While I was pregnant, I did my best to stay active. Not only did it help me feel better as I grew, but I assumed it’d help me have an easier recovery once baby was born. After getting over the first trimester fatigue, I spent a lot of time spinning, swimming, and walking, and doing whatever strength training I could. I was also careful to stay away from planks or sit ups, things that would apparently give me that dreaded diastasis recti, or ab split, I’d heard so much about.
That’s why I was so surprised when, after giving birth, my core felt like pure squish. While I’d previously had pretty strong abs, my postpartum belly had no strength whatsoever. It was weird to feel like my body had lost its ‘centre’, and for the first six months or so I didn’t do much in the way of exercise other than go on walks with Miles. As great as it was to have a lot of time to rest, the primary reason for my inactivity was because I didn’t know how to get back into exercising to the intensity I was used to with my new body.
In the last few months I’ve really felt the itch to be active again, and thanks in part to some at-home personal training sessions with The Mamatrainer I feel like I’m on my way. Claire is an exercise physiologist and kinesiologist who works with postpartum mamas (and their partners!) to create workouts and nutrition plans to get us feeling our best after baby. She’s been a wealth of information for me, so I wanted to do a Q&A with her to share with you, too. Over a sweat-inducing, full body workout, we chatted about diastasis recti, regaining strength, and finding time to workout once baby arrives.
Jen: Maybe we should start with the basics. What really happens to a woman’s core when she’s pregnant? What’s diastasis recti?
Claire: Diastasis recti is actually a normal response to growing a baby – pretty much every woman will have a diastasis of greater than 16 mm by the last weeks of her pregnancy. Diastasis can weaken the core because the piece of connective tissue that stretches out (called the linea alba) usually provides strength, stability, support, and tension for all the abdominal muscles and support for the internal organs. In other words, a woman’s core weakens during and immediately after pregnancy because the abdominal muscles aren’t able to work together to provide support. You can think of the linea alba as the missing link.
J: I didn’t know every woman gets diastasis at the end of pregnancy! Are there any other common misconceptions about it that we should know?
C: Real treatment of diastasis isn’t simply about ‘closing the gap’. As a fitness professional and pre and postnatal coach, my goal is to help my clients learn how to create tension across the gap so they may regain functional use of their abdominal muscles or ‘core’.
J: The “gap” referring to the stretched out linea alba, right? Is it possible for the linea alba to heal by itself or go back to how it was pre-pregnancy naturally?
C: There is some healing that occurs naturally postpartum so it is likely that if you had a mild diastasis that your tummy will return to normal several months postpartum. Research suggests that there is actually a genetic component to diastasis recti, to what extent, we still don’t know; but this would explain why even women with very strong abdominal muscles can still suffer from a severe diastasis.
J: How can a postpartum mama start retraining the core and get her strength back? Is there a minimum amount of time to wait before starting?
C: I strongly recommend every woman visit with a pelvic health physiotherapist at least once after birth. The physio has the ability to perform an external and internal exam of the pelvic floor which is beyond the scope of any trainer, even one qualified in pre and postnatal coaching. This initial assessment is valuable in guiding your rehabilitation program whether or not you carry it out with the physiotherapist or a qualified trainer. The exam informs us of any pelvic floor dysfunction or clinical diastasis you may have as well as your ability to produce tension across the gap – another major factor in our process of selecting appropriate exercises.
Most women are given clearance for a gradual return to exercise at her 6 week postpartum check up. I encourage my clients to listen to their body above all else, some women heal rather quickly, and some women may take a full year to recover due to a more traumatic birth. Regardless of when you return, the progression should be very gradual, beginning with short walks and isolated muscle contractions.
J: What are some good simple exercises to help with building tension? Are there any exercises you’d advise against?
C: I suggest starting slow, so begin with isolated core muscle contractions of the pelvic floor and the transversus abdominis (like simply flexing your core).
Progress to the connection breath where you integrate diaphragmatic breathing with a gentle pelvic floor lift on the exhale, and relax the pelvic floor on inhale.
Next, begin to integrate core activation (which includes pelvic floor!) into functional movement, starting with upper body exercises (ex. bicep curls, standing band row, lat pull down), then with lower body exercises (ex. glute bridges and bodyweight squats), and lastly with total body exercises (ex. farmers carry).
If anything feels too difficult, slow down!
J: I like that – taking it step by step definitely helps make it less intimidating. With that said, I’ve certainly found that with a baby, finding that time to exercise how I used to is way more difficult. Do you have any tips on how to be motivated to stay active and to get that workout in?
C: I think it’s really important for new moms to not get hung up on having an uninterrupted 60 minutes to workout. I encourage my clients to find the time for at least 3 fat burning walks a week (45 to 60 minutes); this is usually more realistic than a workout because you can push or carry your little one. Throughout the week think of yourself as an opportunistic exerciser – counter push ups in the kitchen while cooking or waiting for your coffee, glute bridges and clamshells while your little one has tummy time, squats and Jane Fonda leg raises while watching your favourite Netflix show! Three sets of 10 throughout the day can be just as beneficial as 3 sets of 10 in a row and something is always better than nothing. Lastly, if you can find group exercise sessions in your community it’s a great way to socialize with other mamas going through the same thing as you and will help you stay accountable.
J: Great tips! Last question: what lead you to start The Mamatrainer??? 🙂
C: Between naps, feedings, toddler meltdowns, as well as your own exhaustion, getting out the door to an exercise class just doesn’t always work. I started The Mamatrainer to eliminate these barriers – I come to you, we meet at your house, and I bring all the equipment we need to make sure you have a good workout. I individually program every session to take into account your fitness level and mood, and if needed I’ll hold your baby during our session.
Thank you Claire for sharing your wisdom with us; I learned so much! Readers, if you’re in Vancouver, Claire is hosting a Mama Recharge “mini retreat” in a few weeks that I’m pretty excited about: it starts with a workout led by Claire, followed by brunch provided by Monica of Raíz Holistic Nutrition and a Q&A about postpartum recovery. I’ll be attending and would love to see some of you there! You can also get 20% off with code BOSSMOM until May 15.
PS. I’m wearing a sports bra and leggings (gifted) from sustainably made Organic Basics – more on them soon, but if you’re on the market for some good quality workout gear or underwear, use code JENTAMOBC for 10% off!