How to Strengthen Your Abdominal Muscles After Surgery

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People who have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are often not strangers to abdominal surgery. People with Crohn's disease have a 75% chance of needing surgery to manage the disease. In ulcerative colitis patients, about 23% to 45% will require some type of surgery (usually a colectomy).

After any abdominal surgery, once you have been cleared by the surgeon to participate in regular activities, thoughts might turn to firm up abdominal muscles. Exercise promotes overall better health, and getting back into the swing of exercise after surgery is one way to lower the risk of future health problems.

Man doing a plank exercise while watching a tablet computer
FatCamera / Getty Images

Starting Post-Surgery Ab Workouts

A few tips to remember before getting started on a new workout routine:

  • Get permission from your surgeon, gastroenterologist, and/or general practitioner before beginning a new exercise routine.
  • Sip water (or sports drinks) before, during, and after a workout to keep from getting dehydrated (this is especially important for people with an ostomy or j-pouch).
  • Start an exercise routine as part of an overall fitness plan that includes eating a well-balanced diet.
  • Don't feel guilty for skipping a workout, but resolve to keep your next exercise time.
  • Be aware of any physical restrictions. For example, contact sports are probably not a good idea soon after surgery.
Sample Ab Workouts
Beginner Intermediate Advanced
Pelvic Tilts
Oblique Twists
Full Vertical Crunch
Ab Rolls and Plank on Ball
Core Ab Rolls
Ab Rolls and Plank on Ball

Fitting Exercise Into Your Schedule

The first thing to consider is how to fit an exercise routine into a daily schedule. Most people need a day of rest in between each workout session, so three times a week is a good target to start. Scheduling workouts at the same time of day will help you develop a routine.

Safely Targeting Abdominal Muscles

Reverse and regular crunches can be used to target abdominal muscles. To prevent straining back muscles, remember to keep the back flat against the floor. It's not necessary to have any special exercise equipment to do crunches. However, an exercise ball will help target the abdominal muscles.

Contrary to what many people think, doing large amounts of crunches all at once won't necessarily help you.

Concentrating on proper form and doing a variety of exercises is the best way to strengthen your abs.

Overall Fitness Routine for IBD

Along with tightening up the ab muscles, it is a good idea to put some cardio exercise and weight training into a workout routine. Walking, running, swimming, and bicycling will help create an overall fitness routine and all of these could be good activities for people who have IBD.

Weight training can help strengthen muscles that are weak after inactivity or after the use of steroids (which can cause unintentional weight gain). Ab exercises help firm up the muscles of the torso but doesn't do much for reducing the body fat that is covering up the abs.

For those with extra weight in the abdominal area, an overall fitness plan and a sensible diet to lose that weight, coupled with abdominal exercise, is the best approach.

Keeping Workouts Fresh

To keep from stagnating or getting bored, aim for variety in your routine and incorporate many different kinds of exercises to maximize the body's response. Workout videos focusing on ab muscles, yoga, or Pilates may also help.

Enlist the help of those around you to keep up with a new fitness routine. Find an exercise buddy, head to a gym for a workout with a trainer, or ask a doctor to recommend an exercise program. With some determination and sweat, you can be on your way to looking and feeling great despite the abdominal surgery.

A Word From Verywell

The key to firming and strengthening is making exercise a habit. Many people will notice that their strength increases quickly after starting a comprehensive fitness program. Weight loss and other noticeable effects will take more time—anywhere from 6 to 18 weeks.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America. Surgery for Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

  2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Benefits of Physical Activity.

  3. Backes TP, Fitzgerald K. Fluid consumption, exercise, and cognitive performance. Biol Sport. 2016;33(3):291-296. doi: 10.5604/20831862.1208485

  4. Engels M, Cross RK, Long MD. Exercise in patients with inflammatory bowel diseases: current perspectives. CEG. 2017;11:1-11. doi: 10.2147/CEG.S120816

  5. Savas M, Wester VL, Staufenbiel SM, et al. Systematic evaluation of corticosteroid use in obese and non-obese individuals: a multi-cohort study. Int J Med Sci. 2017;14(7):615-621. doi: 10.7150/ijms.19213

By Amber J. Tresca
Amber J. Tresca is a freelance writer and speaker who covers digestive conditions, including IBD. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 16.