How to Heal An Abdominal Separation: Part 2

{Click here if you missed Part 1}

Once you know how to engage your transversus, its time to start strengthening it. Here are my 4 principles for strengthening your transversus abdominis. 

1.    The transversus has to stay on – if it turns off during your exercises you aren’t strengthening it. Because the transversus and inner core are stabilizers, not movers, (engaging them alone doesn’t actually move any bones!) its possible to do a movement or exercise (even an abdominal exercise) without actually engaging the transversus – if this happens, you are essentially wasting your time and risking making your separation worse, depending on the exercise. An inner core that doesn’t function properly is common after pregnancy and childbirth. This dysfunction of the inner core is often the cause of postpartum back pain and a separation that doesn’t heal on its own. Your exercise regimen is essentially retraining the inner core to do its job, so it will start doing it again on its own. Therefore, your #1 goal while exercising is to intentionally engage your transversus and focus your attention on keeping it engaged throughout the exercise.

2.   Start with easy exercises so you learn how to feel and see if your transversus is staying engaged.

This is where your “rehab” exercises come in. As you continue to focus on the ABCs, the exercises need to be simple and easy enough for you to know if you are keeping your transversus engaged (think heel slides, leg lifts, pelvic tilts, etc). Just a heads up, these aren’t exciting exercises. You won’t feel a burn or get jazzed up. But if you focus on keeping your inner core engaged, you will find that these exercises require great focus and mind/body connection. If you pay attention to your body and become aware enough of your inner core to keep it engaged throughout your exercises, you will reap the benefits of a stronger core and entire body over time. You can tell if your transversus is staying engaged by watching and feeling with your hands to see if your tummy is bulging up or drawing in as you do the exercise. {Side Note: While I love the quadruped/hands and knees position for many reasons, it is only a good position to exercise in once you know how to feel whether your inner core is engaged or not, since you can neither see nor use your hands to feel your tummy in this position.}

3.   Progress to more challenging exercises by finding the line where your transversus is challenged but not too challenged that it turns off. 

At a certain point of doing your rehab exercises, you will stop making progress. Because as with any muscle, the deep core will get stronger when it is challenged. If you do the easy rehab exercises forever, how will you gain strength? You won’t – you will plateau and you won’t continue to progress to completely close the separation. So how do you know if you have mastered an exercise and when to progress? Here’s how: If you can maintain activation of your deep core throughout a set or two and feel little to no difficulty maintaining your alignment, breathing & core contraction, its time to try something a little more challenging. 

Does this mean you should go from heel slides to crunches and planks? No way! Don’t jump way ahead and risk overpowering your core. Once you have mastered an exercise, you want to take it one progression more difficult. Which brings us to step 4.

4.   Build progressively to more challenging exercises to continue to challenge your transversus.

Once you have mastered the ABCs and have gained sufficient strength in your inner core, you are ready to move on to whatever form of conditioning works for you as long as you take the ABCs with you and maintain your awareness of your core. 

As you learn to engage your transversus and progressively challenge it, you will be on a path to heal your core and strengthen your whole body. If you continue these steps, not only will you heal your separation you will have a stronger core than ever and have the tools to challenge yourself appropriately for the rest of your life. Take a Pilates, Barre or Bootcamp class and feel confident knowing you have strong abdominals that can rise to a challenge, but also learn the body awareness to know when a particular exercise has overtaxed your transversus. My goal for you is that you learn your personal limits and how to push them safely. 

Stay tuned as I will be sharing exercises and appropriate progressions to give you ideas on how to progress yourself as you gain strength.

Where are you on your journey to heal your core? Please comment below to share your experience and questions!

How to Heal an Abdominal Separation: Part 1

The Internet is full of advice on how to heal your Abdominal Separation/Diastasis Recti. If you do a Google search on the subject you will find endless Dos and Don’ts. Most articles stress that certain exercises are no-no’s, and that others are the key to healing your core. And while its true that there are many exercises that are way too challenging for a typical postpartum mom with an abdominal separation, it is simply not true that certain exercises will be off limits forever. It’s also not true that one set of exercises performed daily forever will heal and strengthen your core. So how do you heal your abdominal separation and strengthen your core after giving birth? How do you know if the exercise you are doing is hurting or helping? Well, here is the answer:

The key to healing your abdominal separation is to learn to properly engage your transversus abdominis and then progressively strengthen it. 

In part 1 of this blog post, I give you an overview of how to learn to properly engage your transversus. This is done by learning the ABCs of core engagement:

ALIGN – Your transversus and all the muscles of your inner core work best in a neutral spine and pelvis. For this reason, one of the first things I teach my clients is how to find and maintain this important position. 

BREATH – Your transversus has several functions. One of them is to help with breathing. Therefore, learning how to breathe in the most effective way is an integral part of learning how to engage your transversus. 

CONTRACT – Once you are in good alignment and breathing well, you can begin to practice contracting your transversus. The transversus and inner core working alone don’t move any bones, so you don’t need to move to activate these muscles. Don’t start an exercise until you feel confident that you know what it feels like to contract your inner core. 

Stay tuned for posts on each of the ABCs, but in the meantime, how do you know if your transversus is engaged? Your abdomen is being compressed and your abdominal separation is being pulled together. If your abs are bulging out, or your separation is coning, your transversus isn’t doing its job – and this applies to ANY exercise or movement. Lifting a heavy object or “crunching” to get out of bed without inner core engagement will risk making your separation worse. 

On the flip side, as you get your transversus and inner core functioning properly by practicing the ABCs, it will start to engage automatically-as it should-in your daily life. In the meantime, aim to stay aware of your alignment, breathing and core contraction in your movement during the day. This will also help to heal your separation, so learn your ABCs!

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How to Heal an Abdominal Separation: Part 2

Can A Diastasis Recti Be Healed?

For many people, an abdominal separation can be greatly reduced and a flat tummy can be achieved once the deep core muscles begin to function properly and are appropriately strengthened. In the case of very large diastases and hernias, surgery may be required if exercise alone is not sufficiently effective. In any case, the best way to lessen (and prevent) an abdominal separation is to solve the underlying problem of improperly channeled intra-abdominal pressure and a weak inner core. By doing this, you can also heal and prevent back pain.

In the case of pregnancy, while prevention of a diastasis recti may not be possible, appropriate exercise choices and a strong transversus abdominis and inner core before and during pregnancy can lessen the extent to which the connective tissue stretches.

Connecting to and strengthening your inner core muscles requires careful intentional work and cannot be 'muscled through'. It demands a deep connection between mind and body as well as good overall body awareness. Many popular forms of exercise, while great for building strength in larger muscle groups, are too intense for those who wish to rehabilitate stretched out or dysfunctional deep core muscles. Every movement we do, in our daily life and when we exercise, requires a well functioning inner core. Often, intense abdominal exercise after pregnancy can widen an abdominal separation that would otherwise heal on its own. It is only after reconnection and strengthening of these deep stabilizers that more intense exercise is appropriate. This principle applies both to those with a diastasis recti and anyone with weak core muscles or back pain.

Was this article helpful? Please comment below with your experiences and further questions about abdominal separation and healing with exercise!

What Causes A Diastasis Recti?

A Diastasis Recti is a symptom of intra-abdominal pressure that the abdominal wall is unable to contain. It is common during pregnancy, as the growing baby places natural pressure outward (and downward) stretching out the abdominals. If the baby grows beyond the rectus abdominis’ ability to stretch, a stretching and thinning of the connective tissue provide the additional space required.

However, not just pregnant and postpartum women deal with this condition. Anyone can get an abdominal separation, carrying a baby is not a requirement. It is caused by uncontained pressure, so quick weight gain in the tummy area, bearing down too hard when using the restroom or weak abdominals combined with an intense coughing or sneezing bout could also cause a separation at the linea alba.

Finally, intense exercise can also increase the pressure in your abdominal cavity and over time, if the deep core muscles aren’t properly engaged when bearing down during weight lifting, crunches or any intense movement, a separation can occur. Therefore, when beginning an exercise program it is very important to ensure that the inner core (transversus abdominis and pelvic floor muscles) are functioning well before engaging in intense movements.