during pregnancy. To gently and gradually tone up a postbaby belly, try these lower-ab exercises, designed by Shirley Sahrmann, Ph.D., a physical therapist at the Washington University School of Medicine. Because you progress through the moves as you feel ready, these exercises are ideal for postpartum ab work. And they're so effective you may want to make them a permanent part of your fitness routine. "When these exercises are done properly, abdominal strength and tone may return in postpartum women in four to eight weeks," says Cram. "And they help get rid of the 'pooch' below your belly button without putting stress on your lower back."
Begin doing these moves as soon after giving birth as you're physically able. If you had a C-section or pregnancy complications, or have a wide diastasis, check with your doctor before working out.
Click ahead for a Step-by-Step Ab Toning routine
Step-by-Step Ab Toners
Starting position: Lie on your back, knees bent, arms out at sides; let back curve naturally. Breathe in and out slowly and deeply; pull navel in toward the spine as you exhale. To prevent injury, do not arch your back during the exercises. When breathing feels comfortable, add exercise 1. All exercises start from this position; work up to each gradually.
1. Without holding your breath, tighten lower abdominal muscles and slide one leg down the floor until it's flat, then slide it back up to a bent position. Relax ab muscles. Repeat with other leg. Continue, alternating legs. When you can do 20 slides on each leg, move to exercise 2.
2a. Pull lower abs in and raise one bent leg until calf is parallel to floor.
2b. Then extend leg straight out without touching floor. Pause, then return to starting position and relax abs. Repeat 5 times without pausing for each leg. When you can do 20 times on each side, proceed to exercise 3.
3a. Inhale, exhale, and pull abs in, keeping them taut. Raise one bent leg, then the other, so calves are parallel to floor.
3b. Bring first leg back to floor, then raise it again. Repeat with second leg. When you can do 10 reps on each side, go to exercise 4.
4. Pull in abs and lift both legs, as in 3a. Then, extend one leg straight out, without touching floor. Switch leg positions. Repeat "bicycle" so each leg is extended 10 times. Work up to 20 reps on each leg.