Everyone wants a strong core and knows that it’s important. What most people don’t realize is that having “6-pack” or a flat stomach, doesn’t necessarily equal strong. When I say “a strong core”, I’m talking about muscles that can do their job. The abdominal muscles are meant to decompress the spine, support the organs, provide movement, lower the pressure in the abdominal aorta, help you breathe/cough/vomit, and more. When you have muscles that function properly, you might also end up with a smaller waistline; however, a flat, fit, toned abdomen does not necessarily mean it’s strong and healthy. Plenty of very fit people have diastasis recti, hernias, digestive trouble, and pelvic floor issues. If you are after a strong and functional core, here are a few things you can do to start heading in the right direction. These things can help minimize back pain, decrease your chances of developing diastasis recti, and recover healthy core function, whether you are pregnant, postpartum, or neither.
1) Drop your ribs. The rib cage should be stacked right over the pelvis (see photo), not lifted or jutting forward. Read this post for a detailed description. This one small thing can have a huge impact on your core strength. The abdominal muscles attach on the rib cage. If you are constantly lifting them or jutting them forward, you are undermining their ability to function.
2) Release your belly. Constantly holding tension in your belly also undermines abdominal strength. This can come in the form of habitually sucking in your stomach or constantly bracing/tensing your abdominal muscles. For starters, just get on your hands and knees and try to let your belly relax towards the floor. Allow the tailbone to move up towards the ceiling. Notice any desire to pull your belly back up. Let it relax more. This article talks about why relaxing your belly is so hard. And this one gets into the difference between sucking in your stomach and activating your TVA.
3) Practice #1 & 2 in everyday life. Once you’ve learned how to drop your ribs and release the tension in your abdomen, start bringing these new habits into everyday life. Pay attention to them when you walk, stand, sit, drive your car, work on the computer, or hold your baby. This is a really great post on ways to move better in everyday life to heal diastasis recti. <— IF YOU HAVE DR, READ THIS POST!!
Dropping your ribs and releasing your belly is a great place to start. Doing those two things will relieve back pain, improve digestion, and increase the activity of your abdominal muscles. Your abdominal muscles can work reflexively (automatically) now that you’ve eliminated habits that were interfering with this process. They can now respond appropriately when you move and will become stronger.
4) Move more in everyday life. I’m going to repeat that: Your abdominal muscles can work reflexively (automatically) now that you’ve eliminated habits that were interfering with this process. They can now respond appropriately when you move and will become stronger. The real gains in strength come when you take your new found alignment and start moving more. Sitting with your ribs aligned and belly relaxed has its benefits, but your abdominals won’t be very active in this position because there is no need for it when you are sitting still. They are responding appropriately to your position. When you stand up, they should contract more. When you start walking, even more. If you walk carrying a baby or a grocery bag, even more.
After my daughter was born, I had a two finger gap both at my belly button and above it . In those first 3 month postpartum, I walked, stretched and paid attention to my alignment during everyday life; I didn’t do any “core exercises.” The gap above my belly button closed completely, and at my belly button it’s down to 1 finger. (Most experts consider a gap 1 finger width or less to be normal.) I did this intentionally, as a sort of experiment, to see what would happen. Going up and down stairs, getting up and down off the floor, and doing everyday life while holding a 10lb baby is a lot of work. I wasn’t “working out”, but my muscles did a lot of work because I was moving. Honestly, I did a lot of laying around and resting too, especially in the first 6 weeks. I don’t have a flat stomach, and I still look 3 months pregnant. My core definitely isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be, but moving well and moving more was enough to close the gap and restore function in a relatively short period of time.
5) Take a class. I know I just got done saying that you don’t need to exercise, but practicing exercises that encourage reflexive core activity are helpful for regaining healthy core function. If you’ve had years of rib thrusting and sucking in the stomach, chances are you have some tension in the trunk and some muscles that aren’t “online”. Specific exercises to release tension and reconnect with those muscles can be necessary. Here are two options starting May 16th (next week)!