Every new mother knows the struggle of adjusting to the new normal of a postpartum body. You have done something amazing - you have created life! But in doing so, you have put your body through tremendous stress and changes that you now must navigate. As you begin to navigate these challenges, the first question you might have is ‘How do I exercise safely after pregnancy?’
In Inceptive's class ‘How to start exercising after giving birth,’ Caitlin Ritt, a pre/postnatal master trainer, helps new mothers understand the physical changes in their body, challenges that they will be faced with as they begin to transition back into exercising and how to handle them. One challenge that most new mothers face is diastasis recti. Research shows that at least 60 percent of women have diastasis recti 6 weeks after birth and over 30 percent of women have it a year after birth .
What is diastasis recti?
Diastasis recti is the thinning of the connective tissue, called the linea alba, that connects the abdominal muscles along the midline of the abdomen. This connective tissue is specially designed to expand during pregnancy, allowing for the stretching and separating of the abdominal muscles as your belly expands. While some stretching is to be expected, diastasis recti is when there is an abnormal amount of stretch on the linea alba and the core is unable to generate enough tension.
Diastasis recti can cause a myriad of problems for new moms[2, 3], including pelvic floor issues, incontinence, lower back pain, and a post-baby belly pooch that just won’t go away. A common sign of diastasis recti is a coning or doming of your belly, which can appear both pre and postnatal.
How do you check yourself for diastasis recti?
So, how do you know if you have diastasis recti? You can do a simple self-check at home! An important thing to remember while doing this check is that, while most people are concerned with the intra-abdominal distance and how many fingers of width it is, the most important thing is how much tension you can generate with your core. So, don’t get preoccupied with how large or small the distance between your abdominal muscles is. This check is best performed 8 weeks after birth, as your body will still be in healing mode before that.
Here’s how to check for diastasis recti:
- Lay on your back, with knees bent. Come up to a crunch position.
- Place your hand horizontal with your belly button, using about 3 fingers.
- Keeping your hand about two inches above your belly button, pull up into a crunch position.
- As you do this, you’re trying to feel the first ‘hug’ that you would feel, as the further you crunch up, the more the distance between your abdominal muscles will shorten.
- You’ll repeat this procedure right above the belly button, and again two inches below the belly button.
This diastasis recti test will inform you of your inter-recti distance, or the distance between your recti (abdominal) muscles. Generally, any distance greater than three fingers is considered to be diastasis recti. You can, of course, see your doctor or a physical therapist to check for diastasis recti, if you perform the self-check and are not sure.
As we mentioned above, the distance between your muscles is less important than the tension you are able to generate. Some women find that they have a three or four finger wide distance but are able to generate a lot of tension, while others might have a one finger wide distance, which is not technically a diastasis recti at all, but still cannot generate the tension that they need. As you have likely observed yourself during your pregnancy, each body is different!
So, how do you check how much tension you can generate? It’s as easy as touching the tip of your nose! Well, almost. Go ahead and press the tip of your nose - that is how your linea alba should feel when you are in a crunch position, if you are generating enough tension. It should feel quite bouncy. As you lay on your back and perform the crunch position, press down and see what you feel. Does it have a springy and bouncy feeling? Great - your linea alba is performing as it should. Do your fingers feel as if they are sinking it with little resistance or bounciness? That means that there is some room for improvement.
One way that you can help strengthen your core and create tension is by using diaphragmatic breathing. As Ms. Ritt explains in this class and covers in depth in another Inceptive class, ‘Exercise during pregnancy,’ diaphragmatic breathing is an exercise that can help you lower stress, regulate your pelvic floor, and helps both avoid diastasis recti during pregnancy and helps heal it postpartum. Using the diaphragmatic breathing strategy can help you avoid coning or doming, as well as allowing you to safely generate tension. The ultimate goal of these exercises is to strengthen your core, allowing you to generate tension, rather than trying to get your abs back to their pre-baby position. The muscles may never touch again, and that’s very normal!
As well as covering diastasis recti, Ms. Ritt covers some great exercises that you can bring into your postpartum routine, explains diaphragmatic breathing, and talks about some of the other challenges that new mothers face as they begin to exercise. Learn more by taking the Inceptive's class ‘How to start exercising after giving birth.’
 Sperstad JB, Tennfjord MK, Hilde G, et al. Diastasis recti abdominis during pregnancy and 12 months after childbirth: prevalence, risk factors and report of lumbopelvic pain. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2016;50:1092-1096.
 Spitznagle, Theresa & Leong, Fah & van Dillen, Linda. (2007). Prevalence of diastasis recti abdominis in a urogynecological patient population. International urogynecology journal and pelvic floor dysfunction. 18. 321-8. 10.1007/s00192-006-0143-5.
Gitta, Stefánia & Magyar, Z & Palancsa, Máté & Tardi, Peter & Füge, I & Járomi, Melinda & Acs, Pongrac & Boncz, Imre & Hock, Marta. (2016). Prevalence, Potential Risk Factors, Sequelae of Diastasis Recti Abdominis and The Treatment. Value in Health. 19. A605. 10.1016/j.jval.2016.09.1488.