It’s been six months since I had Miss E and the muscles in my belly are still feeling the after-effects of being stretched out every which way. Like many other pregnant women, I experienced Diastasis Recti – the separation of the Rectus Abdominis ‘six-pack’ muscle down the front of my stomach.
As a personal trainer who has helped women deal with Diastasis Recti and now as a mother myself experiencing having to treat it first-hand, I find it surprising the number of women who have had children and don’t know this condition even exists. I trained at the gym right up until two weeks before giving birth and my abs still feel weak and non-existent despite having been back working out for three months.
If you do end up with abdominal separation following your pregnancy, it’s important to treat it correctly so that your belly muscles have a chance to heal together.
What is Diastasis Recti?
This happens in late pregnancy when the ‘six-pack’ muscles in your belly separate down the middle to allow your uterus to expand as your baby grows, leaving a vertical gap close to your navel that remains after giving birth.
Depending on the level of separation this gap can be anywhere from 2cm to 20cm in width, some women may not visually notice any difference while others may have a permanent bulge in the middle of their tummy. This sometimes gets called ‘mummy tummy’ or gives the appearance of a belly ‘pooch’ and it is very common with first time mums – even more so with subsequent pregnancies.
Why it’s important to treat Diastasis Recti
Any gap in your abdominal muscles may cause weakness in your belly. This doesn’t just affect your core strength; a weaker core can cause hip pain and lower back pain especially when lifting heavy objects. It sometimes doesn’t get diagnosed until mums put their back out from repetitively lifting their children off the ground and doing regular daily activities.
It’s important to treat it because continuing to put strain on your abdomen may make the condition worse and could result in a hernia.
How do you know if you have Diastasis Recti?
Some women may be able to place their fingertips into their belly and feel the gap permanently while others may only feel it when the abdominal muscles are tensed.
To find out whether you have it, lie down on your back with your knees bent and soles of the feet flat on the floor (as if about to perform a situp). With one hand behind your head to support it, place the index and middle fingers of your other hand on your belly.
Slowly crunch up, lifting your shoulders and head off the ground while slowly exhaling and activating your belly muscles. Use your index and middle finger to press firmly into the belly directly above and bellow your navel. If you have Diastasis Recti, you may already be able to see a bulge here.
Use your fingers to palpate your belly and determine how wide the space is. A gap the width of two fingers or more will likely require specific training and actions to help close it.
Can abdominal separation be fixed?
Diastasis Recti will typically lessen on its own following childbirth but can take as long as a year or longer to heal. If you have poor posture, place excess strain on your belly through repetitive daily tasks such as getting out of bed, or perform certain abdominal exercises too soon after giving birth, it can potentially worsen or delay the healing of these muscles. The worst cases of Diastasis Recti may be closed surgically.
It’s important to remember that the muscles don’t need to close completely to get decent strength in your abdomen. If you think you have Diastasis Recti, the best thing to do is consult a personal trainer and/or physiotherapist who can help guide you in the exercises to avoid as well as giving you ones to help close the abdominal muscle gap.
What exercises should I avoid?
Any kind of abdominal crunching movement or one that places great strain on the area including situps, leg lifts, leg extensions or sitting up in bed (it’s best to retrain yourself to roll to the side).
Exercises that cause you to rotate through the belly such as bicycles may also cause further problems, as can positions where you are face down which can place added pressure on the muscles of your stomach wall (anything on all fours, press ups, back extensions on the floor, hovers and planks).
Also be careful when lifting heavy weights or performing other strenuous exercises such as running, jumping, and picking up children or the shopping.
What exercises will help
It’s important to learn how to activate your belly muscles, bringing your belly button towards your spine while tensing your abs. This should be done throughout your day with everything you do – especially when exercising.
While lying flat on the floor, practice engaging your stomach muscles and see how long you can hold them tight for. This may be easier with your knees bent and soles of your feet flat on the floor. Do this daily and try to maintain for 10 slow, even breaths. It’s good to do it along with your pelvic floor exercises.
Gentle exercises that work the core without placing a lot of pressure on it can also help. Try foot glides by lying on your back with your knees bent and soles flat on the ground, arms at your sides with palms facing down. Focus on tensing your belly and slowly slide one foot away from you while keeping the sole flat on the ground, then return it in. Do 10-15 reps one side, then repeat on other side.
Make sure you can engage your abs while exercising. If you struggle to do any of the above, find a fitness professional or physiotherapist to take you through it.
Image / FreeDigitalPhotos.net – David Castillo Dominici