Pregnancy often causes a pesky and unflattering condition known as diastasis recti abdominis. For new mothers who still look pregnant months after giving birth, this postpartum abdominal condition may be the culprit.
How diastasis recti occurs
If you think that you have “DRA,” you are not alone. Diastasis recti abdominis is actually quite common. In fact, about two-thirds of pregnant women suffer from it. The condition occurs when a woman’s uterus stretches the muscles in the abdomen. This can cause the two large parallel bands of muscles that meet in the middle of the abdomen (rectus muscles) to become separated by an abnormal distance. You may experience a soft, jelly-like bulge in the middle of your tummy where the two muscles separate. You can find out more about muscle separation in my article: “How to fix abdominal muscle separation”
Who develops muscle separation?
Women who developed diastasis recti from a previous pregnancy will most likely develop the condition if they are expecting again. You are also more likely to develop diastasis recti if you are carrying multiples, have poor muscle tone, have a sway back posture, are age 35 or older, or have small stature. Your medical history could play a factor as well.
What are the side effects of muscle separation?
While rare, sometimes the tissue in the abdomen isn’t just stretched, but it is also torn. This can result in a hernia. Your pelvic floor also plays a role in childbearing, so strengthening it can aid your core and support your spine.
Download our free pdf: “11 Exercises to Help with Muscle Separation Post Pregnancy”
How do you prevent diastasis recti from occurring?
While surgery can repair muscle separation and restore a women’s abdomen to its pre-pregnancy condition, exercise shouldn’t be ruled out. Certain workouts can actually help women regain abdominal strength. They can also help tighten and tone the midsection after giving birth. Here are eleven exercises to consider: Want to know the ins and outs of core muscles? See my article “Does exercise really help abdominal muscle separation?”
11 exercises to repair ab muscle separation
Dr. Bernard Beldholm recommends that women with diastasis recti focus on core strengthening and stability. Working the pelvic floor muscles and transversus abdominis is one way to do this. Dr. Bernard suggests trying the following exercises, all of which can be performed right at home without any special gym equipment.
1. Dead Bugs
Increase your core stability by working the deepest layer of abdominal muscle, known as the transversus. This is a great way to heal diastasis recti. Put these muscles to work with dead bugs. First, lay flat on your back (hence the name dead bug) and raise your arms straight out in front of you. Next, put your legs in the air, bent at the knees, as if you were sitting on a chair. Now you are in position to begin the exercise. Stretch your left leg out straight and bring it down to the floor while bringing your right arm straight back, towards your ears. Return to the original position, then repeat this move using the opposite leg and arm. Focused, controlled movements will help you make the most of this exercise. Engaging your abdomen as you go makes it more effective.
2. Heel Slide
Are you still laying on the floor from your dead bugs? That’s great, because the next move is a floor exercise, too. Heel slides are a fun and easy way to work your hip flexors and pelvic area. This move also helps stabilize and strengthen your abdominals, which is perfect for diastasis repair. Lay on the floor with your knees bent, then tighten your core as you slowly slide one leg out in front of you, keeping your entire foot in contact with the floor for the duration of the move. Return your leg to the original position and repeat on the other leg. Keeping your core engaged is the key.
Bridges strengthen loose pelvic floor muscles, which can reduce low back pain caused by diastasis recti. Your pelvic muscles are an integral part of your deep core, which is what you need to focus on most during early recovery. As an added bonus, bridges also work the buttocks. Lie down on the mat and bring both feet and legs together. Then bring your hips up to form “a bridge.” As you lift your hips forward, squeeze your glute muscles, inner thighs, and core. Try to hold for at least thirty seconds.
4. Pelvic Tilt
This move is great for lower back pain caused by diastasis recti. It gives a nice stretch to the back muscles. Work the pelvic region by lying on your back with your knees bent, legs apart, and feet flat on the floor. Your arms should be flat by your side. With your lower back pressed into the floor, brace your abdomen and tilt your pelvis forward. Hold this position for five seconds as you squeeze your glutes and tighten your ab muscles. Repeat.
5. Leg Raise
This move works your lower abdominals while strengthening and lengthening your hip flexors. That is important for improving core stability and strength. To perform this move, lie on your back with legs extended and hands at your sides. You can tuck your hands beneath your hips for added support if needed. Doing so can be helpful early in your recovery journey when muscles are weakest. Slowly raise your legs, keeping them together and straight until the soles of your feet are parallel to the ceiling. Lower your legs back down and repeat. Your legs shouldn’t touch the floor, but instead hover just above it. Try to keep your back flat while doing the movement and keep your core stabilized.
6. Table Tops
This is an excellent move for working that deep transversus abdominis muscle, which is so important to diastasis recti repair. Get on your hands and knees and place your hands shoulder-width apart and your knees hip-width apart. Lift your chest forward as you inhale, drawing in your stomach closer to your spine. Finally, exhale and repeat. Again, think slow and controlled movements. You really want to engage your deep core, so there is no need to rush.
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7. Bent Knee Fall Outs
Another great diastasis workout is the bent knee fall out. This exercise engages the transverse abdominal muscle and obliques, another important abdominal muscle. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat while maintaining the normal curve in your lower back. Tighten your abdominal muscles, then gently lower one leg out the side while keeping the other leg bent and pointing up towards the ceiling. Keep your pelvis stable throughout this exercise. Return your leg to the starting position and repeat with the other leg.
Ready to move on from floor exercises? Kegels will be your next move. Kegels target your pelvic floor muscles. You can do these while you sit in a chair or stand in line at the bank — it really doesn’t matter where you do them, and that is what makes this workout so great for busy mums. Kegels focus on tightening and holding the muscles that control urine flow. There are two ways you can do this: Fast or slow. The choice is yours. The slow movement involves squeezing your pelvic muscles and holding for 3-5 seconds. Then release and repeat up to ten times. You can also perform kegels in rapid-fire succession, 10-20 reps at a time. Take a break of at least a few seconds in between sets. This workout is going to strengthen your pelvic floor (an integral part of your core diastasis recti regimen), give indirect support to your lower back, and help tighten loose pelvic muscles that lead to urine leaks after giving birth.
9. Wall Sits
Find the nearest wall and get ready to engage your core abdominals. This exercise also works your thighs. Lean against the wall and slide down into a squat without your knees at a 90 degree angle and your thighs parallel to the floor. Keep your back flat against the wall and your hands and arms away from your legs. Draw your stomach in closer to your spine. Hold this position for about 30 seconds to one minute before letting your legs and abdomen relax. After a few moments of rest, repeat as many times as you like.
10. Transversus Abdominus (TVA) Breathing
This breathing exercise can awaken your deep core muscles, which is vital to recovering from postpartum ab muscle problems. Sit or lie down and inhale through your nose. Focus your mind on your deep lower abdominals while you do this. Draw your navel in, then slowly exhale, again keeping your mind on working the abdominals. Doing this while making a ‘Ssssss’ sound may help you find the right core muscles. You’ll feel a gentle squeeze deep in your tummy if you are doing it correctly. This move engages your transversus.
Easy and fun, clams are an effective floor exercise for repairing torn ab muscles after pregnancy. Also known as clamshells, this core-strengthening move stabilizes your core and pelvis by engaging your hip abductor and buttocks. Lie on your side with your knees bent and feet stacked. Open your knees slowly, keeping your balance to engage your core abdominals. Make that mind body connection to really engage your muscles. Clams are great because there are many variations you can do, which keeps your workout from getting monotonous.
Exercises to avoid
Not all abdominal exercises improve diastasis recti. In fact, some can make it worse. Exercises such as crunches and planks are not ideal because they create too much pressure in the tummy during early recovery. Instead, you want to activate the deeper core muscles, especially the transversus, to stabilize your middle. Pelvic floor exercises can also help improve muscle looseness from giving birth. Theses exercises can reduce urine leaks and help support your spine to reduce lower back pain. You want to avoid putting too much pressure or pooching your tummy with moves like crunches. And remember, if any exercise causes you pain, stop.
Making an exercise plan
As a new mother, making time for fitness isn’t always easy. It can be hard to stick to a regular exercise regimen when you’re busy running around with a little one. Fortunately, all of these workouts can be done at home. But just because you are working out at home, it does not mean you can get away with being lackadaisical about your routine.
If you want to see results, you need to have a plan. Creating a schedule for your workouts can help you accomplish your goals. It also makes it far easier to track your progress.
If you don’t have time to design your own fitness routine, Dr. Beldholm highly recommends The MUTU System. This 12-week online exercise program is designed specifically for women with postpartum diastasis recti. The program is split up into modules, making it easy to track your progress along the way. You can do it right in the privacy of your home with guidance and tips from fitness experts specializing in healing ab muscles after pregnancy.
Disclaimer: Dr. Bernard Beldholm believes in The MUTU System so much that he decided to become an affiliate this year. This means he receives a small commission on each sale.