“Fixing” diastasis recti postpartum starts with understanding what it is, what it isn’t, and how it happens.
In recent years, we’ve heard a lot more about postpartum diastasis recti than ever before. This is a good thing, mostly. Birthing people deserve to understand as much as possible about their pre- and postnatal bodies.
But with more awareness comes more misunderstanding — or so it seems, in this case. Fear-based misconceptions about diastasis recti can lead to unnecessary stress in both pregnancy and the postpartum period.
Let’s clarify exactly what diastasis recti is, how it happens, and what you can do to keep your core functioning properly in pregnancy, postpartum, and beyond.
The commonly accepted definition of the condition known as diastasis recti is a separation between the two muscle bellies of the rectus abdominis, along the linea alba (
But that definition doesn’t convey the complexity of this condition.
Before I elaborate, let’s start with this fact: You have always had some level of separation between your six-pack muscles. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back: You have always had a separation.
Separation is normal. Separation isn’t always an injury that needs to be fixed.
Some degree of separation is present in EVERYBODY. We are born with a separation between our abdominal muscles (2).
It doesn’t automatically mean you will have injury-based diastasis recti after giving birth.
More recent research has defined diastasis recti as what happens when the two large parallel bands of muscle in the middle of the abdomen are separated by an abnormal distance (3).
What is normal? It differs for everyone, and in fact, recent research has debated this very question. Generally, 2–3 cm (0.79–1.18 inches), or less than 2 finger widths, is considered a healthy separation (3, 4).
When you know this, the fact that any level of separation naturally grows (and is often supported by your body) during pregnancy feels a little less frightening.
And if you do end up with a severe diastasis recti postpartum, know that even when you rehabilitate it, you’re not trying to close the gap fully.
The spectrum of diastasis recti recovery
I recommend that all people who have given birth take time to reconnect to their core, rebuilding their foundational strength slowly and mindfully, before jumping back into exercise.
Some people whose linea alba has weakened to a point where their body cannot repair it without extra support or who cannot maintain functional support of their abdominals may need in-depth healing and rehabilitation postpartum.
Some signs that this may be the case include:
- an umbilical hernia
- a protruding abdomen postpartum (usually this sticks around for years after baby)
- a gap between the two sides of the rectus abdominis that is greater than 1 inch or 1 knuckle on your finger when your core is fully engaged
In cases such as these, diastasis recti is treated more like an injury, and rehabilitation is necessary to restore function. For that reason, I often differentiate severe diastasis recti by calling it “injury-based diastasis.”
The two sides of your rectus abdominis, or six-pack muscles, are connected by a band of connective tissue called the linea alba. The linea alba can vary in width and thickness, making everyone’s level of natural separation different, though still present.
The integrity of the linea alba is critical — and much more important than the infamous “gap” (3,
When the linea alba is thin and weak, it can’t fully support increases in intra-abdominal pressure (6).
Intra-abdominal pressure naturally increases when you cough or laugh, for instance, but it also increases when you are carrying extra weight or stretching to accommodate a growing baby.
The way you move, exercise, and breathe prior to getting pregnant can affect the integrity of your abdominal connective tissue and either weaken or strengthen it.
By focusing on proper breathing techniques and core engagement early on — both reflexively in daily life and in exercise — it is possible to avoid many instances of severe diastasis recti that occur during pregnancy.
However, the reality is that most people aren’t thinking about diastasis recti before they get pregnant. This means that most do not know what is normal for them or what the width and depth of their separation was before their belly started growing.
They also don’t know what can be done preventively, and therefore they must take a “wait and see” approach to their postpartum recovery.
During pregnancy, your belly grows. During this growth, you experience a completely healthy level of separation. While this separation does have the potential to weaken the connective tissue of the linea alba, it doesn’t have to.
When you’re mindful of the way you move, exercise, and breathe throughout pregnancy, it’s entirely possible to minimize excessive pressure on your connective tissue.
By taking care to monitor your intra-abdominal pressure as you exercise and go about daily life (lifting, reaching, getting out of bed, etc.) during pregnancy, you will be able to maintain a healthy level of separation over the course of 9 months.
Core dysfunction is not a guaranteed outcome of pregnancy. Not every person who experiences pregnancy ends up with a problematic or severe diastasis afterward.
While the research isn’t yet conclusive, the prevalence of diastasis recti in the postpartum period ranges in estimates from 33%–83% — but it’s not 100% (3, 4,
Sure, some risk factors can increase your chances of diastasis recti postpartum, but some prevention is possible if you put in the work before and during pregnancy (3).
The best way to reduce your chances of severe diastasis recti is to protect the integrity of the linea alba as much as possible. You can do this by properly recruiting your deep core muscles (including your pelvic floor) in all sorts of movements.
Rather than bearing down in order to tighten your stomach, use your exhale to recruit your pelvic floor muscles first, and then draw your abdominals in toward the midline from all sides, as if hugging your baby closer to your spine.
During exercise, make sure to use modifications when needed — if you can’t maintain support against intra-abdominal pressure, scale back.
Also, be aware of how you move throughout your day.
When you recline on a chair or couch, sit up after lying on your back, or even lean back to wash your hair in the shower, you may often place a higher demand on your core and increase your intra-abdominal pressure, putting pressure on the linea alba and causing it to weaken.
But if you can properly engage your core prior to that increase in pressure, you can prevent the connective tissue of the linea alba from stretching beyond a natural, healthy level of separation during pregnancy.
After you give birth, your body needs time to heal. Your gap may return to its prepregnancy width on its own during this time.
It’s also possible to increase the likelihood of healing naturally by focusing on rehabilitating your core with specifically designed breathing and strengthening exercises.
For the best results, you should focus on this during the “fourth trimester,” regardless of how severe your diastasis is.
However, if several months go by and you suspect your diastasis is not healing on its own, start by performing a self-check.
If you feel a gap of more than two finger widths, are experiencing pain, and/or see doming or coning in your abdominals when you exercise, it’s quite likely you’ll need to work on proactively healing your diastasis.
How to do a self-check for diastasis recti
At The Bloom Method, we believe it’s critical to evaluate the core with various testing techniques to see how it responds in many situations. When you understand where exactly the weakness is and what triggers it, you’re much more likely to see results more quickly.
Watch this video to see how we perform a self-check for diastasis recti.
If you end up with a more severe diastasis after pregnancy, know that it’s incredibly common and you are not to blame. You can heal it in powerful ways while learning more about your core than ever before.
The first step toward healing diastasis is to identify why you want to heal. What problem is the separation causing? Most people’s reasons for wanting to heal their diastasis recti fall into three basic categories:
- pain management
Exploring these will help you understand the “why” behind your diastasis recti goals and home in on the technique that is best suited to fixing the specific problem your diastasis is causing.
Have you been told that in order to regain core function, you must CLOSE the gap? This is a very common piece of advice that many specialists give to postpartum people seeking advice. However, as discussed earlier, some level of gap has always existed down your midline.
Proper function of your abdominal wall isn’t dependent on closing the gap. Proper function is dependent on just that: how your muscles function and the integrity of the tissues.
Regardless of the size of your abdominal gap, when you’re able to breathe in a core-supportive way, you will approximate it, bringing the two sides of your abdominals closer together.
To do this, you need to harness the power of your diaphragm, the muscle located just below your heart and lungs — one of the most important players in breathing.
Performing core exercises with proper, deep core engagement is also critical for highly functional abdominal muscles.
It’s also important to pay attention to your intra-abdominal pressure throughout any core-specific exercises and daily movements.
Finally, you must address any structural misalignment in your body.
Core dysfunctions can present themselves in a variety of ways, leading to varying symptoms for different people. The presence of a severe diastasis recti may not be the only reason you’re not seeing the aesthetic goals you’re aiming for.
That being said, sometimes diastasis recti can cause what many refer to as “the mummy tummy.” If this little bit of “pooch” around your lower abdomen bothers you, and you want to work toward a flatter or more toned appearance, a variety of deep core exercises can help.
If you can perform the exercises you love without referral pain in your lower back, pelvic floor, hips, etc., then there is absolutely no reason why you need to “close your gap” in pursuit of a flat stomach.
In my work at The Bloom Method, I have coached women with impressive core aesthetics (e.g., “washboard abs”) who also carry a significant gap between their rectus abdominis.
Following the tips above to regain function is an easy road map to achieve any level of aesthetic look you’re going for.
This is an important one because when we are in pain, things around us begin to crumble.
So, all other reasoning aside, please rehabilitate your diastasis recti if you’re living with pain. Diastasis-related pain can show up in your lower back and pelvic floor in addition to your abdominals.
When diastasis is causing pain, other areas in the body often need to be addressed. Manual therapy, myofascial muscle release, postural correction, and deep breathing practice can help.
Most of the time, you can address these issues in the comfort of your own home. But getting to the root of the problem may require the help of a professional such as a pelvic floor physical therapist, bodyworker, or chiropractor.
Diastasis recti should be considered an expected part of pregnancy, and it’s important to remember that not all diastasis is an injury that must be addressed. We need to do a better job of teaching people that it’s possible to minimize the severity and prevent injury.
If you or your healthcare team determines that what you’re experiencing qualifies for rehabilitation, you do not need to close your abdominal gap fully in order to heal and live pain-free. This is a misconception that continues to be perpetuated in the mom community.
Rather, by strengthening your core muscles, learning to breathe effectively, moving more mindfully, and correcting postural misalignment, you can minimize the separation at your linea alba and restore healthy function.
Addressing the fear and misinformation surrounding diastasis recti is an important step toward shifting common narratives about postpartum bodies. Understanding the difference between full-blown diastasis recti and a small gap gives the power back to the individual — you.
Brooke Cates created The Bloom Method and global fitness app Studio Bloom with a desire to empower women before, during, and after pregnancy. She is a prenatal and postnatal exercise specialist, core rehabilitation specialist, prenatal and postnatal holistic health coach, and health and wellness contributor. Brooke has been a pioneer for the past 10 years in leading empowering and practical fitness education for the pre- and postnatal communities and is determined to help inspire women to know just how powerful they are.
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