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Key Findings for Pilates for Diastasis Recti
Don’t have time to read the whole Q&A? Read the key findings below:
- Traditional Pilates can be harmful to your core and worsen abdominal separation. However, EMbody Pilates can resolve diastasis recti and help you maintain core strength.
- Skip any pose that has you lift both shoulders off the ground from a supine (back lying) position and avoid any exercise that causes your abdomen to bulge forward.
- EMbody Pilates takes elements of unsafe movements and manipulates them to be core-safe.
A Q&A with Every Mother founder, Leah Keller, and EM Pilates and Yoga instructor, Aylin Guvenc, on Pilates for diastasis recti
Pilates has long been touted as a low-impact exercise that tones the entire body while improving core strength, flexibility, and posture. But what if we told you that certain Pilates poses could be harmful to your core and worsen or even induce abdominal separation? Keep reading to find out what sets EMbody Pilates apart from traditional Pilates, and why our expert modifications can provide you with the same results while also helping you resolve diastasis recti and maintain core strength and function.
Why is there a need for safe pilates for diastasis recti?
While a Pilates practice offers numerous appealing benefits, such as enhanced core strength, many of its exercises can cause or exacerbate diastasis recti (also called abdominal separation). This is because they increase intra-abdominal pressure, exerting unhealthy mechanical stress on the connective tissue that runs along the midline of the abdomen. Forceful and repetitive pressure causes the tissue to weaken and overstretch, widening the gap between the two halves of the rectus abdominis.
A widened waistline and protruding abdomen are common symptoms of diastasis recti, but DR is not merely cosmetic. The condition carries real health implications because it compromises core function and stability, contributing to back pain, incontinence, pelvic pain, and core weakness.
Can Pilates solve diastasis recti on its own?
Pilates utilizes a foundational technique similar to Core Compressions, essentially drawing the navel back to the spine on exertion and engaging the transverse abdominals (your natural corset). And as long as you are doing diastasis recti-safe exercises with regularity, they can be effective. That said, many Pilates exercises bulge the abdominal muscles forward, making a Core Compression impossible. This can cause or exacerbate diastasis recti. So without extensive knowledge to curate and modify Pilates exercises, they easily worsen DR instead of healing it. This is why we are so excited to bring you EMbody Pilates, our fresh take on a traditional practice to eliminate the guesswork for you.
What Pilates moves are unsafe for diastasis recti?
Anything that lifts both shoulders off the ground from a supine (back lying) position should be skipped. Any exercise that causes your abdomen to bulge or brace forward forcefully (as opposed to drawing the navel toward the spine while exhaling on exertion) needs to be skipped or modified to avoid the range of motion where you cannot avoid the forward pressure. Examples of Pilates exercises (by no means an exhaustive list) that require modification to make them safe for diastasis recti are included a little later in this article.
How are Pilates poses modified to be diastasis recti safe?
With EMbody Pilates, we tried to take elements of unsafe movements and manipulate them to be core-safe while still serving the purpose of the original exercise. We modified exercises that took both legs and torso off of the ground simultaneously and incorporated props, such as a foam roller, or supported ourselves with our hands behind our thighs. We modified moves such as Hundreds by turning them upright and transforming them into breathing exercises or by keeping them closer to the ground with more controlled movement. We also universally kept one hand on the belly to feel the drawing in and up of the abdominals, and we used double and triple exhales to promote the scooping of the belly and engagement of the abdominals.
Pilates Exercises to Modify or Avoid for Diastasis Recti
As promised, here is a non-exhaustive list of common Pilates exercises that should be modified, or avoided entirely, to be safe for diastasis recti.
The hundred is a classic Pilates mat exercise. The exercise is named after the 100 beats of your arms made while holding your legs extended and your head and shoulders off the mat. Anything that lifts both shoulders off the ground from a supine (back lying) position should be modified.
Modify hundreds by performing them in an upright, standing position with the knees slightly bent:
- Pump the arms and coordinate each pump with an exhalation as you engage the abdominals toward the spine.
- Or try Every Mother’s “Simplifying Hundreds” 10-minute mat Pilates sequence.
The Roll Up is another common exercise in the Pilates Mat order. It begins by lying on your back and then, simultaneously, lifting your arms to the ceiling; lift your head and exhale while rolling up and reaching forward. It is good practice to decrease the range of motion to avoid bulging the abdominals forward and modify with one of the following props:
- Use a roller on the thighs to roll up and down
- Use hands or a strap to hold onto the back of your legs as you roll back and up
A traditional Pilates rollover requires your legs to move straight up close together toward the ceiling at a 90-degree angle while lying on your back. The objective is to reach your legs up and over your head while pressing your hands down into the mat. To modify this movement, you can use your hands to support the low back (instead of pressing into the mat) and also keep your legs wider apart for more stability.
Teaser (all 3 variations)
The Teaser is another classic Pilates exercise. It begins by lying on your back, knees bent into your chest, then while lifting your head and shoulders, you extend your legs upright to 45 degrees. Modification for this movement includes:
- Using your hands behind your knees/thighs as support.
Do a single leg first, combine with roller roll up and downs with a single leg, then hold and breathe for the Teaser.
The corkscrew is a Pilates mat exercise that uses your core to lift your legs and move them in a controlled, circular motion. To modify, use a stretchy strap on your feet, lift one leg up at a time. Be mindful to not lift hips off of the mat
The Jack Knife Pilates exercise is performed while lying on your back with arms along your side with palms facing down. The goal is to raise your legs to the ceiling at 45 degrees in front of you. This modification can be done in the following steps:
- Make this move a supported one, with a ball under the sacrum, scooping low belly.
- Take one leg up at a time.
- Use a magic circle/band as a prop, placing one foot at a time into the circle /band and pressing feet up into the prop as we pull down on it.
- Slide tailbone and pubic bone up, scooping deep lower abdominals). Note: The tailbone may lift a tiny bit off the floor, but the legs do not move to lift the tail; the lift comes from deep abdominal scooping.
Swan Dive is another Pilates exercise that can be injurious if not appropriately modified. The traditional Swan Dive starts with you lying face down on the mat with your hands placed under the shoulders and fingers pointing forward. Next, you would press into the hands to lift the chest off the mat, arching the back and lifting the head and shoulders. The arms should be straight as you lift the upper body as high as possible. Then, you would lower your body to the mat, returning to the starting position.
To safely accomplish a Swan Dive, you could:
- Flip this exercise over and perform it on your back on a roller (for the ribs and scapula)
- Reduce the range of motion to a modified sphinx in a prone position (on your belly). You can also use a prop ( ball, blanket, pillow or towel) under your pelvis to lengthen low back.
In the Every Mother Pilates exercises, we modify the Swan Dive with a roller and slow it down. It becomes more of a swan extension than a dive.
- Lie prone on the floor with a foam roller under your forearms/wrists.
- Practice drawing the navel up and back in a prone position with your head down (already a challenge).
- Then practice lifting your head and drawing your abs up as you find length in the front body. Inhale to prepare, exhale as you look straight forward, and pull your belly back toward your spine as you press into your forearms and find a little lift.
- Take a sip of air at the top, and exhale as you lengthen the front ribs to come down.
The focus is no longer on the back bend (as in the traditional swan dive) but on lengthening and staying very controlled on the way up and down. Note: the arms and shoulders work harder than they would without the roller modification. Bonus tip: if you start with lumbar lordosis, put a folded towel/pillow under your pelvis/pubic bone to lengthen out the low back.
Hip Circles is another common Pilates exercise typically performed on a mat, using only the body weight for resistance. The exercise starts with you lying on your back, your knees bent, and your feet flat on the mat. Next, you would lift the hips off the mat, keeping the feet and shoulders on the mat. Then make a circle with your hips, moving them in a circular motion, clockwise or counterclockwise. To modify, keep your feet on the floor and find circular hip mobility, lifting only into a half-bridge.
Swimming is a Pilates exercise that targets the back, shoulders, and core muscles. It is typically performed on a mat, using only body weight for resistance. The exercise begins on a mat lying face down, arms and legs extended, and hands and feet hovering above the mat. You lift the right arm and left leg off the mat while keeping the rest of the body in contact with the mat. Then, lower the right arm and left leg back to the mat and repeat the movement with your other side. To modify for core integrity:
- Keep your head on the floor, and lengthen the low back (use a prop under the pelvis - such as a pillow or folded towel)
- Visualize scooping a blueberry with your navel (hollowing your belly while prone). This action is challenging, and it is KEY to avoid bulging the abs while prone.
- Your arms should be in a cactus-like position to keep your ribs from flaring, as opposed to the traditional position of arms alongside the ears.
- Center your focus on lifting the legs first, then your arms. Go slower so that one hand and foot are on the floor at all times. Swimming in Pilates can only be safe if you do it slowly, mindfully, and only lift one leg at a time to start.
Another Pilates exercise that can be injurious if not modified is the Criss-Cross. Criss-Cross is usually on a mat. The exercise starts with lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the mat. Next, lift your head and shoulders off the mat, and place your right elbow towards the left knee, while extending the right leg. This process is then repeated on the opposite side in a fluid motion.
The EM Pilates version of Criss-Cross targets the oblique muscles more precisely. To perform this modification:
- Keep your feet and butt on the floor and rotate from your thoracic spine with your arms extended forward (either palms together or squeezing a ball or pilates circle).
- Extend one leg forward and switch as you rotate to increase the challenge.
- Note: there is always one foot on the floor, and your abs are scooped out).
- Instead of switching repetitively as in the traditional method, you start on each side for a five-pulse count. Then you switch to the other side, doing 4-6 rounds to maximize muscle engagement and fatigue.
Every Mother is a clinically proven program that enables and equips women in every stage of motherhood to resolve diastasis recti—validated by research published in The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Journal of Women’s Health Physical Therapy. Every Mother has participated in studies with Weill Cornell and the Hospital for Special Surgery. Both found that Core Compressions can improve or resolve diastasis recti and related symptoms. Learn more about the EMbody Program™ here.
Learn More About Diastasis Recti and 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
- 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.