If you’ve ever been pregnant, you may have been surprised to notice that no matter how hard you exercised or how healthy you ate after, your belly always looked a little pregnant, that you had a “pooch” that never went away or, more surprisingly, got bigger the more core exercises you did. This, my friends, is the result of a condition called Diastasis Recti, which refers to the separation of abdominal wall muscles common after pregnancy.
The good news is that for many, this abdominal separation will repair on its own. But for some (particularly those with short torsos, those who had multiples, those who had cesarean sections, and athletes such as runners and dancers who have a tendency to brace their abs at all times), the abdominal muscles stay separated long-term and run the risk of further separation. This is not simply a cosmetic issue. This separation can also cause balance problems, back and pelvic pain, and can increase pelvic floor dysfunction. I think we can all agree that the last thing you want after having a baby is more drama with your pelvic floor.
How do I know if I have ab separation?
Your doctor may check you for diastasis recti at your 6-week postpartum visit, but there is also a very simple method for checking yourself. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Press your middle three fingers just above your belly button and slowly lift your shoulders off the ground, like you are doing a crunch. If you have a separation, you will feel it. Many people have a bit of separation naturally, but if your gap is more than one finger width, you have clinically defined diastasis recti.
Yikes! Now what?
Your best course of action will be to see your medical provider, who will tell you whether or not you would benefit from seeing a physical therapist. The best thing for resolving ab separation is to see a professional in person.
Additionally, there are a number of online exercise programs specifically designed to both heal the separation, and provide safe workouts that won’t make it worse. My personal favorites are EveryMother and Momma Strong, and I’ve heard great things about MUTU System and Nancy Anderson Fit.
How do I keep from making things worse?
The most important thing to know if you want to prevent worsening your ab gap is that you must stop doing classic core exercises. Especially stay away from any moves that require you to lift your shoulders off the floor from a back-lying position. This means no sit-ups, no crunches, no double leg lifts, no Pilates hundreds or teasers, nothing that causes your abdominal muscles to tent upwards. These exercises add more strain to the rectus abdominus muscles and will cause further separation, making the problem worse. Avoid any movement that causes your ab muscles to move outwards in a tent-like motion, or that causes you to brace your abs like you’re preparing to be punched. Swap these moves for anything that allow you to draw your belly button inward toward your spine, like bridges, single-leg lifts, and moves you can do on your hands and knees. Be very careful with planks; start with wall planks or incline planks on a sturdy piece of furniture, and only move on to floor planks when you are sure you can do these moves without straining while keeping your abs tight to your spine the entire time.
The Good News:
Diastasis recti is a common and annoying side effect of pregnancy, but it can be treated and doesn’t have to last forever. Talk to a doctor, consult a physical therapist, and remember to be gentle with yourself.