Before I had my second son, I was a push up machine. A normal workout would be sets of push ups in different variations for almost an hour. I was up to 25 push ups in a row without stopping. Then I had my monster baby. 9 pounds, 1 ounce of giant baby boy. I remember he was so big in my stomach I could not sit normally, I had to lean back to give him room to move. Needless to say, my abs took a beating.
I began working out at 6 weeks postpartum trying to get back into the swing of things. Of course push ups felt extremely awkward that soon after having a baby and I avoided trying to do them for five or six months. When I finally began trying, however, I would end up with terrible lower back pain. After several months of trying, my push ups were not getting easier, no matter how often I tried to do them. There were times I could only do a few before my abs were tired and I had to stop. Ab focused exercises were another time when I hated doing my workout. Crunches, v-ups, flutter kicks – I struggled through everything. My abs would actually dome if I contracted them to lift my legs and head off the ground. Eek! There was also a lot of stress on my lower back and it didn’t seem natural.
It was then I discovered I had diastasis recti, which is a thinning of the linea alba (the tissue which holds the abdominal muscles together.) Every woman experiences this beginning in the second trimester of pregnancy and continuing into the postpartum phase. For many women, the split between the abs does not close again on its own. This is why many of us mothers feel we still look pregnant due to a belly bulge many years after having our babies! The abdominal wall is not able to hold everything in place when it is separated. And men, don’t stop reading! This can happen to everyone for all kinds of reasons, especially exercising the wrong way.
It turns out that crunches are terrible for abs, especially in post baby recovery! Doing conventional ab work (sit-ups, etc.) after having a baby will never get rid of your pooch, or suck back in the sides of your waist. According to this great article from the trainers over at TheDiaMethod.com,
“…many conventional abdominal exercises strain the connective tissue in the abdomen, which widens your waistline and creates or worsens an existing pooch. The list of offenders includes crunches, bicycle crunches, sit-ups, and even a few moves in yoga and Pilates. The very exercises you might be doing to ‘get your body back’ can actually exacerbate the problem you’re trying to fix. To state it as simply as possible: any movement that bulges the abdominal wall forcefully forward will further separate the abdominal muscles, making a post-pregnancy pooch worse. Always engage your abdominal muscles in a flat-to-flatter contraction. Never allow the abs to bulge forward.”
How to test for diastasis recti at home. I am no expert, so here is a video from an expert explaining how to check for diastasis recti. If you think you have a serious problem, please consult a doctor!
Healing diastasis recti through exercise.
You can get your stomach and waist back! Before I even knew about diastasis recti I had thrown normal ab work out of my routine because it just didn’t feel right. (And my dome abs freaked me out.) I started doing a variety of modified planks and other exercises which engaged my core in ways which did not feel uncomfortable. Slowly my old waistline began to re-appear! Unbeknownst to me, I was working my transverse abdominis (TA) which is the body’s natural girdle, holding in the stomach and allowing a leaner appearance. Working the TA is a crucial step in getting flat abs, and doing exercises like crunches and sit-ups will not work this muscle.
Many experts on diastasis recti state that normal planks are bad for the condition, which explains why I had problems with push ups. If you have diastasis recti or have recently given birth, gentler exercises should be focused on which will assist in pulling the linea alba back together. Here are two great resources on exercises designed for diastasis recovery:
Once you feel you are ready for more advanced activities:
Side plank dips from my knees is one of the most effective exercises I have used to regain my core strength. Here is a video:
Side plank leg raise is another great side plank exercise which I found challenging but very rewarding.
The best way I have found to strengthen my core without doing ab work is boxing. I have had great results from this activity. If you get a chance, try it!
Remember, it is all about listening to your body and doing what feels right. When in doubt, seek a doctor or guidance from a trained professional.