When you're pregnant, your torso is working harder than ever. On one side, it’s busy supporting your back as the load you’re carrying gets heavier. On the other side, it’s expanding to make more room for your growing baby. And finally, once you’ve given birth it’s working hard to stabilise your body as you regain strength.
Before we talk about how you can support and maintain core strength during pregnancy and after delivery, let’s talk anatomy:
Rectus abdominis is the six-pack muscle – a paired muscle running down each side of your abdomen, with a line of connective tissue (the linea alba) running in between. Its function is to flex your torso, bringing the front ribs and pelvis closer together.
Transversus abdominis is the deep core muscle. Its function is to stabilise your torso and maintain a neutral spine.
So what exactly is your core facing when you’re pregnant, and what will you be recovering from when you’re postpartum? Let’s take a look.
You’re going to learn a lot of new terms during your pregnancy – diastasis recti is a big one. To break it down, ‘diastasis’ means separation while ‘recti’ refers to the abdominal muscles – so we’re talking about abdominal muscle separation during pregnancy.
Diastasis recti occurs when the connective tissue between your rectus abdominis (six-pack) is stretched and a gap becomes noticeable between the left and right muscles.
It occurs naturally in a high percentage of pregnant women as hormones relax the connective tissue and the growing uterus puts pressure on the muscles, causing them to separate.
While there is no standard diastasis recti gap, it is normal to have a larger gap than before you were pregnant. (Yes, there is always a gap there!) Some women may experience a separation that is 5 fingers wide after birth, which then reduces to a 1-2 finger separation by 8 weeks postpartum. Others may experience a 3 finger separation which has not decreased at 8 weeks postpartum. Both are absolutely normal.
However, if your separation is getting larger, is painful or accompanied by other unusual symptoms, talk to your doctor.
Watch Emily and Pregnancy and Postnatal Exercise Expert Sarah Male discuss how to treat diastasis recti.
Separation should start to close on its own in the first 8 weeks after giving birth. However, there is a chance the separation will not correct, so you need to get proactive about rebuilding your abdominal muscles!
All stages of the FIT Post-Pregnancy program include essential weekly core workouts to help you gently and progressively reduce any lingering separation.
Talk to your doctor at your 6-week check to get clearance to resume exercises and begin Stage 1 of FIT Post-Pregnancy. For best results, you should aim to address separation within 2-4 months postpartum.
Research has shown little to no connection between abdominal separation and back or pelvic pain. However, deep core activation exercises are associated with back pain relief – these exercises are incorporated in FIT Pregnancy, and we’ll take a closer look at how they can help below.
Core strain & back pain
As the load you’re carrying grows during pregnancy, your torso will rely on strong glutes, back muscles and your deep core (transversus abdominis) to minimise back pain and set you up for a potentially quicker postnatal recovery.
However, the usual go-to strengthening exercises like crunches and core work done lying on your back have to stop when you reach the end of your first trimester, because:
your enlarged uterus can compress the inferior vena cava (the vein that carries blood to your heart) and restrict circulation to you and your baby
isolated or advanced abdominal moves can worsen diastasis recti.
While crunches are out in trimesters 2 and 3, you can still use deep core activation exercises to strengthen your abdominal muscles.
See your women’s health physiotherapist for safe guidelines around any of the following exercises.
Why is exercising your deep core so important? Watch as Emily and Phoebe explain why and demonstrate how to do it.
This deep core activation exercise is recommended by Australian health authorities. You can do this move while sitting, standing, or on your hands and knees.
Step 1: Concentrate on drawing your belly button towards your spine.
Step 2: Breathe out while pulling in your belly.
Step 3: Hold the position while breathing in and out – you can count to 10, or just do it for as long as you feel comfortable.
Step 4: Repeat this 10 times, and try to do as many little ‘sessions’ each day as you can.
Always consult your healthcare professional before beginning any new exercise program, as there are some situations where exercise may not be advised. This information should be used as a guide only and should not replace the advice of your medical practitioner.
Women’s health physiotherapist Phoebe Armfield has over 15 years’ experience in helping women take control of their bodies into co-designing the FIT Pregnancy and FIT Post-Pregnancy programs with Emily Skye. She holds a Master of Physiotherapy, a Bachelor of Sport and Exercise, is a certified Pilates Instructor (including pre and postnatal Pilates), and Certified Trainer.
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