Your postnatal abs: the changes, test, and exercises

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How have your abs changed? 

It’s hard to believe, but over the course of your pregnancy your abdominal muscles will stretch by more than 50 percent. As your baby grows, your muscles will lengthen and your six-pack muscle (Rectus) divide and separate into two halves. This stretches, and in some cases, tears the delicate tissues of the Linea Alba. Your Linea Alba, which for some women darkens during pregnancy, is the connective tissue that joins all the layers of your abs at the midline of the body, reaching from your sternum to your pubic bone. The separation that occurs during pregnancy is called Diastasis Recti and is 100 percent normal.

Almost every woman will have some degree of abdominal separation postpartum, but it will vary greatly in severity. If you have had a C-section,  it may be quite significant due to the medical procedure. Focusing on repairing and reconnecting your abdominals is the crucial first step when returning to fitness. If you don’t first close your diastasis, you will never have a flat belly, you can experience worsening back pain, and will have lasting postural issues.

How to test 

We measure Diastasis three ways – length, width, and depth. Learning how to self-assess your abs is really important as it helps track your success and works as an excellent guide to ensure that you are progressing at the right pace and ready for the next phase of your recovery exercises.

  • Look in the mirror – what is the appearance of the skin? Is there mottling?
  • Safely get down on to your back (side first then roll over) with your knees bent and head down.
  • Begin to feel down the Linea Alba by gentle pushing into it with your index finger and middle finger together. Beginning at the sternum and go all the way down to just above your pubic symphysis.
  • What is the integrity of the connective tissue? Is there tone and resistance or can you push your fingers through?
  • Starting with your two fingers pushing into the Linea Alba just below the sternum – Nod your chin and lift your head a little off the ground. Do not try and engage your abdominals – leave them relaxed.
  • Can you push fingers through? Is there room to add a finger or two? If so, repeat the exercise with the additional fingers.
  • Less than two fingers are considered normal – two fingers or more and this is considered significant and dysfunctional.
  • Move down the body repeating the exercise above for each of the following sections – a little above the belly button, on the belly button, just below the button and just above the pubic synthesis.

What exercises heal Diastasis Recti?

There is no rushing this healing process – it requires consistency, patience, and repetition. The correct exercises target the muscles of the deep core – the Transverses Abdmoninis (TVA) and the Pelvic Floor muscles (PFM)– which bring the two sides back together and provide essential support and stability for the pelvis and spine. The trick is that the TVA and PFM are thinking muscles– this means you don’t move to engage them. You have to find the mind-body connection to activate them.

  • The TVA is like a pair of spanx, wrapping around the whole length of your mid-section. It cinches, lengthens, and compresses all at the same time.
  • The PFM is like a relaxed hammock. When activated, it squeezes, pulls together, and lifts – stretching, lifting, and pulling tight the fabric of the hammock.

Seated, deep core breathing exercises are the first and only way to strengthen the TVA and PFM and these can start the day after you have given birth.

Tips 

  • Do not do any crunch-type movements. Any form of flexion, before you have healed your diastasis will cause more damage and slow your progress.
  • Be careful how you get up and down off the mat. Make sure you are always going down on your side first then rolling on to your back when you get down. Roll on to your side and then push yourself up with your upper body to rise. If you haul yourself up or roll down you will be actually be doing a flexion exercise – flexion causes more damage even in daily activities.
  • Perform self-assessment at the end of every week so you know if you are working correctly to close your Diastasis – it will give you a sense of achievement as it is a process and it cannot be rushed.
  • The sooner you begin, the easier it is. You can begin work on closing your Diastasis and healing your postnatal abs the day after childbirth. Starting to focus on these muscles, even if it’s just 10 minutes a day will really accelerate the healing process.
  • As you get stronger try and do the breathing exercises on all fours, next on your back, and finally in tabletop – this will ensure you are slowly strengthening the deep core whilst still challenging the connection.
  • Be careful when returning to planks – make sure you can keep your abs closed throughout the hold.
  • Listen to your body – if at any stage of an exercise you feel your abs pulling apart – stop! It will be causing further damage and slowing your progress.

 

— Ali Handley is a New York-based Pilates instructor, founder of BodyLove Pilates, and mother of two young children. Moving to New York from Australia in 2009, Ali began working at an exclusive Pilates practice on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and in the Hamptons, where she discovered her passion for pre and postnatal Pilates. Experiencing firsthand the physical demands of carrying and caring for a baby, Ali wants to share her knowledge of the human body and personal journey with mamas and mamas-to-be worldwide. BodyLove Pilates is an online studio dedicated to ensuring pre and postnatal women are informed about their bodies and work out smarter, safer, and more effectively during this important time in their lives. For more information on exercising post-delivery, check out the BodyLove Pilates six-week postpartum training program.

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