When Sara Haley was pregnant with her second child, she noticed that her stomach had formed a cone-like shape – a telltale sign of diastasis recti, commonly known as an abdominal split.
Diastasis recti is the technical term for a separation between the left and right abdominal muscles. Pregnant women can develop DR because of the increased tension on the abdominal wall, and the risk increases with multiple births or pregnancies.
“Because I had worked in pre and post-natal fitness before, I was aware of diastasis, but it’s not the same until you go through it yourself,” Haley, 37, tells PEOPLE. “Right away when I found it, I backed off from doing any severe core conditioning. For some of us, it is hard to accept because you are fit, you feel fit, but there is danger in doing [core exercises] and lifting large amounts of weight during pregnancy.”
After giving birth, she was able to begin doing exercises to heal her split abs. Now Haley has assembled the best moves for women dealing with the same condition as part of her new postnatal workout DVD, Expecting More: The 4th Trimester Workout. The DVD also includes exercises to help new moms drop the baby weight while working on rebuilding their core.
“The key really is to go back slowly,” she says. “You have to treat your post-natal recovery like recovery for an injury.”Here are Haley’s 5 best exercises to heal diastasis recti:
Kegels are a great exercise to begin with when you’re in diastasis recti recovery because they require you to contract some of your deepest core muscles and your pelvic floor. If kegeling is new to you, think of squeezing the muscles that stop the flow of urine, along with those that stop you from passing gas. It’s a very small movement that no one can see you doing, which is even better because it means you can do them any time and any place. Do at least 10 repetitions a day. Try your best to kegel without squeezing your abs or butt, and make sure you can breathe deeply while doing them. If you literally just had a baby, especially a vaginal delivery, it may take you a while to feel this exercise.
2. Interlocking your TVA
Your TVA is your transverse abdominals – your deepest core muscles that most people often don’t know how to use, whether they’ve had a baby or not. You must learn how to do this exercise properly if you truly want to heal your diastasis. Like kegels, this can be a tricky exercise to do, since your belly was stretched for 9 months. Keep in mind, if you are a new mom and had a C-section, it will be more challenging since the abdominals often need more time to heal. That doesn’t mean you can’t do this exercise; it simply means you may not feel it right away.
With a towel behind your back and seated tall, inhale through your nose. As you exhale, pull your navel to your spine. Take your hands to your belly so they are touching your rib cage on either side of your belly button. Inhale through your nose, and as you exhale push your skin together with your hands, as if you were trying to push your abs back together. You should feel your navel go closer to your spine and your rib cage soften and close a bit. Think of it as your hands assisting the abdominals to move back together, until they know how to do it on their own. It’s the perfect way to start to train your abs intrinsically so they can eventually be stronger and more toned than they ever were. Do at least 10 repetitions a day.
3. Heel Slide
This is a classic diastasis recovery exercise that you will see in any PT office or diastasis recti recovery program. The idea here is to become comfortable moving your limbs while interlocking your TVA.
Lying on your back with your knees up and feet on the floor, lift your toes up off the floor so your feet are flexed. Exhale, engage your abdominals, and slowly push through your heel to slide one leg along the floor. The slower you go, the better. Inhale and relax, and exhale to bring the leg back in. Trust me, this exercises looks and sounds easier than it is. Alternate right and left heels for a total of eight repetitions, four on each side.
4. Knee Lifts
Another exercise that looks easier than it is. If it feels easy, you might not be doing it correctly. Lying on your back with your knees up and feet on the floor, lift one knee at a time. Point through the foot to keep the leg strong. The key here is to go only to hip level. If you pull the knee in too close to your chest, you will lose the isometric contraction of the TVA that will help heal your diastasis. Keep your hands on your belly so that you can literally feel the movement and help maintain the contraction. Alternate knee lifts 10 times, five reps on each side. (See video above for demonstration.)
5. Side Slide
This is probably the most advanced of the exercises. I would recommend doing it only once you’ve successfully learned to interlock your TVA. Twisting is NOT recommended for healing a diastasis recti; however, we still want to train and strengthen your obliques. This exercise will assist you in this.
Seated cross-legged on the floor, place one hand on your belly. Think of pulling your navel away from your hand and into your back. By keeping your hand on your belly, you should be able to feel your abs contracting and feel when they are not. Inhale through your nose to begin. As you exhale, with a towel in your opposite hand, slide the towel along the floor, out and away from your body. Think of going up and over to the side, so that your side body is not collapsing. Inhale again, and exhale to return with the same control you used when sliding out. Do six to eight reps on each side.
Bonus Exercise: Towel Pull
I’m adding this one because if you’re competitive with yourself, you’ll have fun with this one.
Lie on your back with your knees up and feet on the floor with a towel underneath your back. One edge of the towel should line up with your spine, and the other half of the towel should be outside of your back. Hold that side of the towel. Inhale and as you exhale, interlock your TVA as you try to pull the towel out from underneath your back. Your job is to use your abdominals to stop the towel from being pulled out. Begin with 15 seconds and increase to 30. Repeat on the other side. If you want to make this more challenging, ask a friend to try to pull the towel out.