This One Thing Happens to Almost Everyone's Core in Pregnancy
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Your abs will probably separate, but it's not the end of the world (promise!). Here's what to know—and how to keep your core strong despite the split.
- Abdominal separation, called diastasis recti (DR), often happens as your abs move out of the way for your expanding uterus.
- While DR doesn't cause weakness, it can make you less likely to train your core, leading to loss of strength.
- Changing up your core work and connecting with your breath can help minimise the impact of DR.
Read on to learn more ...
*This content is designed to inform and inspire, but it is not meant to diagnose, treat or give specific medical advice. Always check with your health care provider about how to stay healthy and safe before, during and after pregnancy.
When you're pregnant, it's probably obvious that your belly is growing. But what you might not realise is that there's something pretty wild happening just under the surface to adjust for your changing shape.
We all have a line of thick, ropey tissue called the linea alba running down the middle of our core that connects the two halves of the abs (specifically the rectus abdominis, aka the "six-pack" muscles). The linea alba thins as your belly expands and your abs move out of the way to make room for your growing baby, says Laurel Proulx, DPT, PhD, a pelvic health physiotherapist in Colorado Springs and the founder of FEM Physical Therapy. As this connective tissue stretches out with pregnancy, it becomes thinner and more pliable, explains Proulx. The result? Diastasis recti, DR for short, or a separation between the left and right side of the pack.
Diastasis recti shows up in one-third of women by 21 weeks of their pregnancy, according to one study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. And nearly all women will experience it to some degree before the big day, says Proulx. The good news, she says, is that for the majority of people, these muscles come back together naturally by 12 weeks post-partum.
For some, they don't, which is OK too: Even elite athletes have competed with diastasis recti (reduction in width isn't required for a return to exercise). But fears about the safety of exercising with DR can lead people to take it too easy, avoiding core work and subsequently losing strength, and the sensation of weakness and instability can cause people to adjust movement patterns in a way that could lead to injury, says Brianna Battles, a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Eagle, Idaho, and the founder of Pregnancy and Postpartum Athleticism.
That lack of core coordination and function, not the separation itself, can be connected to back pain and pelvic floor dysfunction, says Proulx. And the separation can also cause the post-pregnancy "pooch" that bothers some people. (Some women opt for surgery to bring their abs back together. That's fine if you want an aesthetic fix, says Proulx, but surgery won't improve core strength or function.)
Even though some level of DR is inevitable (and it's tied to factors out of your control, like genetics and how you carry, says Battles), you want to have it on your radar early on, when you can switch up your habits to preserve a healthy core and maintain a feel-good workout routine. Start here:
1. Work your core right.
If you train your core throughout pregnancy, you're more likely to move with less pain and discomfort, says Proulx. But certain old-school core work, such as crunches, bicycles and sit-ups, isn't the best for your belly once you start to show. For one, your bump gets in the way, which can mess with your form. And abdominal changes mean that flexion, or forward bending, can put unnecessary pressure on the linea alba and pelvic floor.
A visible bump is also a good cue to take your other go-to core exercises down a notch, especially if you notice your belly coning (more on what that means below). For example, take some pressure off your belly during plank exercises by dropping to your knees or placing your hands or forearms on a sturdy bench or table. You can also prioritise multi-joint exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, lunges and farmers carries, all of which activate your abs throughout the move but don't require the flexion that increases pressure in this area, says Battles.
2. Breathe easy.
"Bearing down or holding your breath when lifting or doing an exercise puts excessive pressure on your abdominal wall and pelvic floor", says Proulx. To support your body in motion, work with your breath, not against it: When you squat, lunge or do other strength-building moves, exhale to engage your transverse abdominis, aka TA, the deep core muscles that wrap around your midsection like a corset from front to back. A good rule of thumb is to inhale on the way down and exhale as you return to standing from a squat, lunge or deadlift.
OK, but how exactly do you engage the TA? "You're looking for a bottom-up contraction, as if you're zipping up a tight pair of jeans", explains Proulx. That means your lower belly will engage, not just the upper abs. If you have a baby bump, activating your TA should pull it gently in and up. If you haven't popped yet, your stomach should flatten a bit.
The earlier you start practising activating your TA, the easier it should be as your belly grows. That said, it's also good to allow your abs to relax when you're at rest—no need to "suck it in", which creates excess pressure and tension on the midline as well as the pelvic floor, says Battles.
3. Watch for coning.
Coning, or doming, is when the middle of your belly pushes out in a literal cone shape in response to intra-abdominal pressure. To quickly see what this looks like, lie on your back, knees bent, with your shirt pulled up, and start to do a crunch or sit-up. See that little cone sticking out in the middle of your bump? That's what we're trying to be careful about. Now please return to your temporarily sit-up-free lifestyle.
You may have been taught to fear coning, but it's not necessarily a sign of disaster, says Battles. Your belly is simply giving you important information about the need to adjust your movement. "That's feedback that you're generating so much forward force, you can see it", she explains. It's a symptom of diastasis recti and a sign that you may need to reconnect with your deep core or switch up the exercise itself to focus on one you can perform without the dome.
FYI, coning can also happen during regular daily activities, like getting off the couch or out of bed. If you see it happen, try again with better deep core connection (go back to step no. 2). If you still see it happening, it may be smart to use your hands to press yourself up to a seated or standing position.
Once baby is here, you'll need to give yourself time and grace to restore your core strength. But you know what? You'll get there—so many new parents say they've never felt stronger.
Words: Jessica Migala
Photography: Vivian Kim
Learning to engage your deep core muscles now can help preserve their strength as your belly grows. Try this hands-on trick from Proulx.