If you have an abdominal separation, you’ve probably seen the lists of diastasis recti exercises to avoid. But then, you read a little further, and you can find information contradicting almost all of these claims. So, who’s really right? Well, let’s take a closer look at the whole thing.
Should you do traditional ab exercises if you have diastasis recti?
Although most people consider diastasis recti to be an ab issue, it’s actually an issue within the entire body. It affects the way a woman accepts force and creates pressure. For literally everything. If you need more details on exactly why a diastasis affects the whole body, you can find it here. Nonetheless, the issue is most obvious in the abdominal muscles, so naturally, people want to do ab exercises to resolve it.
Traditionally, when we think of ab exercises, we think of things like:
And although all of these are great ab exercises, they may or may not be the right ones for healing a diastasis.
To know if an exercise is appropriate, you need to know about how that specific woman creates pressure and whether she can control the necessary load correctly. For most women, the exercises described above are rarely appropriate in the early postpartum days. But then the question becomes: at one point DO they become appropriate, if ever, and how do you know? I’ll come back to this, but first, let’s cover a few more exercise options.
What about exercises that aren’t specific to the abs?
If you’ve learned that traditional ab exercises might not be appropriate while healing your diastasis, it certainly stands to reason that you would then turn to exercises that don’t specifically target the abs. This could be things like:
But remember what I told you earlier. Diastasis recti is not an ab issue. It’s a whole body issue. It affects the way you transfer force throughout your body, so all of these exercises have the potential to impact healing. For ANY exercise, you need your abs to stabilize. In fact, to perform almost any MOVEMENT, including everyday activities like getting up from the floor or the couch, trunk stability is a necessity.
In order to create stability, you can generate too much pressure, too little pressure, or an appropriate amount for the task at hand. It’s probably obvious that what you want is the appropriate amount. Too much pressure can keep the muscles and other tissues in an elongated state that prevents healing, and too little pressure means the muscles aren’t doing an effective job. Now, let’s consider what each of these might look like.
Do you have appropriate tension and how would you know?
We generate tension within our bodies by a combined effort of the abs, the pelvic floor, the diaphragm, and the top of the throat (glottis). Different amounts of tension are necessary throughout the trunk for different tasks. As an example, it takes far less trunk stability to put a glass away on a shelf than it does to lift your bodyweight on a barbell over your head.
Nonetheless, you have to generate tension for both of these tasks. If you generate too much tension, you can be pressing outward into your belly. This outward pressure keeps the abs and the linea alba (the soft tissue between them) on a stretch. When they stretch in this manner, they cannot generate good strength or remodel back down to a more normal length. Coning, doming, or bulging of the abdomen are signs of too much pressure.
On the other hand, some people don’t generate enough pressure. This means there isn’t enough tension through the linea alba for the abs to work effectively. This can be seen as a softness, a squishiness, or a sinking in at midline between the abdominals. And lastly and probably most commonly, are the people who switch back and forth between generating too much tension and not enough. It’s pretty normal not to fit neatly into a specific category.
Which diastasis recti exercises should YOU avoid?
So, how do you know which diastasis recti exercises to avoid? First, you’ll need to learn to check your own diastasis, and not just lying on your back. In the beginning, you’ll need to check it with every exercise you do. This will allow you to start learning which movements cause problems for you and what it feels like when you generate pressure in a less advantageous way.
Then, you’ll also need to check your diastasis with everyday activities. This could be things like getting up from the couch, reaching, washing your hair, carrying your child, etc. After all, exercise is just movement with a specific purpose behind it. What you’re trying to change is the way you generate pressure for any movement.
When trying to choose the right exercises, the goal isn’t to generate perfect pressure every time. Instead, you want to find the exercises that challenge you to get it right. If your pressure is appropriate with every repetition, it’s probably too easy. On the other hand, if your pressure is too great or too little with every repetition, it’s probably too difficult.
How will I know when I’m ready to progress my exercises?
This is an important question. Even if you find the greatest exercises now for your current stage of healing, it’s crucial that you learn how to progress them. Otherwise, you’ll never end up at your goals. Let’s start with the concept that there are no off-limits exercises with diastasis recti. Instead, think of it as exercises that you may or may not be ready for at this time.
By thinking of exercise in this way, every transition, or new exercise, is a stepping stone to get you to your end goal. As examples, it’s generally easier to learn concepts when you move more slowly (i.e. walking versus running). Or when you have less of your body to control against gravity (i.e. lying down versus standing up). Or when there are less moving parts (i.e. moving an arm or leg instead of all four). Once you reach a point where your pressure is appropriate for most repetitions, then it’s time to progress to an exercise that challenges you again.
What if I need more guidance to get there?
Most of these concepts make great sense when you read them, but actually applying them can be a lot more complicated. Usually, you’ll need to learn different strategies for generating pressure than the ones you currently have. Generating pressure can be accomplished through contractions of the pelvic floor, the abs, the diaphragm, and the glottis. In most cases, relearning how to use one or more than one of these structures will be necessary. Additionally, parts of the body distant to these structures can impact your ability to make use of them.
It’s possible to generate pressure in different directions using different muscle groups. If you’d like to read more about how specific exercises and muscles affect the linea alba, here’s some research to consider:
- Effects on the gap with contractions of the rectus abdominis versus transverse abdominis muscles
- How pelvic floor and transverse abdominis contractions affect the gap
- Narrowing the gap with an abdominal crunch
Just remember, it’s not all about the gap, and any exercise needs to be specific to you and the way you manage pressure. Diastasis recti is not a well understood condition, and it definitely deserves further research. If you feel like you need more guidance on all this, you might want to find a good pelvic floor physical therapist. Additionally, the Mama Made Strong program can teach you to understand the specifics of your own body from the privacy of your home.
An example of how to determine which exercises to avoid
Let’s wrap this up by walking through an example of how exercise selection and progression might work. In this case, let’s say you want to be able to do push-ups, but you feel a bit awkward when you try. You’ve been working on healing your diastasis, and you know it’s made progress. However, you’re unsure whether you’re strong enough for push-ups yet.
Here’s how to know. Since push-ups require the use of two hands, you’re either going to need an assistant or you’re going to have to do your push-ups with one hand. Since most people reading this don’t do one-handed push-ups, instead, raise the surface on which you perform them until you can. For example, if you would normally do push-ups on the floor, try elevating your hands to a bench, counter, or even the wall.
Then, we’re going to take things down a notch. A push-up involves moving, but a plank involves holding a very similar position. You need to crawl before you walk, so make sure you can hold the position correctly first. Use your free hand (or your assistant) to check your diastasis.
If you feel bulging, coning, doming, or squishiness in your abdomen, you need to change your strategy for stabilizing your trunk and generating pressure. Likewise, you should not be putting pressure down on your pelvic floor. We certainly don’t want to create issues there while trying to heal your diastasis. Also, don’t forget to switching hands and check to see if it changes your abilities.
When you find that you can generate appropriate pressure, then add movement back in and progress the plank to a push-up. On the other hand, if you feel any of the above sensations, you either need to alter your strategy for creating pressure or make the exercise easier still. Over time, you’ll gradually move your hands to a lower surface until the challenge returns. On occasion, you may have to revisit planks. This process will likely take a lot longer than you’d prefer, but it will get you to your goal without creating further issues to your abdomen or your pelvic floor.