The female physique is, perhaps more than anything else, adaptable. Whether you’re in your third trimester or already holding your bundle of joy, the power of a woman’s body to grow and change is pretty darn incredible.
Among those changes is diastasis recti — a separation that occurs between the right and left sides of your rectus abdominis (aka your six-pack muscle). This adjustment is a way for your body to make extra room for your baby during pregnancy. “The growing uterus exerts pressure on the abdominal wall, bulging the muscles forward and inducing separation. It’s not a tear, but a sideways stretch of the linea alba or the connective tissue that runs vertically along the midline of the abdominal wall,” explains Leah Keller, CPT, MA, founder of The Dia Method, a training program that helps women prevent and treat diastasis recti.
Why You Should Address Diastasis Recti
Yes, diastasis recti is incredibly common (one 2016 study found that about 45 and 33 percent of women have diastasis recti at six months and 12 months postpartum, respectively). But that doesn’t mean you should ignore it.
“Although largely marginalized as a cosmetic concern about a ‘mummy tummy’ or pooch, diastasis recti has very real health consequences,” Keller says. “When the abdominal muscles separate, the body lacks support for the back and the organs, and the integrity of the entire core is compromised.” Without a strong core, your total-body function can suffer.
Diastasis recti (DR) can even contribute to chronic back pain as well as pelvic floor dysfunction, Keller says. In fact, two-thirds of women with DR suffer from at least one pelvic floor dysfunction, such as pelvic organ prolapse or incontinence, according to research.
How Exercise Can Ease Diastasis Recti
Good news, mamas! In one study co-authored by Keller and researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine, women who completed a specialized exercise program either during or following pregnancy significantly improved and rehabbed their core in as little as 12 weeks. That means strengthening the linea alba, closing the gap and improving function.
“It is possible to fully resolve diastasis recti with exercise — but the proven therapeutic exercises are very specific and precise, and they are antithetical to the core exercises most people perform when they set out to improve core strength,” Keller says. Translation: Skip the sit-ups. In fact, many abs exercises, like crunches and sit-ups, increase intra-abdominal pressure and actually bulge the abdominal muscles forward.
Before performing any core exercise, Keller recommends asking yourself a few questions: Does this exercise cause my abs to bulge forward? Can I perform it without my ribs flaring and lower back arching? Both of these movements cause the two sides of the rectus abdominis to separate, Keller says, which worsens or triggers DR all on their own. Keller has actually worked with many women (and even men!) who have suffered from exercise-induced DR.
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