Surprisingly, more than half of new mums experience rectus diastasis, where the two sides of the abdominal muscles separate down the middle of the tummy.
As the tummy grows during pregnancy, the connective tissue that runs down the front of the tummy connecting the two sides, called the linea alba, starts to stretch and can pull apart to allow space for the new bubba/s. The amount that the abdominals separate is important. Rectus diastasis can, with a pronounced separation, produce a hernia, where the insides can protrude through the gap – it’s definitely necessary to involve a doctor at this time. Abdominal separation can also increase the risk for lower back pain and injury.
But don’t panic, there are things you can do before, during and after pregnancy to reduce your chances of developing a serious case of rectus diastasis.
1. Avoid sit-ups!
As a general rule, avoid sit-ups or crunches before, during and after pregnancy. It’s also important to be cautious with any exercise that increases the pressure in your abdomen, like planking, unless correct engagement of the right muscles is maintained.
Avoid any exercises that increase tension in the rectus abdominus muscles. These are the abdominal muscles closest to the skin, aka the 6 pack muscles. These guys need to relax to allow for the growing tummy. Whilst you might think you are strengthening the abdominal muscles which will help prevent and manage separation, it’s actually the opposite. If your tummy is quite toned prior to pregnancy from doing lots of abdominal exercises, it’s already tight, and rather than making it more resistant to stretching, this can make it more likely to pull apart because there’s less give. Continuing to bring tension into these muscles during pregnancy increases the strain on the area where separation occurs. Postpartum, continue to avoid these movements until you know that any abdominal separation has closed.
Whilst avoiding these types of movements is important, strengthening the correct abdominal muscles in a safe way, such as with pilates, can be highly supportive.
2. Pilates can be highly supportive.
Maintaining your normal pilates routine with correct deep abdominal activation is fine prior to and during the first trimester, but once you enter the second trimester you’ll need to make some adjustments to the exercises you’re doing. Avoid any exercises that increase tension in rectus abdominus. This includes any type of chest lift whilst lying on your back, and planks, as discussed above.
Instead, the abdominal exercise focus should be on strengthening and improving the health of the pelvic floor and transversus abdominus, the deepest layer of abdominal muscle, that will help support the abdomen and back, and help with childbirth. These muscles are vital for body awareness during everyday life, and will ensure that your return to normal exercise after pregnancy is safe.
If you’ve never done pilates before, it’s safe to start pilates before, during or after pregnancy, with a knowledgeable and skilled pilates instructor.
3. Have your abdominals checked after pregnancy.
Thankfully, I find that most women who have had babies, will know if they have/ had abdominal separation following pregnancy, because someone will have checked and told them. Having said this, DO make sure someone checks for abdominal separation after pregnancy.
This is done by lying on your back, and someone pressing their fingers into your tummy above, over and below your belly button whilst you lift your head and chest. Separation can be easily felt as a gap between the muscles that tighten in order to lift your head and chest. A gap wider than 1 finger requires care and attention (NB: your pilates instructor needs to know), and consultation with your doctor should be had if the gap is wider than 3 fingers, especially if there is a protrusion or “hump” when the head and chest is raised.
Supporting your body with pilates before, during and after pregnancy can make the world of difference to your health and wellbeing.
Join us on one of our Pilates Health Retreats to learn more.
Libby Mason - Pilates Practitioner, Retreat Facilitator