Whether you had baby last week, last month or last decade, if you're finding that either your pelvic floor isn't doing quite what it should (cough cough, oops wee!), your lower back is constantly aching, or you still sometimes get mistaken for being pregnant because of your poochy tum, then you may want to read on (or scroll down for the quick video lesson!)
One of the first things I do when working with someone new is to look at their posture and how they breathe. Being well aligned (more on that another time), and breathing correctly are essential to good pelvic health (meaning, a pelvic floor that only lets wees and farts out when you want it to) and a functioning core (including a flatter tummy and a stronger lower back - I say 'flatter', not 'flat' because we're mums and unless you're a celebrity with celeb style motivation to look 'perfect' all the time and celeb style funds to pay for a daily personal trainer session, you're unlikely to have a totally flat tum after having kids, ok? so just let that idea go and feel better for it).
Now you might be thinking, "If only I made time to do some sit ups every day and remember to do my pelvic floor squeezes (aka kegels), everything would be ok" but here's the thing, if you spend 20 minutes a day trying to isolate and strengthen those areas only, but for the remaining 23 hours and 40 mins of the day you sit (or lie) with your pelvis tucked in and get your breathing all wrong well, those situps are only going to get you so far and in fact - they might even take you away from your goal and here's why. To put it simply, the main muscle involved in breathing, the diaphragm (which sits underneath your rib cage, see image below), works directly with the pelvic floor. When you breathe in, your rib cage expands, the diaphragm flattens and moves down and so does your pelvic floor. Soooo many mamas try and do their kegel squeezes whilst breathing in, which is totally the opposite of what you want to be doing - Your PELVIC FLOOR SHOULD LIFT AS YOU BREATHE OUT. So do you see, by learning to breathe correctly all day every day, by connecting this breath properly to the pelvic floor, you are one step closer to avoiding having to wear tena lady pads and Spanx knickers all the time?!
Now even if you had your posture and breathing spot on before having children (which is HIGHLY unlikely due to our sedentary lifestyle btw), it will undoubtedly have been completely thrown out of whack during pregnancy as the growing baby filled up your ENTIRE BEING meaning internal 'stuff' had to move to make way; your rib cage lifted and there was hardly any space to take a full breath, your pelvis shifted forward to deal with the new centre of gravity and so on and so forth. Then baby comes along, you spend hours hunched over in bed feeding them, carrying them around in your arms then later, on your hips and guess what, your core gets even weaker because your body is still out of alignment and you don't even realise that you're rarely taking a full proper breath because you're just so tired and stressed, right? So, that could be why weeks, months, even years later - even when you've started exercising again and eating healthier - you can't get rid of that tum or go for a run without leaking; because your breathing, and your posture are still out of alignment.
So what does 'good' breathing look like? Back to the anatomy - your lungs are where you breathe into, it's where the magic happens and new fresh oxygen is exchanged with old manky carbon dioxide from the blood. The lungs are housed in your rib cage, therefore a proper breath in should lead to your rib cage expanding.
If this still isn't making sense, or you learn better from seeing things in action, do check out this video from one of my Fitmama Foundations workshops.
OK so it's time to check your breathing. Stand or sit upright and relax the belly, a little bit more - let it all out, that's right. Now, just pay attention to your breath for a few counts.... feeling better already right? Where do you notice the breath going after it passes down your throat? Are you a 'boob breather' (do your chest and shoulders rise a little? This is often linked to a life of anxiety or sucking your belly in to hide your tummy)? Or are you a belly breather (big deep, yogic cleansing breaths are great for clearing the mind and body sometimes, but if you allow the breath to put pressure down on to the diaphragm and belly all day every day, it's going to be pushing the pelvic floor down and out too)?
Whether belly or boob, the poor breathing habit you’ve developed needs to be undone if your core system is to work well and you want to improve your pelvic floor and strengthen your tum and lower back – so it’s ‘simply’ a case of teaching and reminding yourself to breathe into your sides/ribs. A good way to practise this to start with is to hold something stretchy, like a pair of tights or a fitness band, around your rib cage then actively try stretching out the band on each in-breath. (Sometimes the muscles connecting your ribs are tight, especially postnatally, so if you experience any pain or inability to take a full breath into the ribs – I recommend you see a good, women’s health physiotherapist or pregnancy/postnatal massage therapist Like Sharmila at Relaxrestorerevive in Bristol).
If nothing else today, become conscious of your breath, begin to notice and correct your breathing throughout your day, remind yourself that as you exhale, your pelvic floor should lift and as you inhale it should relax. If you want to work on this more, why not give me a shout. Here at fit4mama, I work alongside you to rebuild these systems in a way that doesn’t add further pressure to an already overloaded or weakened core. In the beginning we avoid certain traditional core exercises (crunches, planks, press ups) and instead work on your posture, breathing and whole body fitness in order to build core strength in a safe but effective way! Find out more or sign up to the Fitmama Fresh newsletter here.