The internet is a wonderful resource for many of life’s questions. What are the best core exercises after having a baby? How do I strengthen my abdominals safely? How to I correct my diastasis recti (DRA)? There seem to be way more questions than answers!
The answers to these questions depend on several things and can be quite specific for each individual, but here are some general rules of thumb to get you started safely!
What are your goals and why are you wanting a stronger core? Is it to reduce back pain? Improve your posture? To be able to lift and carry your new baby or return to work? Did you know your abdominal muscles help you to defecate (poop)? Maybe you’re trying to improve your constipation? There are many benefits to having a strong core. But the typical answer to this question is usually around aesthetics. “I want my body back” or “I want a tighter flatter stomach.”
For patients experiencing a DRA which is an abdominal separation, the most important goal is to strengthen the deepest abdominal muscle called the Transverse Abdominals. These muscles run across the abdomen and as they contract, they draw the rectus abdominal muscles together like a zipper. When activation of this muscle is discovered (Hello, nice to meet you Transverse Abdominals!) then the underlying connective tissue (formally called the linea alba) will begin to tighten over time as the TrAbdominals are consistently and effectively strengthened. I usually compare this to “spraining your ankle”. The ligaments become loose and stretched out and as we perform typical ankle stabilization exercises, it reduces the pull on these ligaments and over 2-3 months these ligaments will effectively shorten, healing the ankle sprain.
Just like with any strengthening exercise, you have to CHALLENGE the Transverse Abdominal muscle to cause change in the strength. As strength improves, the difficulty of the exercise must also increase to provide a new and appropriate challenge. Exercises that are too easy will not cause any increase in strength, and those that are too challenging will cause compensations in the surrounding muscles and bypass the weaker muscle you are trying to target. In the case of the DRA, an exercise that is too challenging will cause your abdominals to separate, a bulge to form along the center line of your core, or will cause you to hold your breath, actually worsening the DRA.
So how do you know if an exercise is safe? You can perform the exercise while engaging the Transverse Abdominals, providing a zipper effect at the linea alba and while breathing normally throughout the exercise. Pretty vague huh? When working with a patient, I often have them perform a ‘screening’ abdominal program, performing core exercises while the patient is on their back, their hands and knees, a modified plank position, and while on their belly to assess the most effective position to begin. As they improve, we modify the exercise to make it more challenging and modify the position into a more challenging position. This is different for each client and most people need an outside opinion as to how their abdominals are performing during an exercise. Using a mirror can sometimes help to know what your body is doing, but we strongly recommend consulting a qualified physical therapist for guidance and establishing a program that is correct for you in order to meet YOUR goal!
Learning the fundamentals of how to engage the TrAbdominals is of UTMOST importance!