After pregnancy, many women notice an unwelcome belly bulge; sometimes called the “mummy tummy”, the “muffin top” or the “baby bulge”. Even if you were a fitness enthusiast before, during, and after pregnancy you may notice you just can’t seem to banish the bump! We often think that this new belly is from fat, but it’s actually due to changes in our abdominal muscle structure.
During pregnancy the two halves of the outermost abdominal layer, the rectus abdominis, can become separated. This separation is called diastasis recti, and is the cause of the dreaded belly bulge. The separation happens because the growing baby and uterus put a forceful pressure on the connective tissue that holds the two halves of the muscles together, causing the connective tissue to stretch apart and become weak. Although not all women get diastasis recti when pregnant, it is extremely common. Also, the more pregnancies you experience, the worse it may get.
How can you tell if you have diastasis?
To find out if you have diastasis, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Place a hand over your belly button with your fingers pointing towards your toes. Relax your abdominal muscles and lift your head like you are doing a crunch, bringing your ribcage towards your pelvis. Press with gentle pressure and move your fingers from side to side to feel the right and left edges of the rectus abdominis. You have diastasis if the gap between the muscle is 2 fingers wide or more. You may even see a bulge or mound protruding. You can also move your fingers above and below the navel to see how long the separation is.
Can you prevent or reduce the separation?
The good news is, you can help reduce the separation of these muscles by avoiding the following movements:
- Sitting straight up from a lying position. Instead, roll over to one side then use your arms to push you up without the help of your abdominal muscles.
- Abdominal exercises that work the exterior abdominal muscles, like crunches and oblique crossovers. These will put additional strain on your rectus abdominis.
- Lifting and carrying heavy objects or any other movements that cause the belly to protrude out upon exertion.
Can I improve the situation?
Yes. Wearing a splint over your post partum belly will help physically bring the two sides of the rectus abdominis together. Splinting while performing core strengthening exercises can help to heal the separation and strengthen the connective tissue. In addition, be aware of your core muscles. By engaging your core during movements such as climbing stairs or carrying a baby, you can prevent further rectus stretching and maybe even help shorten the gap.
For most women, diastasis recti resulting from pregnancy is unavoidable. However, knowing is half the battle, and once you know that you have diastasis, you can be more thoughtful of your exercises and habits to help get rid of that “mummy tummy”!Sara Knight Isis Fitness Instructor