How can I safely stretch my abdominal muscles?

Reclaim

This is our second installment in a multi-post series that explores whether common exercises are safe or unsafe for core health.

The Move: a full wheel backbend

The Verdict: Unsafe

What is wrong with it: 

Full wheel backbends, and other movements or poses that open the lower rib cage, compromise the integrity of the upper abdominal wall. As the ribs splay apart, they tug the upper abdominal muscles, including the rectus abdominis, away from the midline. This places stress on the linea alba, the midline that runs vertically between the two halves of the abdomen. Over time, repeated stress on this tissue can cause it to weaken and thin, compromising core strength and stability while widening the waistline.

In addition to backbends, other chest openers in yoga, even the full expression upward dog, can inhibit the healing of this connective tissue. I’ve seen fitness professionals separate the upper abdominal wall from performing reverse flies with momentum (thrusting the ribs forward forcefully with each repetition), and professional gymnasts and figure skaters self-induce mild diastasis recti from repeatedly opening the lower ribs and upper abs at the end of each routine. In addition to these activities, alignment and postural tendencies to over-lengthen the front body, letting go of the abdominal muscles and over-recruiting the lower back muscles and hamstrings, can inhibit healing diastasis recti and contribute to symptoms such as low back pain and a persistently poochy appearance of the abdomen. Even sleeping on your stomach can have an impact if you are subtly thrusting your ribs forward and spreading apart your lower rib cage all night long.

What to do instead: Modified cobra

In some cases, simply decreasing the range of motion of a favorite pose or exercise will be sufficient. For example, instead of performing an expansively open upward dog, keep the pose moderate and only go as far as you can while keeping your ribs anchored. Or slow down a reverse fly to control the movement, avoid momentum and keep the ribs anchored in neutral. But sometimes it really feels good to stretch the abdominal muscles and front body. To satisfy that need without the risks associated with a full wheel backbend, I coach clients through a modified cobra to safely stretch the front body without splaying the ribs and upper abs apart. This stretch keeps the ribs anchored and gently lengthens the front body without compressing the spine.

Begin by lying on your stomach with your forearms on the floor. Allow your hips to sink into the floor, anchoring you. Then engage your arms as you lift your upper body in a diagonal direction both forward and upward out of the hips, keeping the hip bones secure on the floor. This creates a gentle, satisfying traction that lengthens the front body in a mild yet effective stretch. Keep breathing throughout, and remain mindful to keep your ribs anchored in neutral without thrusting the lower ribs cage open. We include video coaching in this exercise at the end of many of our core intensive workouts, which you can find in our EMbody Programs’ guided paths and workout libraries at every-mother.com.

*This exercise is not recommended during pregnancy.

By Leah Keller, Creator of the EMbody Program. Learn more about Leah here.

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