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Abs Exercises That Can Help Heal Diastasis Recti

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Photo: Shutterstock / Antoniya More 

During pregnancy, your body goes through a lot of changes. And despite what celebrity tabloids may have you believe, for new mamas, giving birth doesn't exactly mean everything snaps right back to normal. (It also isn't realistic to bounce right back to your pre-pregnancy weight, as fitness influencer Emily Skye proves in this two-second transformation.) 

In fact, research suggests anywhere from one- to two-thirds of women suffer from a common post-pregnancy condition called diastasis recti, in which your left and right abdominal muscles separate.

"The rectus muscles are the 'strap' muscles that extend down from the ribcage to the pubic bone," explains Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale University. "They help keep us upright and hold our bellies in."

Unfortunately, with pregnancy, these muscles have to stretch quite a bit. "In some women, they stretch more than others and a gap is created. The abdominal contents can 'poof out' between the muscles, much like a hernia," she says.

The good news is that unlike a hernia, where your bowel can come out into the hernia sac and get stuck, that doesn't happen with a diastasis, Dr. Minkin explains. And a diastasis is not usually painful (though you might feel low back pain if your ab muscles are stretched and not working the way they normally would). Still, but if you're suffering, you might appear pregnant even months after having your baby, which can clearly be a confidence killer for new moms.

This is exactly what happened to Kristin McGee, a New York–based yoga and Pilates instructor, after giving birth to twin boys. "A few months after giving birth, I had lost a majority of the weight I gained, but I still had a pouch above my belly button and looked pregnant, especially toward the end of the day."

Dr. Minkin notes that women who carry twins can be at an increased risk for diastasis recti, as the muscles can get stretched even more.

How to Heal

The good news? No matter your situation, there are certain steps you can take—both pre- and post-baby to help avoid (or deal with) a diastasis.

For one, to keep stretching to a minimum, try to stay as close to your ideal body weight as possible before your pregnancy and try to stay within the weight gain range that your doc recommends for you during your pregnancy, suggests Dr. Minkin.

If you're still suffering from a diastasis after a year, Dr. Minkin notes that you can also think about having surgery to stitch the muscles back together—though, she notes this isn't 100 percent necessary. "It's not a health hazard, so there isn't significant harm in ignoring it. It really comes down to how bothered you are by it."

Fitness can also help. Many ab exercises (before, during, and after pregnancy) work to strengthen the rectus muscles, fighting against potential stretching. With the right arsenal of exercises, McGee says that she was able to heal her diastasis without surgery. 

You just have to be careful to focus on moves that will help strengthen and heal you in a safe way. "While you're healing your diastasis, you want to avoid any exercises that put too much strain on the abdominals and can cause the belly to cone or dome," says McGee. "Crunches and planks should be avoided until you can keep your abs held and avoid any pooching out." You also want to avoid backbends or anything that can cause the abdomen to stretch any further, she notes.

And if you have a diastasis, concentrate on drawing your abs together even during daily activities (and be careful if you notice that certain movements bother you), says McGee. But after getting the green light from your ob-gyn (usually around four to six weeks post-baby), most women can start doing gentle hip bridges and these moves from McGee that are aimed at firming up the midsection and healing a diastasis in an easy, effective way.

TVA Breaths

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Photo:  Kristin McGee

How to do it: Sit or lie down and inhale through nose into back body and sides of waist. On the exhale, open mouth and exhale the sound "ha" over and over again while concentrating on ribs drawing toward each other and waistline narrowing.

Why it works: "This is extremely important because breath is so connected to the core, and after having a baby, your ribs splay open to create room," says McGee. (Re-)learning how to breathe with the diaphragm allows the area to start to come back together, she notes.

Bridges

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Photo: Kristin McGee

How to do it: Lie faceup with knees bent, hip-width apart, feet flexed (pull toes up toward shins and off the floor), and arms by sides. Brace abs in and press down through heels to lift hips up (avoid overarching back), squeezing glutes. Place a ball between thighs and squeeze in to increase difficulty.

Why it works: "In bridges, it's very easy to draw the belly button to the spine and find the neutral pelvis," says McGee. This move also strengthens the hips and glutes, which can help support our entire core region.

TheraBand Arm Pull

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Photo:  Kristin McGee

How to do it: Hold a TheraBand out in front of body at shoulder height and pull the band apart while scooping abdominals in and up and drawing ribs together. Bring band overhead then return to shoulder level and repeat.

Why it works: "Using the band helps us really engage and feel our abdominals," notes McGee.

Toe Taps

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Photo: Kristin McGee

How to do it: Lying on back, lift legs to tabletop position with a 90-degree bend at knees. Tap toes to the ground, alternating legs.

Why it works: "Often times we lift our legs from our hip flexors or  quads," says McGee. "This move helps us engage the deep core to feel that connection so that we stay strong in our core as we move our limbs."

Heel Slides

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Photo: Kristin McGee

How to do it: Lying on back with legs bent, slowly lengthen one leg forward on the mat, hovering it above the floor, while keeping the hips still and the abdominals drawing in and up. Bend the leg back in and repeat on the other side.

Why it works: "When we do these, we start to feel the length of our limbs while staying connected to our core," says McGee.

Clams

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Photo:  Kristin McGee

How to do it: Lie on side with hips and knees bent at 45 degrees, legs stacked. Keeping feet in contact with each other, raise upper knee as high as possible without moving pelvis. Don't allow lower leg to move off the floor. Pause, then return to the starting position. Repeat. Place a band around both legs just below knees to increase difficulty.

Why it works: "Side-lying work like clams uses the obliques and strengthens the outer hips and thighs," says McGee.

 

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