Pregnancy does wild things to your body. The changes are extensive, particularly when it comes to your abdominal muscles, which not only stretch by more than 50 percent, but divide and separate to make room for your growing baby.
This separation is a condition called diastasis recti and the healing of it is crucial for any woman who has had a baby. If you don’t close the separation, you will most likely have postural issues, worsening back pain, and, yes, the dreaded mommy tummy.
Here are my top five moves to first close the separation then slowly progress and challenge the newfound connection. No crunches, please! A crunch will only pull the muscles further apart and make the diastasis recti worse.
Neutral Spine. This is the natural position of the spine when all three curves are present and in correct alignment. The three curves are the cervical (neck), thoracic (ribcage) and lumbar (lower back). Neutral spine can be found standing, seated, or lying on your back, stomach, and side, and it is when the spine is strongest and best supports movement.
Neutral Pelvis. This is the position of the pelvis when your hipbones (ASIS) are on the same plane as your pubic bone. You can find neutral pelvis by placing the heels of your hands on your hipbones so that your thumbs are reaching toward your midline. Then create a triangle with your pointer fingers—the connection of the two pointers will rest on your pubic bone. You can find this standing, seated, or lying on your back, side, or stomach.
The transverse abdominis, or TVA, is a muscle that wraps around the midsection of the body. When correctly engaged, it pulls the two sides of the abs together. TVA counting is one exercise in a series of seated deep-core activation moves that are designed to close the diastasis.
- Set-up: Sit with neutral spine and pelvis on a physioball, yoga block or bolster, or a household chair.
- Inhale through your nose and allow your belly to fill up with air and the muscles to relax.
- Exhale a long, slow, even breath through your mouth and imagine pulling your belly button all the way to your spine, with the TVA wrapping around your midsection—cinching and lengthening. Hold that connection and begin to count out loud. Make sure to take small sips of air as you count. The goal is to be able to maintain the connection while breathing.
- Start out by counting to 10 and build to 25.
- Do 10 sets of 10 or four sets of 25.
2. Heel Slide
Once you have mastered the feeling of the TVA wrapping around you, pulling the two sides of the abs back together, the next step is to challenge your pelvic stability. Due to the pregnancy hormone relaxin, there is a lot of residual pelvic instability after you’ve had a baby. Heel slides will challenge the connection in your deep core and the stability it provides by adding a moving leg. The goal of the exercises is to keep the separation closed and the pelvis in neutral throughout.
- Set-up: Lie on your back with your knees bent and find a neutral position for your pelvis.
- Inhale through your nose and allow your belly to fill up with air, then point your toes and reach your leg long and out along the mat until it is straight.
- Exhale a long, slow, and even breath through your mouth as you first feel the wrap of your TVA around your midsection as it stabilizes the pelvis in the neutral position.
- Next flex your foot and slide your heel back in along the mat, but do not let anything else move. It’s easy to hike the hip as you bring the leg back in, but make sure you resist this and do the move in a very slow and focused manner.
- Do 10 slides on each leg.
3. Pelvic Tilt
It’s scary to think of your abdominal muscles stretching so much over the course of your pregnancy. It’s time now to shrink them back to normal and this is a wonderful exercise for doing just that.
- Set-up: There are so many ways for you to do the pelvic tilt. You can do it seated on a physioball, lying on your back, in the all fours position, or standing—and it is my advice that you try in all of them. To start, lie on your back, with knees bent and pelvis and spine in neutral.
- Inhale through your nose and allow your belly to fill up with air. Make sure you completely relax the tummy muscles as you inhale. Imagine there is a little marble right in between your pubic bone and your belly button.
- Exhale a long, slow, breath through your mouth, feeling first your pelvic floor lift; next your TVA knits together and oblique and six-pack muscles also activate to hollow out your low abs to gently rock your pelvis back. Imagine the marble rolling back toward your belly button.
- Inhale through your nose again and imagine the marble gently rolling back to the starting position again.
- Do 15 tilts.
Less is more with this exercise. It is a small tilt of the pelvis requiring a deep connection of the abs. Don’t force the pelvis back and make a heavy imprint of the spine on the mat!
4. Tabletop Hold
Once you have closed your separation in a seated position, it’s time to challenge the connection. This exercise will continue to strengthen the muscles of the deep core. Be sure to take it slow, one leg at a time, to get into the tabletop position—it requires a lot of pelvic stability.
- Set-up: Lie on your back with your knees bent and find a neutral position for your spine and pelvis.
- Inhale through your nose and lift one leg to tabletop. Do not let anything else shift as you lift the leg.
- Exhale a long, slow, and even breath through your mouth, pulling your belly button in toward your spine, and feeling the wrap of your TVA around your midsection as it stabilizes the pelvis in the neutral position. Next without shifting at all, lift the other leg to come into the tabletop position.
- Hold this position as you continue to breathe in and out, while keeping the initial connection to your spine.
- Do three sets of eight breaths.
5. Knee Hovers
Now that you have mastered the feeling of keeping the separation closed, this exercise will challenge the connection in the all fours position. You will have gravity working against you and will need to summon upper body strength and stability to maintain the start position.
- Set-up: Start in the all fours position, with your knees under and in line with your pelvis and your wrists under and in line with your shoulders.
- Inhale into the back and side of the rib cage and lengthen through the spine.
- Exhale while drawing the belly button to the spine, then lift the knees slightly up off the ground. Imagine a seat belt tightens around your low belly to keep you connected as you hover your knees. Maintain this connection throughout the exercise.
- Hold the position as you inhale.
- Exhale with control and, keeping your belly button pulled in towards your spine, take the knees back to the ground.
- Do 10 hovers.
Ali Handley is a New York-based Pilates instructor, mother of two young children, and founder of BodyLove Pilates, a dedicated online studio with 200+ video workouts for pregnant and postnatal women to ensure they work out smarter, safer, and more effectively during this important time in their lives. BodyLove-Pilates.com