(Shortened) hip flexors and why they have to be treated specially when working out
Everybody knows sit-ups. Many think they can be used to strengthen abs. Few know that crunches and sit-ups are actually only recommended partially. Do you know why? And are “table top” position exercises we know from Pilates also not suited for postnatal training?
Too much pressure on abs and pelvic floor. Back pain. Wrong head- and neck posture.
When doing sit-ups and crunches, where you lay on your back and move your upper body towards the bent knees, pressure on abs and pelvic floor is too high.
Since both is strongly affected by a pregnancy and weakened after birth, mums can’t stand this pressure just yet.
If the head is held lifted, pressure increases even more. If the abdominal muscles can’t absorb it yet, this pressure can have a strong impact on the pelvic floor and the uterus or bladder might get pushed downwards permanently.
Especially in the beginning, the belly is very soft and many mums’ rectus diastase is not completely closed yet. Studies have shown that one third of women who gave birth to their first child and approximately two thirds of women who’ve already given birth several times suffer from this. In doing the formerly named exercises, the abdomen can get pushed outwards and the rectus diastase might get affected negatively, so that, in the worst case, the gap gets bigger.
Not to mention is the extremely high pressure on the lower back (lumbar spine). Especially mums who suffer from back problems should be careful here. The head is often not held straight when it’s lifted (rule of thumb: the distance between chin and sternum should be about one clenched fist held diagonally), but the chin is being pulled towards the sternum. This wrong head- and neck-posture leads to more problems in the upper back region.
And now onto my main focus: Hip flexors (m. Iliopsoas)
Especially the hip flexors are being shortened instead of stretched in these exercises. Another reason for pain in the lower back region. And I don’t think I need to mention that many pregnant women suffer from strong back pain (as a consequence of the increasingly growing belly) and develop a malposition (strong hollow-back) because of that. After birth, the baby wants to be carried all the time (if possible) and nestle up against mum’s body. It comes in handy, that baby carriers and carrying scarfs have been invented! That way, mum can carry her baby and still have both hands free. But even here constantly carrying the baby has got negative consequences for mum’s back. So instead of working against this bad posture and stretching the hip-flexors for an upright posture, we favour the malposition.
Table Top positions coming from Pilates
In my opinion, table top positions that we know from pilates bring a lot of danger for mums as well:
The same reasons mentioned above apply here. Main reason is (besides the non-existing abs and the wrong execution of the exercise that’s resulting from it) again the hip-flexor, which is being shortened in these exercises.
Hip flexors in day-to-day life.
The reason why we shouldn’t add strain to our hip flexors in exercises like sit-ups, crunches or table top exercises is obvious: Our hip flexors are already being shortened daily – because of constant SITTING – and rarely stretched. The following examples will illustrate that:
- We’re picking up the older sibling from kindergarten. Today we want to be extra active, so we decide to take the bike. But every time we kick the pedal, our hip flexors are being activated.
- The way to kindergarten or the grocery store. Here we either SIT in the car, or SIT on public transportation (however, despite the signs only few people actually get up for pregnant women or women with toddlers and babies).
- We arrange dates with other mums and make our way to the playground with the stroller and the older child. Again: We SIT down on the bench and have a chat for 30 to 60 minutes.
- Falling is part of the game. We all know that. That’s why us mums constantly have to be prepared to comfort our child/our children. To do so, we often lift the littles ones on our lap and comfort them while SITTING.
- Of course we place great value on sharing meals with the family. With every baby/toddler/child at the table, the odds of a SIT-standing-mum increase: What characterizes her is that she barely sat down, until she remembers what is missing at the table, until the first child needs to use the bathroom, until she needs to go get a wet cloth because the first glass has spilled over. A constant activating of the hip flexors is being promoted by constantly sitting down and getting up again.
Quadruped positions and plank positions as an alternative
To minimize pressure on the lumbar spine, the pelvic floor and the abs, exercises in quadruped positions are beneficial, especially during times of postnatal training. These exercises can be controlled better and hip flexors can be deactivated more easily. Moreover, quadruped positions are a great pre-stage to plank positions.
At the end of the day we mainly want one thing: A strong core and no back pain.
One last tipp (for abs):
During all exercises that affect the straight abdominal muscles, the belly button has to be pulled towards the spine when the abs are flexed (flat stomach). As soon as you notice your belling pointing upwards like a mountain, take that as a sign that your abdominal muscles are possibly still too weak or tired already. Try the exercise in a controlled way with a flat stomach again. If you’re still not able to do that, please stop the exercise.