When we’re recovering from childbirth, it’s such a freeing feeling to finally be cleared to exercise. You can move and sweat again! While it can be tempting to jump back into your old routine, it’s important to remember that the body has been through a LOT and needs time to repair and recover. Even though we may feel great on the inside, significant internal healing needs to occur. This is why it’s so important to ease back into your routine, while avoiding high impact (for up to 16 weeks to protect the pelvic floor) and using smart core strategies. Diastasis recti, an abnormal separation of the rectus abdominis (the outer layer of our abdomen, aka our six-pack muscles), is extremely common postpartum, and we want to make sure that we’re allowing the connective tissue to move back together and heal.
Diastasis recti is often referred to as a “mummy tummy” because it can cause protrusion from the abs. It can make you look pregnant when you’re not, and because the core muscles are weak, it can throw a lot of other things out of whack. Other symptoms include back pain and pelvic floor-related issues, like incontinence. (Peeing when you sneeze is not normal and can absolutely be fixed. With treatment, you can fix it and it doesn’t have to be your new normal after you have a baby.) Also, it’s worth noting that people with large bellies don’t necessarily have diastasis recti, and people with washboard abs could absolutely have ab separation. It’s all about function, not appearance.
If you think you may have diastasis recti, ask your doctor or a physical therapist to check you. I also highly recommend meeting with a pelvic floor physical therapist after birth, whether you think you have diastasis recti or not. They can provide a wealth of knowledge about muscle imbalances and tips to improve posture, alignment, and restore proper function to your entire body.
Here are some of my favorite safe core exercises for the early postpartum period (after you’re cleared to exercise from your doctor or midwife):
- Diaphragmatic breathing. Fill your belly completely, but avoid letting your ribs move up as you inhale. Instead, think of your belly and rib cage as an umbrella: open it completely. As you exhale, close the *umbrella* and draw the belly towards the spine.
- Marches and toe drops. Start on your back with your legs bent and feet flat on the floor. Exhale as you lift one leg off the floor and lower back down with control before switching to the opposite leg. Keep everything else stable, your abs pulled in – as you lift each leg one at a time (if you feel anything pushing out, dial back and maybe just hold a tabletop position). Once this feels good and you maintain core stabilization, try toe drops. Start in table top on your back, legs bent and feet lifted off the floor. Gently lower one toe towards the floor at a time. Make sure to breathe!
- Hip raises. Lay on your back, with knees bent. Ground your shoulders into the floor and press your weight into your heels. Exhale and squeeze your glutes as you press your hips up, and slowly lower down
- Spinal balance. Start off on your hands and knees, making sure to keep your knees stacked under your hips and hands stacked under your shoulders. Make sure to keep the lower part of the abs pulled in, and breathe. To start, do one leg at a time, then one arm at a time. Once this feels good and you have the stability, try opposite hand and legs. Finally, add tiny pulses at the top.
- Cat cow. This is a great one for pregnancy, too! Start on your hands and knees, with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. As you inhale, fill your belly and drop it towards the floor (letting your back arch); exhale to press out the air, drawing your belly up and in, pushing your spine up toward the ceiling and allowing your head to fall toward your chest.