Everyone who has been through a pregnancy knows that A LOT changes in the body during the process. Naturally, one of the most affected areas of your body during pregnancy is your stomach and your core. Carrying a child certainly puts a lot of pressure on your abdominal muscles, and it’s very common to have a little bit of a separation between your muscles as a result. For many, this separation can be wide enough to be challenging to repair, and results in a condition called diastasis recti.
So, it makes sense that one of the first focuses when reclaiming your body after pregnancy is on the core, and often includes reintroducing ab exercises into the routine. But, before doing what you’ve always done before, it’s good to know which exercises are considered safe ab exercises for diastasis recti, and which might actually make your condition worse.
To learn more about diastasis recti exercises in general, also check out our diastasis recti exercises topic page.
Ab Exercises to Avoid with Diastasis Recti
First we’ll tackle what ab exercises to avoid with diastasis recti, before providing some modifications and movements that are considered safe for diastasis recti. Here are some of the most common ab exercises that you should avoid, as they might actually make your condition worse instead of better.
People with diastasis recti should avoid pushups because the repetitive up-and-down motion can put excessive pressure on the weakened abdominal area, worsening the condition and causing discomfort or pain. Instead, it’s ideal to focus on exercises that target the transverse abdominal muscle, which can help to improve stability and prevent further separation of the abdominal muscles.
Anyone who is pregnant or whose core has been compromised (due to diastasis recti, back pain, pelvic prolapse, abdominal surgery, etc.) should avoid or opt for a modified version of the classic plank to ensure safety.
Planks engage the transverse abdominal muscle, which can cause increased pressure on the already weakened rectus abdominal muscles and contribute to a wider separation. It is recommended that anyone who is new to planks, exercise in general, or who has taken a hiatus from exercise, begin with an incline plank or knee plank before progressing to a full plank.
Traditional Crunches and Bicycle Crunches
The traditional crunch or bicycle crunch are two common core exercises that might do more harm than good. From a biomechanics standpoint, the abdominal muscles automatically bulge forward when lifting the shoulder blades off the floor from a supine (back-lying) position.
This outcome is not a result of an individual's strength, ability, or attempts to engage the core. The linea alba or connective tissue that lies vertically along the midline, becomes compromised when the abdominal wall bulges forward. This forward pressure exerts stress and can cause the tissue to become more flaccid.
Similarly to a standard crunch, during reverse crunches the lower abs bulge forward under acute pressure with each lift of the hips when performing a reverse crunch. The reverse crunch combines intra-abdominal pressure. This pressure causes abdominal muscles to bulge forward; the pelvic floor echoes that in a similar external bulge, stressing and weakening the pelvic floor muscles. No matter how strong you are, crunches and reverse crunches compromise core health.
Double Leg Lifts
Few people, athletes and fitness instructors included, have the core strength to safely lift both legs off the floor from a back-lying position without bulging the abs and arching the back. This makes double leg lifts risky for even the most active people, and it can cause or worsen abdominal separation and compromise spinal health.
Repeated forceful mechanical stress on the connective tissue weakens and overstretches it, causing the two halves of the rectus abdominis to migrate further apart. Repeated stressful movements can widen the waistline and compromise core strength and function. When strength and integrity to the front and center of the abdominal wall are lost, it results in ab separation or diastasis recti.
Safe Ab Exercises for Diastasis Recti
While it may be disheartening to discover that some of the go-to core exercises are counterintuitive, there are effective ab exercises for diastasis recti that safely engage your abdominal muscles. Safe core movements coupled with Core Compressions are the golden standard to core integrity and strength. Core Compressions are a movement that activate your transverse abdominis muscle, also known as your natural corset.
The below exercises properly recruit the deep core muscles (transverse abdominis, diaphragm, lumbar multifidus, and pelvic floor), and will help to strengthen the core and reverse the effects of diastasis recti.
Simple Strengthening and Toning Ab Exercises for Diastasis Recti
When it comes to ab exercises for diastasis recti, the most important focus should be on the movement and technique of each exercise. The key is a constant awareness of how your core muscles are moving, and how your breath is contributing to your exercise. The safest way to provide biofeedback that ensures you maintain proper engagement is to perform Core Compressions throughout the duration of your exercises.
Core Compressions involve slowly pulsing the abdominal muscles and pelvic floor up and in toward the spine while exhaling on engagement. Allow a tiny release of the abs, enough for a shallow breath, between each pulsing squeeze. If it becomes difficult to maintain this slow, pulsing rhythm of the abs engaging toward the spine with each exhalation, pause and exit the plank. You can then resume after a brief rest, or carry on with a modified version of the plank. For example, if you were doing a full plank, pause and bend the knees to lower from a full plank into a knee plank.
Here are some simple, but effective, exercises that introduce core compressions and help to strengthen and tone your core muscles safely. While it may not seem like these exercises are “doing” a lot, the truth is that simple engagement of these muscles can do more to help strengthen them properly than a more intense, and risky, workout.
Core compressions with ankles crossed
To strengthen and tone all layers of abdominal muscles both safely and effectively, you may want to try Core Compressions with ankles crossed. Here is how to perform this signature core toning move:
- From a back lying position with your knees bent, cross one ankle in front of the other and allow your knees to open to the side. It will feel and look like you are lying down in a cross-legged position. You may wish to place pillows under your knees if you have tight adductors (inner thighs).
- Now place one hand on the belly and palpate the transverse abdominis with the other hand. This means finding the crest of your hip bone and pressing your fingertips just medially to that crest. Your eyes should gaze at the ceiling.
- Inhale as you allow the belly to rise. Then exhale as you engage your abdominal muscles to flatten your belly toward the spine in a 2-tier squeeze: flat-flatter.
- It can help to imagine the lower abs initiating the Core Compression - so as you exhale, first squeeze and engage your lower abs toward the spine, then the middle abs, and finally engage the upper abs toward the spine in a rolling, two-tier (or even 3-tier!) Core Compression.
- Continue this pulsing action for one full minute, exhaling as you engage your abdominal muscles in a concave, flat-flatter contraction and inhaling as you relax and allow the belly to rise.
- Then switch the cross of your ankles, switch your hand's placement (the other hand on the belly, and the opposite hand palpates the TVA just inside your hip bone), and complete another full minute of 2-tier core compressions. You should feel the belly-flattening away from the hand that's over the navel and the transverse abdominis muscle contracting where it wraps around the hip bone - this can feel like a rope firming under your fingertips.
Note: This exercise automatically elicits a co-contraction of the pelvic floor muscles. This is safe and natural. If you wish to amplify the impact of your Core Compressions and do not have symptoms of an overactive or hypertonic pelvic floor (pelvic pain, pain with penetration, tailbone pain, and chronic constipation), you may incorporate a conscious kegel exercise into each Core Compression. This can feel like you are initiating the Core Compression as a Kegel - squeezing and lifting first the pelvic floor, then the lower abs, then the middle abs, and then the upper abs - zipping all of them up toward the spine from bottom to top.
Core compressions in the Fetal Position
In addition to recruiting the transverse abdominis, your innermost abdominal muscle responsible for healing diastasis recti, performing Core Compressions in a side-lying position also facilitates proper coordination of the pelvic floor. It can often feel easier to perform a Kegel when not resisting gravity as you are when Kegeling in an upright position (seated or standing, for example). Furthermore, this side-lying position incorporates passive recruitment of the obliques and prepares you to advance into side planks safely.
Here is how to perform Core Compressions in the fetal position
- Slide down onto your side, and rest your head on your outstretched arm.
- Stack your legs, and bend your knees comfortably in front of you.
- Anchor your ribs into neutral (avoid arching the back or splaying the ribs open).
- Bring your gaze forward.
- While maintaining this position, coordinate your breath and deep core muscles as follows: Gently pulse your abdominal muscles up and into the spine as you perform a Kegel (engage and lift the pelvic floor) and exhale in a 2-tier, “tight-tighter” rhythm. Always exhale on exertion.
- Soften and relax the muscles as you inhale.
- Continue at a slow, controlled pace for two minutes.
- Repeat on the other side.
Pelvic scoops are a move that, from the outside, appears that nothing is happening; however, the deep transverse abdominis is being recruited when this move is performed correctly. The objective of this exercise is deep engagement of the lower abdominals. Here is how to perform this movement properly:
- From a back lying position with your knees bent, slide the tailbone and pubic bone up, scooping deep lower abdominals). Think about peeling your spine slowly off the mat from the bottom up in a tucking motion tilting in an upward motion towards the ribcage.
- The tail may lift a tiny bit off of the floor, but the legs do not move to lift the tail; the lift comes from deep abdominal scooping.
- Reverse the scoop slowly and repeat.
An oblique pull-up is an exercise that safely targets the oblique muscles in the abdominal area and is most beneficial to the transverse abdominis when performing a Core Compression simultaneously.
- Begin in a standing position with a moderate weight (around 8-12 lbs) in one hand, feet hip-width apart or narrower, and knees slightly bent). Place your free hand on your abdomen.
- As you inhale, allow the weight to pull your body over to the side holding the weight. Keep your arm and shoulder relaxed, and let the weight pull you to that side.
- As you exhale, draw your abdominal muscles toward the spine to stand up in a neutral, upright position, resisting the weight.
- Repeat this exercise for two sets of 15 reps, inhaling as you allow the weight to bend your body to one side and exhaling as you engage your abs toward the spine to return to a centered, neutral, upright position.
- Then switch the weight to your other hand, and repeat on the other side for two sets of 15 reps.
If you wish to try kneeling oblique pull-ups, perform this exercise in an upright, kneeling position.
Modified Plank Exercises
The key to modified plank exercises lies in the direction of core engagement and breath. Whether performing a wall plank, a knee plank or a full plank, it’s not possible to place a hand on the abs to ensure they are drawing up and in toward the spine on engagement as opposed to barreling or flexing forward. The safest way to provide biofeedback that ensures you maintain proper engagement is to perform Core Compressions throughout the duration of the pose.
Here are a couple of different variations of planks that can remove the risk of standard planks and help to support recovery from diastasis recti symptoms. \
Wall planks with Core Compressions effectively engage the deep core (your transverse abdominis muscle) which is key to healing diastasis recti. They are also a great core-stability exercise that prepares you for safe progression to more challenging plank variations, like floor planks on the knees.
How to Perform Wall Planks with Core Compressions:
- Place your hands on the wall at chest height.
- Walk the feet back and flatten the back as you draw your hips into neutral.
- While maintaining this position, coordinate your breath and deep core muscles as follows: Gently pulse your abdominal muscles up and into the spine as you perform a Kegel (engage and lift the pelvic floor), and exhale.
- Soften and relax the muscles as you inhale.
- Continue for one minute. Progress to lower incline angles as you build strength and master this movement
Side plank and Modified Side Plank (from the knees)
Another modification of the plank that can be a safe ab exercise for diastasis recti is the side plank or modified side plank, done on your knees. Here is what this exercise progression looks like:
- From a side-lying position with your knees bent and slightly in front of your hips, place your elbow directly under your shoulder and exhale as you lift your hips.
- With your knees stacked, your spine and neck in a straight line, and your free hand on your belly, exhale as you pulse your abdomen toward your spine and exhale as you soften the belly.
- Continue with this coordination of breath and muscle engagement (exhale on engagement; inhale as you relax the muscles) for 15-30 seconds. Perform this side plank three times on one side and then switch to the other side.
- If this is easy, repeat the entire series with your legs extended. This is a full, forearm-side plank.
Alternatives to Crunches and Leg Lifts
There is a better way than crunches and double leg lifts to safely and efficiently engage the entire length of the rectus abdominis, along with proper recruitment of the deep core muscles (transverse abdominis, diaphragm, lumbar multifidus, and pelvic floor). These alternatives will safely strengthen the rectus abdominis (your 6-pack muscles), the transverse abdominis (your natural corset), and your obliques to strengthen your entire core safely.
Waist cincher with hips open
This exercise activates your transverse abdominis muscle to heal diastasis recti while properly engaging the full length of your rectus abdominis muscle, strengthening your upper, mid, and lower abs. It also provides a passive stretch for the adductor (inner thigh) muscles.
- Slide down onto your side and rest your head on your outstretched arm.
- Exhale as you roll onto your back.
- Cross one ankle over the other, and then allow the knees to fall open one at a time.
- Place one hand under your head, and rest your other hand on your belly.
- Take a breath to prepare.
- Exhale as you flatten your abs toward the spine, Kegel and nod your head “yes.” Note: Do not lift your shoulders off the ground.
- Lower your head, and relax your core as you inhale.
- Repeat at a slow, controlled pace for one minute.
- Switch your hands, and switch the cross of your ankles.
- Continue for one additional minute.
Waist cincher with single-leg lifts
How to execute this movement properly:
- Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent (remember to get down safely!).
- Extend one leg with the foot flexed. Place one hand on your abs, directly over the belly button. Tuck the other hand under your head to support the neck.
- Prepare by taking a small breath. Then exhale and draw your belly button flat to the spine as you nod your head “yes” and lift the extended leg several inches off the floor.
- Be sure to draw the chin gently toward the chest as you nod – it’s a tiny movement. The shoulder blades stay in contact with the mat throughout the entire range of motion.
- Inhale as you return your head to the starting position, lower the leg and soften the abs.
- With each pulsing repetition, flatten your abs toward the spine as you exhale and nod “yes.” If the head nod bothers your neck, leave your head down and focus on flattening your belly into the floor with each leg lift.
- Perform 10 slow, controlled repetitions. Then switch your legs and perform a second set.
- Complete this cycle 2-3 times.
Waist cincher with twist
Here is how to perform this exercise:
- Have a light weight (1-5 lbs) or a water bottle handy to use as a weight.
- Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent (remember to transition into back lying by sliding onto your side and then rolling onto your back rather than rolling straight back). Then drop both knees to one side while keeping your shoulders square to the ceiling. This places you in a spinal twist.
- Place one hand on your abs, directly over the belly button. Grasp the weight or water bottle with your other hand, and extend your arm, holding the weight straight toward the ceiling.
- Now inhale as you lower your straight arm overhead, towards the floor, while keeping your ribs anchored and your pelvis neutral (neither tucked under nor pointing toward the floor). Only lower the weight as far as you can comfortably.
- Then exhale and draw your belly button flat to the spine as you lift the weight in a smooth arc up and over your body, bringing the weight toward your hips.
- Inhale as you return to the starting position with the weight near the floor overhead
- Perform slow, controlled repetitions of this movement for 2 minutes.
- Then switch your knees to the opposite side and perform a second set for 2 minutes. With each slow, controlled repetition, flatten your abs toward the spine as you exhale.
Learn More About Diastasis Recti Exercises
A regular exercise routine can help, or even heal entirely, diastasis recti symptoms. But, before doing what you’ve always done before, it’s good to know which diastasis recti exercises are considered safe, and which might actually make your condition worse.
Check out some of our other articles to learn more about diastasis recti exercises, and begin to reclaim your body today.
- Diastasis Recti 101: What is Diastasis Recti? Everything You Need to Know
- How to Check for Diastasis Recti
- How to Fix Diastasis Recti
- Can You Heal Diastasis Recti Years Later? It's Never Too Late!
- Diastasis Recti Symptoms: Causes, Treatment, and Next Steps
- Diastasis Recti Exercises: What’s Safe and What’s Not?
- Cardio Exercises with Diastasis Recti
- Pilates for Diastasis Recti: Are You Helping or Hurting Your Core?
- Yoga Exercises for Diastasis Recti
- Leopold, Madeline, et al. “Efficacy of a Core Strengthening Program for Diastasis Rectus Abdominis in Postpartum Women: A Prospective Observational Study.” Journal of Women’s Health Physical Therapy, vol. 45, no. 4, 2021, pp. 147–63. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.1097/jwh.0000000000000214.
- Sharma, Geeta, et al. “Postnatal Exercise Can Reverse Diastasis Recti.” Obstetrics & Gynecology, vol. 123, no. Supplement 1, 2014, p. 171S. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.1097/01.aog.0000447180.36758.7a.
- Sperstad, J. B. (2016, September 1). Diastasis recti abdominis during pregnancy and 12 months after childbirth: prevalence, risk factors and report of lumbopelvic pain. British Journal of Sports Medicine. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/50/17/1092