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)!
Have you ever been told to “stand up straight!”? This phrase has children everywhere grumbling as a well meaning adult lectures on the importance of good posture. In my opinion, it’s one of the most relevant examples of the difference between posture and alignment. The phrase has permeated the culture with its vague (subjective) recommendation for our spinal health and caused a lot of confusion. I have many clients who have spent years trying to get their back “straight” because of this misunderstanding and suffered greatly because of it. For all of you out there in the same boat, I hope this post helps you find some relief.
First of all, the spine isn’t supposed to be straight. It has curves like an “S”. I’m going to say it again: a healthy spine has curves. Specifically, notice the thoracic (mid back) curve. This is called kyphosis. The word kyphosis is often misused to mean “too much curve.” (Too much curve is called hyperkyphosis.) You want that kyphotic curve. It’s supposed to be there.
Most people translate “stand up straight” to equal “chest up, shoulders back.” This lifting of the chest/rib cage creates forces that distort the curve of the thoracic spine. If I asked you to stand up straight or show me your best posture, chances are it would look something like this:
(Again, ignore the “I Dream of Jeannie” arms. I’m just doing that so you can see the line that is coming up.)
Looks pretty good, right? In my last post, you learned how to align your pelvis. When you did this, you may have felt like you were going to fall over backwards or felt some discomfort in your back. If so, learning where your ribs belong will help. Let’s revisit the super awesome grid app.
The vertical line is lined up with the bottom of my rib cage. See how that line falls out in front of my pelvis? My “good posture” is lifting my rib cage and pushing it forward. Look at any skeleton in an anatomy text book, and you will see that the rib cage is supposed to be right over the pelvis. Put your finger tips on the most inferior, anterior part (the part that is lowest and towards the front) of your rib cage. Can you feel the pointy edges of your ribs sticking out? Now exaggerate your best posture. Are your ribs sticking out even more? Now relax and let the ribs drop down ALL THE WAY. (If you feel like you are slouching, you’re on the right track.) At this point you shouldn’t be able to feel any boney edges sticking out. They will be directly over your Anterior Superior Illiac Spine (ASIS: boney protrusions on the front of each side of your pelvis). If this description is confusing, or you have a hard time finding these boney markers, see how to test for rib thrusting against a wall.
I have one finger on my ASIS and one on my bottom rib, so you can see where they are. Now the rib cage is right over the pelvis, where it belongs.
Take a look at these side by side. On the left: Ribs are aligned, restoring thoracic kyphosis. (What you want.) On the right: Ribs are lifted and thrusted forward, distorting the thoracic curve. (A recipe for pain and degeneration.) Can you see the difference?
I know these two positions look similar, but the physiological effects of these two positions are very different. Remember, “good posture” looks good but is not necessarily healthy. The rib thrusting/chest lifted position distorts your spinal curves and puts excessive compression on the one or two vertebra that you are displacing. The vertebra that make up the spine stack on top of one another forming a protective housing for the spinal cord. When we lose or distort our spinal curves, the integrity of this protective structure is compromised, and the spinal cord and nerves that branch off are at risk for damage. Displacing the ribs also compromises the abdominals’ ability to do their jobs. One of these jobs is to properly support the spine and decompress the discs. Many people find huge relief from back pain when they stop thrusting their ribs. Another job of the abdominal muscles is to support the weight of a growing baby when you are pregnant. When these muscles are compromised, it can lead to diastasis recti (excessive spreading/separating of the abdominal wall).
When you get your ribs down (ALL THE WAY DOWN) you might (read: almost certainly will) find that you have hyperkyphosis and your head and shoulders are too far forward. Like this:
Don’t panic! I know, it’s alarming when you see how far forward your head is. The good news is you can make changes with some hard work. Resist the urge to lift your chest/ribs to “fix” this problem! It will look better in the short term but will not solve the problem. When the ribs are down in their aligned position, it reveals all the tension in the upper body that we typically hide by lifting the chest/ribs. Instead of hiding the problem, use the two exercises below to start correcting it.
First, elevate your head and shoulders and relax here until your ribs start to relax down towards the floor. You can let your arms rest on the ground by your sides. This helps relax a muscle called the psoas.
Next: After several minutes, add SLOW arm motions like you are making a snow angel without letting the ribs pop back up towards the ceiling. Rotate the arms so that your thumbs are closer to the floor than the pinkies. This will stretch the chest and shoulders.