What the heck is diastasis recti?
You may have heard this term before, but essentially it means your rectus abdominis is separating (those six pack abs at the fore front of your core). Sounds scary right? Before you get too scared let me explain exactly why this is happening and more importantly what you can do to help reduce any further separation and restore your core strength postpartum.
What is diastasis recti anyway and is it normal?
Diastasis recti means there is some abdominal separation happening, usually causing your belly to stick out creating this small cone shaped pooch or something also known as ‘mummy tummy.’
Some background anatomy for you:
Diastasis means separation and recti stands for the rectus abdominis. As I mentioned above, the rectus abdominis are commonly known as those six pack muscles. They are the muscles that run vertically down each side of the anterior wall of our abdomen. The linea alba is a line of connective tissue that runs directly down the midline of the abdominal wall.
During pregnancy the stomach expands, causing the skin, muscles, and connective tissue to stretch (including your linea alba). Due to the expansion that distance between your abdomen muscles usually increases and yes this is very NORMAL! In fact, different statistics show that at least 70% of women (if not more) have this occur during pregnancy and many times women don’t even realize it has happened. Some research even suggests that most, if not all women experience some form of separation in their third trimester (Durate et al., 2016).
It can also happen due to yo-yo dieting over (quick weight gain and weight loss) and incorrect form with core exercises like sit ups in both men and women.
The main concern with diastasis recti is the underlying issues it might create (although not the case for all women). For some women the separation and more importantly the lack of tension in the core can create pelvic pain and pressure, back pain, weakened abs and therefore issues with balance and overall core strength. In addition, some women experience constipation and urinary leakage as side effects of this condition.So, if you have been pregnant and have some of these symptoms, this is something to look into further.
Can it be prevented?
This is the big question and one I thought I had the answer to going into pregnancy…but I learned otherwise. Around 26+ weeks pregnant I noticed I had some separation going on. There are different ways you can test yourself for this, but it’s always best to check with a local health professional like your doctor or a pelvic floor physiotherapist. I thought I had done everything right in order to prevent separation, so I was left feeling frustrated. As I researched more and had discussions with other professionals in the field I learnt that unfortunately this is not always preventable. It’s similar to the stretch mark situation, some women get them and others don’t. So, some women will have more noticeable separation and others will not. Part of this can be how your connective tissue stretches or the internal pressure from baby’s placement.
Although the separation is not necessarily preventable, there are things that can exacerbate the condition. For example, heavy lifting, strain on the abdomen, or exercises that create too much intra abdominal pressure (like crunches, sits ups, and plank).
What should you do?
If you are pregnant (in your second or third trimester) I would advise treating your core as if it was separated to prevent separation or further exacerbation if you already have separation happening.
There are certain core exercises that should be avoided (some mentioned above) and there are others that are quite safe. During pregnancy we want to focus on strengthening the transverse abdominals (your deep abdominal layer) to help support your core throughout pregnancy in a safe way. The exercises that will work for your body will vary, so work with a trainer or fitness instructor who feels confident in guiding you through pregnancy safe core exercises.
After pregnancy comes healing. For a large majority of women, the separation will heal naturally. However, healing (meaning that reconnection of the separated abs) doesn’t always equal function. It’s important to get optimal function back to reduce unwanted symptoms and truly restore core strength.
Optimal function really focuses on re-establishing tension along your linea alba, so the separation may still exist but you are able to create tension in your core and therefore function better. Optimal function can happen with proper exercises that help retrain your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. As a mat based Pilates instructor, I love using different Pilates exercises during pregnancy and postpartum to help retrain core and pelvic muscles in a way that is safe and supportive.
There is a lot of information on this topic online and what I DON'T want is for you to read this and think oh my gosh I shouldn't exercise! Fear and no movement is not the answer! However it is important to be aware of your body and give it the proper time and training to allow it to function at its absolute best, ultimately this is my goal when working with women. We too quickly want to get back to our "pre-pregnancy" bodies that we sometimes overtrain or train too hard causing more harm than good. Be patient with yourself and take the time to retrain your core and feel good. For myself, this was very challenging and humbling. A reminder to be kind to myself and take the time to recover.
For any of you reading who may be pregnant, post baby, or in need of a low impact workout that focuses on core connection that is gentle, check out my latest third trimester pilates inspired pregnancy workout.
Give it a try and let me know how you find it.
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In the meantime, if you have any questions about diastasis recti, core training, or need some individualized support, connect with me and let’s chat!
Until next time,
Eat Right Feel Right - Angela XO