We are looking at the ab killer for new mums, diastasis recti

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Congratulations! You have your little bundle of joy (this could be recent, a few months or even years ago) and you’re loving being a mummy. The one thing that you may now be feeling is that when you look in the mirror all you can see staring back at you is your new mummy pouch. Eager to get rid of your new tummy, you’ve decided to take the plunge back into exercising. However, before you hit the gym and begin a relentless regime of stomach crunches you need to stop and consider a condition known as DRA (diastasis recti) which occurs in more than 50 percent of pregnancies and is very common for new parents.

What is Diastasis Recti?

During pregnancy, a gap will have developed between your left and right abdominal wall muscles which after giving birth can leave you with a protruding belly. This will gradually go back to normal as your hormone levels regulate, but sometimes, especially in smaller women or those with poor muscle tone, you may find that tissues have been so stretched during pregnancy that it never quite goes back to how it used to be.

If this is the case for you, exercises such as stomach crunches will not only fail to work, they can even make this condition worse and leave you with weakened abdominals

Severe cases of diastasis recti will require a visit to the physiotherapist and in many cases take years to solve. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t exercise at all. It just means you have to be picky!

Do I Have Diastasis Recti?

Before you consider doing any exercise it is worth performing this quick self-test to identify whether or not you may suffer from diastasis recti:

  1. Lay on the floor as if you were sleeping. Keep your feet flat and bend your knees upwards.
  2. With your palm facing towards you, place your fingers over your navel (belly button).
  3. Press down with your fingers and at the same time raise your head off the floor slightly, as if you are performing a stomach crunch.
  4. If you can feel a gap then you do have a diastasis. (Bear in mind, it is worth conducting the test just below and just above the belly button as the measurement of the gap may differ in different areas).

Anything more than a fingertip width gap and exercises like these may aggravate it:

  • Avoid oblique sit-ups/machines
  • Avoid incline sit-ups
  • Avoid traditional sit ups or abdominal curls
  • Avoid double leg raises
  • Avoid exercise machines for intense abdominal exercises
  • Avoid hanging knee raises
  • Avoid exercise ball leg raises/ sit ups
  • Avoid ‘The Hundred’ or Pilates table top
  • Avoid bicycle legs

This list is not exhaustive but outlines the types of exercise that need to be avoided.

mum and daughter by the sea on pebbles

No pressure

Generally speaking, exercises that involve crunches such as sit-ups and oblique twists should be avoided along with anything that puts a lot of pressure on the abdominals. This repeated force can actually worsen the muscles making it harder to repair. Instead of crunches which are a repetitive strain on your core, try using an exercise ball for increased support for your spine and back.

Planking

This exercise is key for many fitness junkies as it includes an overall body workout, however, to complete them successfully you need a fully-functioning core, and many new mothers lack this and need to build up their core strength slowly. To be able to plank in the future women need to work on reconnecting their muscles and restrengthening them.

When you first begin to exercise you need to focus on low-level abdominal contraction exercises and steer clear of any exercise that puts a strain on the abdominal wall. If you are still feeling unsure then it is worth talking to your doctor about your findings and seek their advice to make sure that you are taking the right steps to improving your condition.

No heavy lifting

You should avoid any heavy weight lifting as these tend to twist the spine, they are also pulling your muscles away from the natural pull of gravity which works against your recovery. If you are wanting to use light weights, focus on your arms and legs, making sure not to put any pressure on your abdominal muscles.

Go slow

If you’re a keen runner, you’ll need to give your body time to heal before you start this up again. Hormonal changes during pregnancy lead to flatter feet and a lower curve on the spine so you may experience lower back pain. Once you have regained the strength in your core muscles you can get back to your normal running routine.

Pilates and yoga

These exercises may seem gentle and good for postpartum exercise, however, some of the poses and movements twist the spinal column which in turn can lead to increased amounts of stress and tension put onto the abdominals. Let your instructor or class leader know if you have diastasis recti and they will be able to offer adjusted movements or ways to improve the condition that you can work on.

silhouette of a lady doing yoga

What to work on

Simpler exercises that may seem less strenuous than what you are used to are better for closing the gap. These include activating the deeper abdominal muscles which will strengthen your core.

  • Lie on your side and try and feel your abdominal wall, draw in a breath and activate those muscles. Hold this position for around ten seconds and then release. Repeat this five on either side times and increase as you feel yourself improving. And remember to breathe normally throughout the exercise and make sure it is your lower abdominals contracting, nearer to your pelvic bones, not your upper.
  • Another variation of this is to do this exercise while lying on your back, making sure you keep your back in its normal curved position, so as not to put excess strain on other muscles.
  • As you become more familiar with this exercise or you start to see an improvement you can move onto different variations of this, which all work to strengthen your deep core. Try it with your knees bent lying on your back, keeping your pelvis stable and slowly moving each leg down towards a straight leg position and returning back to a bent position.

As mums, we are often too hard on ourselves and it’s worth bearing in mind that in this situation your ‘mummy tummy’ could, in fact, be down to a condition that’s actually out of your control.

Diastasis recti is a problem if you are starting to exercise post-baby - here is how to handle it, the exercises to avoid and what to do next.

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