Last winter, I watched my abs slowly fade away. I was maintaining my workouts and eating habits, yet my belly was growing with a baby on the way. I was pregnant and overjoyed, and a six-pack was the last thing on my mind. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I also developed a fear of “breaking” my core and hurting my future fit-mom goals, to the point where I avoided abs moves entirely in my early preggo sweat routine. I knew staying active was healthy for mom and baby, so I sought out a prenatal trainer to ease my worries.
Dealing with your abdominals separating is actually a very real thing in pregnancy and postpartum. In fact, 66 percent of women will experience it in the third trimester, and it’s more common in those who have a C-section or give birth to multiples.
Life-threatening? No. Life-altering? Most definitely. “Diastasis recti can make a difference in the way everything else in your body works,” says Sarah Bradford, CPT, founder of Luna Mother Collective.
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But the gap doesn’t have to be permanent—there are evidence-based routines for getting your core clicking again. “Putting in the work can make you a better athlete and stronger than pre-baby,” says Brooke Cates, CPT, a pre- and postnatal corrective exercise specialist and the founder of The Bloom Method. Read on for the best approaches to repairing diastasis recti at any stage of recovery—then go stand corrected.
First, what is diastasis recti exactly?
Diastasis recti (DR) is the technical term for this gap (diastasis = separation) of varying size and depth along the connective tissue that holds the left and right side of the rectus abdominis muscle tightly together. In severe cases, DR looks like a rounded pooch and can lead to health concerns like lower back pain and pelvic floor dysfunction.
Ask your doc to look for it six weeks postpartum, or try the finger check (coming up!). Yep, you can use your fingers to measure the severity of diastasis recti, and your progress, says Leah Keller, CPT, creator of Every Mother’s EMbody Program.
How to tell if you have diastasis recti:
1. Lie flat on your back with your knees bent.
2. At your belly button, place three fingers pointing down your midline toward your toes.
3. Lift head one inch to engage abs, so they “grab” your fingers. Add or subtract fingers as you feel for the width and depth of the gully at the midline.
4. Repeat 2.5 inches below and above the belly button. Any gap wider than an inch indicates diastasis recti.
How To Repair Diastasis Recti
You can start gradual core restoration in the form of gentle movements and breath work on day one of recovery from a vaginal birth (or a week post-C-section). “When do we ever have an injury where we tell someone to just sit and not do anything?” Cates points out. You can actually heal the separation from home if you start early and only have a mild case. In fact, women who followed a 12-week postpartum core-strengthening online program significantly improved their DR and related pain, per a new study in the Journal of Women’s Health Physical Therapy.
In the first few weeks, ease into healing with diaphragmatic (slow, intentional, deep in the rib cage) breathing. Additionally, make the most of functional movements and engage your transverse abdominis and pelvic floor in actions, like picking up baby or getting out of a chair, to manage intra-abdominal pressure. Think about properly activating the core with each exhalation and “wrapping” the transverse abdominal muscle around your torso, like a corset. (With practice, it will become automatic.)
After four to six weeks, start to work on deadbugs, lying on your back with knees bent in tabletop position and slowly lowering one heel to the ground and back up, alternating sides with your exhale to activate and strengthen the deep core. When you feel ready to introduce moves that place more of a demand on the abdomen (think: full planks), remember to pull back if you can’t feel your abs engaged through the entire range of motion or notice your belly puff out, so you don’t counteract the rehab work you’re doing.
I’m not seeing progress with my diastasis recti recovery. What gives?
Everyone’s journey is different, depending on genetics and personal experiences. If your divide isn’t budging after 12 weeks, these factors could be at play.
- Ignoring your core off the mat. Consciously engaging your tummy muscles in everyday movements, like when standing or when reclining in a seat, helps muscles mend.
- Hormones. Excess progesterone and relaxin from pregnancy encourage muscle laxity that is necessary for delivery but makes it harder to tighten up the abs quickly. Give it time.
- Doing crunches or situps. These forward-flexion movements can actually worsen abdominal separation by adding pressure to the connective tissue. Just avoid.
Talk to your ob-gyn or a physical therapist with knowledge of DR to help ID any potential hurdles to your healing.
When To Work With A Specialist
No results after 6 to 12 weeks? Even one session with a physical therapist (general or pelvic-floor) can make a difference, says Krystle Howald, PT, cofounder of Expecting and Empowered. A PT will also apply pressure to trigger points on the belly to “release” tension, she says, and help the muscles get back into proper position, so to speak. (Check if your insurance covers perinatal/postpartum PT.)
Don’t forget creds. Prenatal and postpartum certifications are signs of relevant training in addition to standard PT or personal training accreditation, says Julie M. Levitt, MD, an ob-gyn at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. You can also ask an expert if she personally dealt with DR (it’s that common!).
Is there anything I can do to avoid diastasis recti?
Stretched abdominals as your baby grows are inevitable, but you can and should maintain a solid core. Two of the most important things to do for your middle muscles are breathing exercises and pelvic floor–engaging exercises throughout the day, as well as making modifications to take pressure off the abs in your workouts. Following a virtual DR program that brings it allll together—like Luna Mother Collective, The Bloom Method, or EMbody—takes the guesswork out of powering through the changes.
With each platform, the on-demand classes are easy to follow and start at 5 to 10 minutes long, guiding you through key practices like breath work, strengthening exercises that help ward off difficult-to-repair DR issues, and more.
Jennifer Nied is the fitness editor at Women’s Health and has more than 10 years of experience in health and wellness journalism. She’s always out exploring—sweat-testing workouts and gear, hiking, snowboarding, running, and more—with her husband, daughter, and dog.