This piece was contributed by fan favorite, Elaine Dalton.
There is nothing harder on the female body than pregnancy and delivering a baby. These natural occurrences can strain, stretch and wear out the body to the point where we feel like that old baggy t-shirt in the donation pile. What once hugged our every curve and held everything in place is sore, tired and holds nothing in place. We pee a little whenever we sneeze or laugh, our lower back hurts all the time and that poochy tummy just won’t go away even months after baby’s dramatic arrival.
But one of the best things about the female body is how adaptable it is and what amazing self-healing abilities it has. Without a lot of extra help from us, our bellies shrink back up to a more or less normal pre-pregnancy size, our birth canals heal so well that it is hard to imagine they had ever stretched as large as a baby’s head before, and our postpartum hair loss grows back in. There’s not a whole lot to be done about those stretch marks though so smear some glitter in them and buy a pretty swimsuit.
Diastasis Recti is the occurrence of stretched out abdominal muscles postpartum. According to Moms Into Fitness, 33-60% of postpartum mothers have diastasis recti. That is quite a prevalent percentage. For many moms, they simply have a one-finger gap and a small pooch which may or may not concern them. Other moms might have a more concerning 2-3 finger gap which a larger pooch.
Severe cases of diastasis recti can require physical therapy or surgery to correct and can leave the door open for more physical problems which include lower back pain, weak pelvic floor muscles, and hernias. The good news is that most cases of diastasis recti are easily treated at home.
What Exactly Is Diastasis Recti?
According to Moms Into Fitness, diastasis means separation and recti refers to the abdominal muscles known as recti abdominis. So diastasis recti is separation of the abdominal muscles. These muscles are also called the “six-pack” muscles. Diastasis recti can occur to anyone―including men and children―because it is commonly caused by abdominal pressure. Pregnancy is all kinds of abdominal pressure with baby pushing all our internal organs all over the place and sitting pretty on our long-suffering pelvic floor muscles.
During pregnancy, the side panels of abdominal muscles separate and develop a gap in the middle. Once we are postpartum, the muscles come back together a bit on their own but often leave a narrow gap of two to three centimeters or finger widths if you will. This can vary based on finger size but it helps for gauging the gap when doing an at-home check. For severe cases of a four finger gap surgery or physical therapy are often the way to go but you can resolve these at home. I would check with your doctor first though if your gap is four fingers. For smaller gaps, you likely won’t need physical therapy and you definitely won’t need surgery unless something else is factoring into the decision.
It is important to note here that while you can do some gentle exercises during pregnancy to help prevent diastasis recti, it is not recommended that you work the abs at all during pregnancy and for six to eight weeks postpartum. Once your body has more or less returned everything to its proper pre-pregnancy position, you can safely begin healing your diastasis recti. I personally waited till I was about 12 weeks postpartum or the end of the fourth trimester but you don’t have to wait till then or you can wait till you are six or 12 months postpartum.
Different Types Of Diastasis And How To Check Them
To check your diastasis, lie flat on your backside with your knees fixed and bent as though you are preparing for a sit-up. Then place your hand, palm-down, on your belly below your navel.
Now lift your head and neck a little and feel your abdominal. If your fingers slip down into a gap, that is your diastasis recti. You can repeat this procedure with your hand above your navel to determine the extent of the diastasis.
The variations of the diastasis recti are: an Open Diastasis where the muscles are divided into two distinct panels with a noticeable gap in the middle, Open Below Naval Diastasis where the gap is below your navel but not above it, Above Navel Diastasis where the gap is above your navel but not below it, and finally, Completely Open Diastasis where there is a bit of a gap between all your abdominal muscles in both panels.
Exercises To Help Diastasis Recti
The abdominal muscles are built in two layers. The outer layer is worked with crunches, sit-ups, and planks while the inner layer is worked with tummy compressions and marching moves while holding your marble. When trying to heal your diastasis recti, it is important to work the inner layer of muscles rather than the outer layer. This is where all the core strength lies and these muscles act as the body’s natural corset―keeping everything neatly in place.
Daily Burn describes tummy compressions thusly,
“To do a core compression, squeeze your core to draw your belly button in and up toward your spine—while simultaneously and forcefully exhaling. After all, if you squeeze your stomach in without exhaling, you’ll actually increase your intra-abdominal pressure, hurting rather than helping the ab separation.”
This exercise is also sometimes called holding your marble or the abdominal vacuum.
You can perform this simple exercise while sitting cross-legged (making sure your ribs are not thrust forward) or standing straight. Think of it as kegals but for your abdominal muscles. I would do these in an even-numbered series while riding in the car. I worked up to holding the compression for 30 seconds at a time and am working toward 60 seconds. This one exercise has helped me immensely with my own diastasis recti.
Another exercise you can do is marching. Lay down on your back with your knees bent like when you check your tummy gap. Do a compression, drawing in the navel upwards toward your spine and then hold it. While holding it, gently lift your feet off the ground a little and alternate like you are marching. Don’t forget to breathe and if you lose your marble, just relax everything and start again.
There are several exercises you can do to help thins along. One of the exercises is called the Bird Dog. You probably want a yoga mat with this one but you can use a kid’s blanket too. Get down on hands and knees with your spine in a neutral line. Draw in your navel for an abdominal compression and then lift your left leg and right arm straight out. Your arm, spine, and leg should all be in one smooth line. Work up to holding this position for 30 seconds before switching to the opposite side and then do three to six sets. This exercise helps to strengthen your core which will relieve any lower back pain you might be experiencing.
Be Fit Mom says,
“Additionally, prenatal and postpartum exercises that use lower spine flexion rather than upper spine flexion provide many more benefits and should be used whenever possible. Exercises that flex the upper spine should be done sparingly, if at all during and after pregnancy.”
They also advise placing your hands on your abdominal as manual support when you need to cough hard (from colds and allergies) so your abdominal muscles are not strained and bulge outwards from the force of the cough.
Exercises To Avoid
Contrary to what we may be thinking, the usual exercises which target the abdominal muscles will not help diastasis recti to heal. Exercises such as sit-ups, crunches, planks, bending backward over a large ball, any yoga pose or stretches that twist the abdomen and draw the arms away from the body, any exercise that causes the abdominal muscles to bulge outwards and lifting and carrying heavy objects. Baby is the exception, of course.
You can wear a splint or binder as abdominal support but this ultimately will not help to strengthen the core muscles. Physical therapy is always a route you can take; physical therapists go to school for several years so they know how the body works and which exercises can help or hinder the healing process. If you do a Google search of diastasis recti exercises, you will find a lot of programs that can help heal you and many of them will likely work very well but the catch is that they all cost money.
It is important to stop any exercise if you start to feel pain. This is a clear signal from your body that it isn’t helping or something isn’t right. Don’t push yourself beyond what your body can take; it took several months for the diastasis recti to develop so expect several months to heal it. I began doing some moderate exercises at 12 weeks postpartum with a three finger gap in an Open Diastasis. Now I am nine months postpartum with a one finger Open Above Naval Diastasis. In all honesty, I had physical therapy for a couple of months for unrelated chronic back pain. Many of the same exercises my therapist uses for strengthening my core for the back pain also helps the diastasis recti.
In short, you can heal your diastasis recti, reduce the mommy tummy and rock your new powerful postpartum body in no time.