Walking out of yoga classes one evening, I overheard several of my Prenatal Yoga students talking to one another after class. One of the students said to the other:
“I was doing plank pose in a class at the gym and I noticed my belly muscles were becoming this cone like shape on either side of my belly. Do any of you notice that?” There were murmurs of “Oh yea” or “I’ve got some separation between my abdominals.”
I stepped in and we started a conversation about diastasis, the separation of the abdominal muscles that can often happen during pregnancy. We talked about ways to avoid it, and I mentioned that was why I always had them roll over to their side to come up and down rather than sitting up and using their core. One student said to me “Why didn’t you tell us that? I didn’t realize that’s why you were doing that. If I had known…"
And that’s when I realized that no, I hadn’t actually mentioned why were so thoughtfully avoiding most core work to the point of even being mindful of how we sat up or laid down (yet another reason why taking classes with a certified prenatal yoga teacher is so important!). Diastasis is a normal part of pregnancy and most people will experience it to a certain degree. There are times, even if we are being mindful, that larger separation will occur.
Diastasis is caused by a stretching of the abdominal wall as the belly begins to make room for your growing baby. Ideally, the muscles are able to stretch with the growth of baby and accommodate for your new shape. Generally if there is separation it happens along the line between the rectus abdominus muscles, the muscles we most often engage when doing simple crunches. You might notice this from time to time as burning along the center-line of the belly as the muscles stretch and separate.
If we are doing a lot of work engaging the core muscles through exercise or movement, the muscles will get stronger. Generally it’s a good thing to work on these muscles when we’re not pregnant, but when we are pregnant this causes the muscles to shorten.
Shorter muscles do not stretch as well and as a result the muscles start to pull apart because they are unable to stretch fully. As I mentioned, some diastasis is pretty normal, and based on anatomical differences some women may experience it more than others. Diastasis can also look very different from body to body. The majority of people will experience the separation near the top of the abdominals, closer to the ribs, but some may experience it in the lower belly below the navel.
There are steps that can be taken postpartum to help heal this separation, but let’s talk a little bit about steps you can take during pregnancy to help avoid the problem to begin with:
Eliminate Abdominal Work As Soon as You Know You are Pregnant
It can be tempting, especially in early pregnancy, when there isn’t a lot visibly happening to our bodies to continue with our regular workout routines. Take the time now, to let go of a heavily focused abdominal practice. Give the abdominal muscles time to soften a little bit so they can more easily lengthen and stretch once baby does begin to grow bigger.
Strengthening Core During Pregnancy Does Not Mean a Stronger Core Postpartum
There may also be the worry for some that if we don’t do core work as long as we are able, that recovery postpartum will be much more difficult. Everyone loses abdominal strength during pregnancy, we need our belly muscles to stretch. It is much easier postpartum to strengthen the core muscles than it is to first treat diastasis and then rebuild the core.
Getting Up & Down Mindfully
This is one of the easiest things to bring focus to, but since it is something we do so regularly, it can be a hard habit to change. Any time you get up from lying down or move to lie down from sitting, always roll over to your side and use your arm muscles to support you coming up or down. It can be so easy to sit right up! Train yourself early in your pregnancy to move mindfully this way and over the course of pregnancy it will become second nature which will become especially important as your baby gets bigger!
Work Supporting Core Muscles
Just because we are letting go of doing heavy abdominal work, does not mean we are letting go of building strength. Strength is key in pregnancy, labor and delivery. There can still be a small amount of focus on core, but the core muscles we focus on are the very lowest abdominal muscles right above the pubic bone and the obliques, the abdominal muscles that wrap around from our sides. Many of the prenatal yoga classes I teach online will offer you ways to engage these support muscles in a way that is healthy for core stability.
Find Strength In Other Ways
As I mentioned, strength is key for so many reasons. Bring focus to other areas of the body that need strength as the abdominal muscles get weaker. Focus on strengthening the low back, glutes and legs. Strength in these areas will reduce the likelihood that you will fall back on using the core muscles.
Wisdom and insight with a dash of humor to help guide you on your journey through motherhood.