Abdominal Muscle Separation During and After Pregnancy
It will never cease to amaze that a little human being can grow to full development for nine months in a woman’s belly. One of the inevitable consequences of this, however, is that there has to be a lot of shifting and stretching of the surrounding organs and tissues to allow this to happen!
The “six pack” muscle, or Rectus Abdominis muscle, is actually two muscle bellies with a line of connective tissue down the middle. From about 18 weeks of pregnancy, when the baby starts taking up more space above the pelvis, the midline tissue has to start stretching, and the six pack muscles move apart from each other.
This separation is called ‘Diastasis Recti’, or DR, and is helped by the fact that pregnant women have a hormone in their body called Relaxin, which allows connective tissue to be stretchier.
MYTH TO BUST – The abdominal muscles do not ‘tear’ or ‘split’, but the connective tissue between them does need to stretch and this is a very normal consequence of pregnancy.
In pregnancy, after the muscles have begun to stretch, it is highly recommended to minimize use of the six pack muscle. This means after approximately 16-20 weeks of pregnancy, avoid anything that causes ‘doming’ or triangling of the abdominal wall during exercise or daily activities. This may include:
- Russian Twists
- Pull ups/chin ups/Muscle ups
- Getting up from the bed/bath/couch
Daily movements can usually be modified to avoid doming, by rolling completely onto your side to get up from a reclined position.
MYTH TO BUST – Although it’s recommended not to do certain types of abdominal muscle exercises in the second half of pregnancy, that doesn’t mean that you can’t exercise your abdominal muscles at all.
You can continue to exercise the abdominal wall in a different way, by focusing on the Transverse Abdominis (TA) muscle. There is scientific evidence that this can significantly reduce the rate of DR after childbirth. The TA is the deepest layer of abdominal muscles and acts like a ‘corset’ to hold in the abdominal contents and give support to the spine. A physiotherapist can show you how to do these exercises correctly.
In the early days or weeks after you have given birth, it is recommended to get your DR checked by a physiotherapist. This is done with a very simple test of feeling the midline of the muscles above and below the belly button. This will tell the physiotherapist how wide the gap is in finger widths, but more importantly how deep it is, and should give you some basic core muscle exercises to perform on a daily basis.
It is also necessary to continue to avoid using this muscle in a way that makes it ‘dome’ while it’s in it’s early recovery phase after the baby is born, the same as during pregnancy.
If your DR is diagnosed as being significantly deeper or wider than the norm, it is generally recommended to wear some abdominal support to help the recovery. A physiotherapist may give you an elastic band of material that you step into and wear around your middle, or you may choose to purchase a pair of support shorts that are specifically developed to assist with RAD recovery.. This extra support is most important in the first two months.
MYTH TO BUST – The abdominal muscles don’t always come back to their optimal position after childbirth just because time has passed.
Although abdominal muscle separation will have some natural recovery after childbirth as the uterus and abdominal organs settle back into their pre-pregnancy position, after 8 weeks it has been proven that there is often no more natural recovery and you need a specific exercise program to close any remaining DR.
Learning pilates-style core exercises from a physiotherapist in this early postnatal period can help to fix any ongoing DR. They can ensure that nothing you are doing causes the abdominal wall to ‘dome’ upwards, or the gap to deepen. They will work out which abdominal exercises and daily movements you wish to return to, and find your ‘tipping point’ where you can still control the pressure effectively, and put in place a plan to work back to the movements and exercise you aim for.
It’s never too late – even years down the track, improvements can be made to DR and control of the abdominal muscles if the correct management is undertaken.
MYTH TO BUST – Many women are focused on ‘closing the gap’, but the width of the gap is not as important as the depth.
Anything up to 2-2.5 finger widths can still be ‘normal’, however this gap should be nice and firm in the midline. It is when the midline tissue is lax and the gap is deep (even if it is quite narrow) that unwanted consequences like hernias can occur. Laxity in the midline connective tissue can cause difficulty in creating pressures, and can make it challenging to do things like blow up a balloon, cough effectively, or lift heavy weight.
In summary, it is highly recommended to see a physiotherapist who specializes in obstetrics both during pregnancy and after childbirth, to prevent and manage the inevitable abdominal muscle separation that occurs.
In pregnancy, you should learn how to activate the deep abdominal muscles and how to safely integrate that activation into a gym program and your daily activities.
Early after birth, you should identify if you have a significant separation and wear additional support if you do, and learn correct beginner postnatal exercises to assist the recovery.
Finally, you should have it checked again at 6-8 weeks when any natural recovery would have taken place, and if there is any remaining dysfunction at that stage you will be taught an individualised exercise program and daily management strategies to get it back to it’s optimal strength as soon as possible.
Remember – all FitRight pregnancy and postnatal exercise classes are specifically designed to be appropriate for the inevitable abdominal muscle stretching during pregnancy, and to be modifiable to suit the various levels of recovery of the muscle after you’ve given birth. Join our physiotherapists for these classes to learn more about prevention and management, and how to modify other exercise that you love to be appropriate for this normal change in your body!