Are your go-to exercises separating your abs?
The core is integral to the entire body – how we feel, how we move, how we function in the most basic and intimate ways. When things are not quite right, our quality of life suffers. Whether you are early postpartum, or your kids are in college, I’d like to reassure you that you can fully restore core strength and function, no matter how long it’s been. That said, the path to health, strength, and fitness can be confusing. Many of the exercises women embrace to get back in shape and build core strength inflict collateral damage on the very tissue they’re hoping to restore.
I’m often asked what activities, exercises or workouts are safe for diastasis recti, a common pregnancy-induced condition in which the rectus abdominis (the “6-pack muscles”) split apart due to the pressure of the growing baby. The most conservative data suggests diastasis recti affects over 60% of women following a first-time, singleton pregnancy. If you've ever had a child the odds are that you have experienced some degree of this muscle separation. It’s not a tear, but a sideways stretch of connective tissue that weakens the core and compromises support for the back, the pelvic floor, and the organs. In addition to the cosmetic impact (diastasis recti tends to leave women with a “pooch” that can linger years and even decades after delivery), this condition carries very real health implications, including back pain, urinary stress incontinence, and pelvic floor dysfunction.
Ready for some good news? You can fully resolve diastasis recti without surgery! Our Reclaim program is proven to resolve diastasis recti in less than 12 weeks, and it works no matter how long ago you had your children. In addition to efficient, effective workouts, Reclaim also offers coaching in healthy breathing, posture, and alignment -- including instruction in how to move safely in daily life and when performing other exercises to avoid worsening the condition or even inducing a separation if you don't have one. I'm happy to share several tips for you to incorporate right now, into all of your activities, so you can avoid exacerbating (or causing!) abdominal separation.
First of all, know that I am a lover of movement and activity. I encourage you to do whatever activities/exercise/workouts you enjoy, but with mindfulness and appropriate modifications when necessary to keep your core safe. You really can lead a very active life with diastasis recti and after resolving the condition – but any activities you perform must be done in such a way to make them safe and to support your overall core health and function.
So… what are the questions you need to ask yourself while playing tennis? While participating in your favorite barre/yoga/boot camp class? While doing dance aerobics or swimming? It doesn’t matter what activity it is – the questions to help you determine whether that movement is safe for your core are universal.
Here is a summary:
- Am I able to perform this movement/posture/exertion with my abs perfectly engaged to the spine? If not, you need to skip or modify that movement to make it safe for your core.
- Does anything that I’m doing cause my abs to bulge forward? Does it exert downward, outward, or bulging pressure on my pelvic floor? If the answer is yes to either question, can I consciously avoid that bulging pressure, or is it beyond my control? If beyond your control, you need to skip or modify that movement.
- Does the movement involve lifting my shoulders off the floor from a back-lying position? If so, modify that exercise to keep your shoulders down and your abs engaged toward the spine.
- Does the movement involve lifting both legs off the floor from a back-lying position? If it does, can I keep my spine neutral and my abs totally flat throughout the complete range of motion? The answer is probably no. You can make this category of movement safe by lifting only one leg at a time and keeping your hands on your abs to monitor proper engagement.
- Am I moving too quickly or too globally (burpees or mountain climbers, for example) to know whether or not my core is correctly engaged? If you can’t tell whether you are engaging the abs in a convex (bulging = injurious) or concave (flattening = safe) direction, then you need to slow down that movement or otherwise modify/break it down to perform it with control and vigilance.
- Am I exhaling and drawing my abs up and in toward the spine on every exertion? For example, when hitting a backhand, you should exhale and squeeze your belly button up and into the spine. Same with any lift (free weight/body weight/kettlebell/resistance machine/groceries/your children), a golf stroke, a row, a paddle…
- A word about backbends: a full wheel backbend, or any other extreme spinal extension and lengthening of the upper abdominal wall, will almost certainly exacerbate (or even cause!) diastasis recti. This stretch is essentially impossible to perform while keeping the belly button anchored to the spine and without flaring the lower ribcage, which opens the upper abdominal muscles. Please avoid this category of stretches to prevent injury. For an alternative that’s safe for diastasis recti, perform a gentle bridge pose or a modified cobra, which we include in many of our workouts.
- Planks can be excellent when performed correctly, with the abs drawing up toward the spine throughout the entire duration. But planks can be profoundly injurious when performed incorrectly, with the abdominal muscles bracing or barreling or flexing forward. To stay safe, I recommend performing Core Compressions and breathing shallowly while in the plank position. It is also important to exit the plank before fatigue compromises your form.
While performing an aerobic activity, such as running, brisk walking, biking, swimming, dancing, or other cardio, these are your most important self-checks:
- Can I maintain a neutral spine (no ribs thrusting / butt sticking out / tucking the pelvis under) while performing this cardio?
- Can I draw my abs “up and in” toward the spine with every exhalation? (The abs will need to soften and relax on inhalation to allow adequate oxygen uptake while performing aerobic exercise –but the abs should never bulge forcefully forward.)
- Additionally, if your cardio of choice involves impact (such as running or jumping), closely monitor your pelvic floor: do you feel downward or bulging pressure? Do you leak a little? If so, please take a break from that activity and focus on core strengthening exercises that are safe for diastasis recti. Switch to low-impact cardio (like cycling, swimming, or our cardio-strength workouts) for a few months, until you have the core strength and control to resume running or other high-impact workouts without stressing your pelvic floor.
Implementing these tips is a great place to start so that you can eliminate obstacles to diastasis recti resolution. However, eliminating stressors is not sufficient to actually reverse the condition or build core strength. To resolve abdominal separation and improve core strength and function, our comprehensive 12-week Reclaim program is a scientifically proven solution. And for those who do not currently have diastasis recti but who wish to safely strengthen their core both now and into the future, our Surpass program is full of safe and progressively challenging workouts. Join our Every Mother community today to restore your core and transform your health for a strong, active, and vibrant future.
- 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