Well, most simply, Diastasis Recti, or abdominal separation, is the widening of the gap between the 2 sections of the rectus abdominis (6-pack) abdominal muscle.
A Diastasis Recti or Rectus Abdominis Diastasis (RAD) or Abdominal Separation occurs when the linea alba, the connective tissue joining the rectus abdominis muscle (or ‘6 pack’) at the midline of the muscle splits and separates. The linea alba is no longer able to provide tension and stability to all of the muscles of the abdomen – the transversus abdominis, obliques and rectus abdominis – which means that all of these muscles are compromised, in turn affecting the whole body aesthetically and functionally.
Studies have shown 100% of women will have some some level of diastasis of the rectus abdominis in the third trimester. This separation will be present in the days following the birth of their baby, but should resolve as the uterus reduces in size over the 2 to 6 months postpartum, which is the time it will take the uterus to fully contract.
However, though is it common condition in pregnancy, pregnancy does not cause separation of the abdominal muscles. Rather it is a result of excessive intra-abdominal pressure or loading, or years of excessive abdominal loading with poor technique. During pregnancy, there is an increase in load and, combined with shifts in postural alignment, exacerbate the deeper problem of excessive and un-supported intra-abdominal pressure.
So, what does this mean?
For women with ongoing abdominal separation it will lead to reduced abdominal muscle strength, which will compromise abdominal muscle function.
For these women this means they are more susceptible to
- Pelvic floor issues
- Poor optimal alignment (posture)
- Lower back pain and injury,
- Spinal and pelvic instability
- Difficulty restoring tone in the abdomen (i.e. abdominal bulge or ‘pooch’).
How will I know when my diastasis has resolved functionally?
- The abdominal separation gap is less than 2cm (2 finger-width)
- You are free of back pain
- The abdominal separation does not increase when attempting an abdominal curl, or ‘bulge’ when sitting or attempting an abdominal curl
- You have regained ‘core control’ and can sustain core recruitment throughout an exercise or movement
How do I know when I’ve regained my ‘core control’?
Having core control means the following:
- You don’t lose deep abdominal recruitment, your ‘abdominal bracing’, when performing an exercise
- You don’t hold your breath at any stage during an exercise
- You don’t lose form during an exercise
- You don’t use unwanted muscles when you perform an exercise
- Your lower abdominals don’t bulge but rather remain flat, and the diastasis does not increase
So, how do I know if I have a diastasis?
There is a simple test that you can do to test for a diastasis, or abdominal muscle separation:
- Lie on your back with your head relaxed, and with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor
- Place your fingers along the midline of your abdomen (palm facing you), starting just above your belly button
- With your other hand, place it behind your head to provide support
- Slowly lift your head and neck, while feeling for a gap or bulge above your belly button
- If you find a gap, you will feel the muscles close in around your fingers as you lift your head and neck
- If you feel a gap, measure the gap or space in finger widths
- Lower your head and proceed to measure just below your belly button, 3 fingers length above the belly button and 2 fingers length below the belly button, ensuring that you lower your head between each measurement
If you identify a gap of more than 2 fingers wide, it is important that you seek advice from a Post-Natal Exercise Specialist or a Women’s Health Physiotherapist as you will require extra exercise modification and possibly further intervention.
However, even more important than the width of the gap though, is the tension in the midline – the linea alba. Contracting the muscles should create tension and resistance when you apply gentle pressure with your fingers to the midline. If it doesn’t, you definitely have some re-connecting to do.
I have a diastasis – what do I do now?…
Firstly, don’t panic! There is help out there from Post-Natal Exercise Specialists and Women’s Health Physiotherapists.
But, if this is you, then your first focus needs to be recovery of the separation and stabilisation of your spine. Overloading your outer abdominals, such as your rectus abdominis, with ab curls and planks, can increase the diastasis and potentially hinder any resolution of the condition.
Making small changes, such as stopping the habit of always drawing in your belly, or “bracing your core” (read my blog Awesome Abs Tip #1) , learning to breath optimally and making adjustments your posture and body alignment (read my blog Awesome Abs Tip #2), will contribute to the regulation of intra-abdominal pressure, and therefore decrease the load on the abdominal muscles.
And, re-engaging and strengthening muscles of the entire core muscle system, including the pelvic floor, will be important to the long-term function and aesthetics of your core and abdominal area.
Then, if you still feel you need professional guidance and support, speak with your fitness professional, if they have knowledge of the post-natal body, or make an appointment with a Women’s Health Physiotherapist.