With the many articles floating around about losing the "mommy tummy", flattening the tummy, or shrinking the waistline after baby, I wanted to touch on a few aspects and dig a little deeper with you.
Let’s start with the core.
The core is composed of many muscles and connective tissue that wrap the spine (basically everything except the head, arms, and legs - not just the muscles in front of the abdomen) serving the purpose of housing the organs, generating power, and providing support and stability to the spine. A functional core ensures we continue walking tall, breathing properly, and can perform human movements correctly without harm to the spinal system.
During pregnancy, the core muscles begin to stretch, as they should with the help of the hormone relaxin, to accommodate the ever growing baby inside the mother’s belly. However, if the mother does not know how to properly breathe or engage the core, over the course of the next 9 months, those muscles will over-extend, and this, coupled with the weight on the front of the body, can put a significant amount of pressure on the core – specifically the rectus abdominis (aka the 6-pack abs).
Exercise during pregnancy with proper core engagement and tone will reduce the likelihood of excess stretch and pressure by maintaining an intact inner core unit. A strong core during pregnancy maintains spinal alignment, which decreases lower back pain, hip pain, and upper back/shoulder pain. It also reduces the likelihood of pelvic floor dysfunction.
So I think we can all agree here that properly training the core system is important during pregnancy.
Sometimes, a mother may find herself with a pooch that persists after childbirth – often referred to as the “mummy tummy.” She may feel as if her organs are “falling out” or may experience hernias, or pain. This is usually due to a separation of the abdominal muscles, specifically the rectus abdominis, at the linea alba tissue (center seam of the abs); we call this diastasis recti. It’s important to note that we are not referring to the normal presence of fat on your tummy postpartum, but instead to an actual condition of the core unit.
As we stated previously, excess pressure on the front of the body due to improperly engaging and using the core through 9 months of pregnancy can put strain on the front muscles of the body. This persistent strain can cause the linea alba connective tissue to weaken and stretch apart.
This condition (diastasis recti), can be healed on its own with good nutrition, rest, and a properly functioning core. Unfortunately, if you were not taught how to use the core properly prior to pregnancy or during, there is a decreased likelihood of it healing itself. Instead, women find certain exercises that claim to help may actually make the separation worse.
Why? Because you were not taught how to use to entire core unit synergistically during activities of daily living, and therefore have not built a strong core foundation.
According to some articles, one specific exercise performed for 10 minutes a day in a seated position is what is need to "shrink the waistline" and "close the gap."
Although I respect the idea behind strengthening the transverse abdominis (the deep core), personally, this is not a protocol I follow or recommend. The exercise referred to in the article is only discussing one part of the entire core unit. The article mentions nothing about the other muscles of the core, nor does it discuss functional use of the inner core unit when performing activities of daily living.
Functionality always comes first.
In addition, the entire article centers around aesthetics of a postpartum belly. I find this disheartening because when it comes to healing the core, it does not matter what the core looks like, it matters what it can do, and it's up to the trainer to emphasize this aspect and change the dialogue. If the woman does have a diastasis, the size of the waistline is the last thing of importance in terms of health. Functionality always comes first, because if there is a weakness in a certain area, other areas may over-compensate to keep the body upright, and some may break down completely, leading to a slew of other problems, pains, and issues to correct.
I focus on teaching my clients that exercise is healthy for themselves and their babies. The aesthetics that come from proper nutrition and movement are a benefit, but never the first (or second, or third) goal. We work on creating a strong foundation of balance, proper spinal alignment, correct inner core unit activation and control, and learn more about the inner workings of the female body during pregnancy and childbirth. It's about going deeper, and loving the ever changing body that comes with nurturing a baby in the womb. Furthermore, postpartum exercise is meant to be a reconnecting of sorts - to the breath, the core, to yourself, and to this new life - not a “get rid of it quick” approach.
Lastly, in terms of diagnosing the severity of the diastasis, the width of the separation isn't the only factor at play. Depth, proprioception, control, and breathing are key, because the core (and the body in general) does not function in parts, but as a whole unit.
I ask the questions: Regardless of width, can the woman create tension with her core? Does her inner unit function synergistically? Does she have awareness and control? Are her breathing mechanics correct?
We strive for overall health, mind, body, and spirit and work to shed light on the postpartum body. We emphasize the importance of being patient with the body, working with and loving the body, and coming back to a strong foundation.
When the foundation is strong, the aesthetics will follow, but starting with the foundation HAS to be the first step – not a smaller jean size, and educating the client on this is key. We work to live pain-free, and have a body that functions at its highest capacity of health, ensuring happiness and longevity.
In closing, if you are reading this and have found that your abdominals just never seemed quite right after baby, let’s start a dialogue about it. Although I specialize in pre/postnatal core, this doesn’t mean you have to be still within a certain “postpartum” range. I have worked with many mature women whose babies are long grown with much success. It’s never too late to reconnect!