Exercising postpartum can feel overwhelming for a whole host of reasons. It might be time constraints, feeling insecure about your body or lack of energy (late nights, midnight wake-ups, early mornings … we have all been there!). Adding to this is the reduced access to face-to-face appointments during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One reason that might be on that list is diastasis recti (DR), and it is all too common for women to struggle to find safe ways to exercise when facing this issue. DR is the partial or complete separation of the rectus abdominus (or “six pack”) muscles where they meet in the middle of the abdomen.
There are abdominal exercises that you can safely do to support your body as you work to heal DR. As always, check with your healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise regimen.
It’s important to note that the way you perform abdominal exercises matters just as much as which exercise you perform. Outdated messages such as “no pain, no gain” and “if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t helping” are downright harmful when it comes to helping a postpartum body heal properly. What you are feeling during an exercise and how your core looks as you are performing a move are very telling of the benefits behind what that move is providing.
One foundational principle when performing DR abdominal exercises is the way you are engaging your core. You must get this right to see any benefits from the exercises you are doing. So, before you get started on the exercises take a moment to connect to your core (remember that means pelvic floor too!). Take care to execute each move properly and be careful not to push your body past what it can handle.
It’s also important to warm up to get your body ready for the training you are about to do.
The Warm-Up: Connection Breaths
Lay down on your back or sit with your eyes closed.
Place a hand on your lower stomach to bring in that tactile connection.
On your next inhale, focus on relaxing your body (no tension anywhere).
Exhale, and as you are exhaling focus on lifting your pelvic floor, feeling that gentle tension in your core as you do.
Repeat for five cycles of breath.
Exercise 1: Lamp Post Pee
Come onto all fours in a tabletop position. Keep your shoulders over wrists, hips over knees, and check-in that you are maintaining a neutral spine.
Inhale, center yourself, and get ready to begin. Check that you are not holding tension in your body. Jaw, neck and glutes are big culprits for this.
Exhale, gently engage your core and lift one knee out to the side. Make sure as you lift your knee out to one side that you are not tipping to the opposite side. Stay level and use your core to stabilize you as you lift the knee out. No rocking or swaying.
Inhale and release engagement as you lower your knee back down. This is a controlled lower that is timed and connected to that inhale. Don’t rush this!
Switch the the other knee and repeat, alternating, for a total of 10 reps, five on each knee.
Exercise 2: Shoulder Taps
Stand behind a chair, couch or anything that you can place your hands on and lean into. The farther out your feet are from the chair, the more intense this move will be. Find a level that feels comfortable for you.
Inhale and make sure that your arms are mostly straight but not locked. Check in and make sure that you are not tensing your body.
Exhale, gently engaging the core, and lift one hand off the chair to tap the alternate shoulder. Do not tip, sway or move your body. The only thing that moves is the hand that is tapping your shoulder. Use your core to stabilize.
Inhale and lower your hand back down to the chair. This movement is slow and controlled, with your core continuing to stabilize you.
Repeat 10 times, alternating, with five taps on each shoulder.
Exercise 3: One-Leg Hip Lift
Lie on the ground with your feet on the floor. Check in to make sure that you are not tucking your pelvis under.
Exhale and push up into a bridge position. You will maintain this bridge position for the rest of the exercise.
Inhale, center yourself and get ready to begin. Check that you are not holding tension in your jaw or neck.
Exhale and engage your core as you lift one leg off the ground to a level that feels comfortable. Try to maintain the height of your bridge as you lift your leg up, using the core to stabilize.
Inhale and lower the leg back down, returning to the starting position. Keep this movement slow and controlled.
Repeat for a total of 10 reps, alternating the leg you lift. If needed, come out of the bridge position after five reps for a small break.
Exercise 4: Staggered Step and Pull
This exercise requires an exercise band, a pair of tights or anything that you can pull and get some slight tension.
Stand with one foot stepped forward and the other back. Both legs are straight (knees not locked) and feet facing forward. Hold the band at chest level. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed and not lifting up toward your ears. Inhale, center yourself, and get ready to begin. Your band is held out right in front of you, arms straight but not locked. There is a slight bend at the elbow.
Exhale and gently engage your core as you pull the ends of the band apart. Don’t force the band to pull too far apart. Feel how, as you pull the band apart, your core “kicks in” more to support that movement. You should not be shaking or losing your balance. Stay stable as you pull the band.
Inhale, release engagement, and release tension on the band.
Repeat for five reps, keeping the band raised between reps.
Exercise 5: Squat and Squeeze
Grab a small ball or pillow and hold it at chest height. Check-in with your shoulders, making sure they are relaxed and not lifting up toward your ears.
Inhale and squat down. As you lower into your squat, think of sitting back into a chair. Use your glutes! Keep your knees and toes tracking in the same direction and don’t let your knees go over your toes.
Exhale and push through to standing as you gently squeeze the ball/pillow. Keep the majority of your weight in your heels. This will keep the work where you want it, in your backside! Feel how that gentle squeeze on the ball increases the activation in your core.
Repeat for five reps, going at a pace and squat depth that feels good for you.
You can sprinkle these exercises into your workout routine or do all five in a row for an awesome DR-focused core workout.
Above all remember, healing DR is not just about “core-specific” exercises. We are not spot treating an isolated part of the body. We are focusing on the entire system and how the core is performing in that dynamic system. As you are doing these exercises, keep in mind what your focus is: your core.
Also keep in mind that you (yes, you) are strong and capable. If you have an internal dialogue running through your head that is telling you otherwise, kick it to the curb. Go out there and take control of your day, you got this.
Wendy Powell is the founder of antenatal and postpartum digital support program, MUTU System, working with over 75,000 women in more than 150 countries. The 12-module exercise program is recommended by health professionals in the US and UK and is designed to improve symptoms of postpartum urinary incontinence, diastasis recti (abdominal separation), pelvic organ prolapse and painful intercourse.