Can the Right Exercise Fix Abdominal Separation After Pregnancy?

Posted March 12, 2018 by Paul M. Parker, M.D., FACS

four pregnant women

Few moms escape the “mommy pooch” after pregnancy—a soft, bulging belly that’s virtually immune to the effects of diet and exercise. While sometimes excess fat and loose skin alone are to blame, a persistent belly bulge after pregnancy can also be caused by a separation of the abdominal muscles called “diastasis recti.”

The rectus abdominus muscles (the same that we associate with a “six pack”) run side by side along the front torso, joined together in the center by connective tissue. When the abdomen stretches to accommodate a growing fetus, the muscles and connective tissue stretch and move out to the side. In many cases, the connective tissue fails to return to its original, taut state, which leaves the muscles appearing stretched out and soft.

Diastasis recti is extremely common, estimated to affect over 30% of moms even a full year after giving birth. The effects can range from aesthetic, a protruding belly and seeming lack of waistline, to medical, where the weakened abdominal musculature leads to back pain and digestive trouble.

Rethinking what works for flattening a “pregnancy pooch”

Until recently, surgery has been the only consistently effective solution to repair the issue. But now, more doctors and fitness professionals are turning to a special type of exercise to help treat diastasis recti. We recently came across this article from NPR.org, in which the author investigates the ins and outs of diastasis recti and tries the “Dia Method” exercise program with fitness coach Leah Keller.

According to Keller, many commonly recommended exercises for diastasis recti, such as crunches, don’t work because they actually place additional strain on the rectus abdominus muscles, causing them to “splay your abs apart.” In contrast, the Dia Method, as well as the other pre- and post-natal core fitness programs mentioned in the article, focus on engaging the deeper core muscles over a series of breaths. This helps to stabilize the torso and draw the rectus abdominus back in toward the center. In addition to helping to close the gap between the abdominal muscles, this exercise aims to alleviate back pain and strengthen the pelvic floor.

While only small studies have been performed to evaluate how well these exercises work, the feedback is promising. Even the NPR author achieved a nearly ½-inch closure in her diastasis recti after just three weeks. You can read the details about her experience and the specific exercises she did in the article.

We’re not retiring the tummy tuck just yet

If you want to see dramatic changes, surgery is still the only proven option

While we’re excited there is a non-surgical way for some women to reduce mild diastasis recti, it’s important to note that exercise can only go so far. More severe cases of diastasis recti typically cannot be fixed through exercise alone. Surgery, such as abdominoplasty, is usually necessary to repair issues such as a hernia and may also the best choice to improve cosmetic and medical symptoms.

Additionally, no amount of exercise can tighten sagging skin, reduce stretch marks, or give you an hourglass shape if you’re not already predisposed toward having one—if you are concerned about any of these issues, you might benefit most from talking to an experienced plastic surgeon, who can both repair diastasis recti and create a smoother, more youthful abdominal shape through tummy tuck surgery.

Discuss your options to restore your pre-baby shape at a complimentary New Jersey mommy makeover consultation

If you are bothered by a “pregnancy pooch” that persists despite a healthy lifestyle, Dr. Parker and our experienced team can help. During a free cosmetic consultation, he will listen to your concerns and goals and explain your options so you can decide if a tummy tuck or another mommy makeover procedure is right for you. He’ll also be happy to discuss whether an exercise program, such as the one mentioned in the NPR article, might help you achieve your goals without surgery. Contact us today to schedule your appointment.

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