Even before your baby bump was visible to the world, you may have worried: Will my abs ever be the same? Genetics, how much weight you gain and the size of your baby all can affect how well your abdominal muscles bounce back after pregnancy, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala. So can exercise.
As your belly stretches to accommodate your growing baby, your abdominal muscles become weak and lax. After childbirth, your uterus slowly shrinks back to nearly its pre-pregnancy size. "But your abdominals need to be reconditioned to return to their original strength and length," explains Helene Byrne, founder of BeFit-Mom and author of Bounce Back FAST!: The Post Natal Core Conditioning DVD.
Many new moms make the mistake of jumping right back into crunches and other moves that target the outermost abdominal muscles. But, at this point, these exercises can actually do more harm than good, says Byrne. Instead, you should work on strengthening your pelvic floor and deepest abdominal muscle, the transverse abdominis, which runs horizontally across your abdomen. "To flatten the abs after pregnancy, you must prevent the bulging of the abdominal wall as you exercise," says Byrne. If you start with exercises that target the outermost muscles, the transverse abdominis will not be strong enough to prevent your midsection from bulging outward. Strengthening the underlying muscles also helps repair a diastasis recti, a separation of the rectus abdominis that's common during pregnancy. (See "What Exactly Is a Diastasis?".)
Your abs could be back to normal in as little as six months, though for some women, it can take a year or longer. You'll also have to peel off the pregnancy pounds, preferably with a combo of regular cardio exercise, strength training and a healthy diet, Olson says. Warning: Even after the baby weight is gone, you may be left with some loose, saggy skin. While exercise won't get rid of it, you can still look sexy by strengthening and firming the muscles underneath.
The following exercises strengthen your deepest abdominal muscle, the transverse abdominis, which (ideally) acts as an internal "girdle," giving your abs a flat appearance. The transverse abdominis also provides stability and strength to your lower back.