Why Breaking the Rules helped my Diastasis Recti

Diastasis Recti causes a distended belly, back pain and pelvic floor dysfunction. You should avoid movements that load the core directly like frontal planks, that jackknife the body like sit-ups and twisting and crunching movements”.

This is a statement I’ve read from so many different sources. When I was 6 months postpartum from my second child I didn’t understand my body. It ached in ways I had never experienced before and looked completely different.  I had never had back pain and I had never leaked urine uncontrollably before. My abs had never domed the way they did when I did sit-ups, trenched during crunches or stayed distended when I wasn’t bloated. I had never had this gap before and so I decided to research it.  The research led me to believe that the gap was the cause of all my problems, the root of all evil. It talked about the need to close the gap to restore function and avoiding any movements that may widen it. So I began directing all my focus towards the gap. It made sense to me that this change in my abs had affected the way my entire body worked and caused it to be less than optimal. I figured if an abnormal separation caused dysfunction then it made sense that a normal separation would lead to function. I knew what I had to do; I had to close the gap so I could use my abs again.

I began searching for diastasis recti programs online and reading about how to close the gap. One of the first programs I did was a bodyweight home program. I spent months on my back doing glutes bridges and heel slides, avoiding crunching, twisting or jackknifing movements and not loading my directly. I spent weeks bored out of my mind. I hated exercise and I hated the diastasis recti for making me have to exercise. After months of following the same 12 week program my gap did not reduce. I became angry at my body and frustrated at my lack of influence over it. I hated the gap and all I could think about was closing it.

My best friend was into weightlifting. She encouraged me to join her at the gym for a strength training session. Since my home program didn’t seem to be working I figured I had nothing to lose, so I joined her. From the first time I picked up a barbell I was hooked. I loved the way weight lifting made me feel. My friend didn’t know anything about diastasis recti so she didn’t warn me about bad exercises or tell me what I could and couldn’t do; she just challenged me to try.

That weightlifting session was the first time in months I wasn’t focused entirely or obsessively on my abs. When I attempted a deadlift, I just wanted to pick up the barbell. And when I did, even if it was just 30 lbs, I felt empowered. I felt like I could do hard things. I had spent months feeling depressed, weak and disconnected from my body but weightlifting made me feel strong and in control. I had spent months doing movements that bored me out of my mind but weightlifting was exciting and challenging in a new way. I became excited at the idea of going to the gym, and didn’t dread it like my home workouts. I decided that I was going to try weightlifting instead.

I started doing things the literature was telling me I couldn’t do, like lifting heavy weights, squatting to parallel and, as my confidence grew, I even attempted black listed movements like planks and sit-ups. And my body began to improve. I would post online and have experts message me telling me to stop because I was going to hurt myself. But my body was feeling better so I continued. As my body improved I wanted to know more about the science behind what was happening. Why was what I shouldn’t be doing helping? I purchased a postnatal fitness course and spent 10 months studying and learning. I learnt about alignment and breathing and coordination and how these things were important in healing postpartum. The information was good but the more I learned, the more the fears surrounding my body began to creep back in. I began to focus on getting all the things right and doing movements exactly like they were supposed to be done. I had been lifting heavy weights but the course spoke about avoiding movements that caused doming so I once again started fearing what I could see in my body. I began once again avoiding any exercise that caused any doming or trenching along my midline and training my body with a fear of it breaking if I did one thing wrong. Then my progress began to stall.

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One day I looked back at old videos of myself lifting. My form was bad, like really bad, but I didn’t get injured. My breathing wasn’t something I thought about but rather allowed, and my abs still worked. My diaphragm still reacted. I didn’t pass out. I did planks and my stomach didn’t fall out. I did sit-ups and my hernia didn’t tear open. I was supposed to have been broken by the movements but I wasn’t. Doing hard things helped. I had rounded my back when I deadlifted but my back had not broken. I had performed sit-ups where my abs domed but core had not stopped working. My gap hadn’t reduced despite my best efforts but my back pain and incontinence were gone, and my belly was flatter. I had broken the rules and I was still progressing. I began to question some of the information I was reading and began wondering if it was not my body that was broken but maybe the rules were.

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Recently I was speaking to a mentor. She talked about how many people are overwhelmed by the idea of exercise because they think they have to do so much. But the thing is that most people don’t do anything at all. They don’t take regular walks, they don’t perform regular exercise, and they don’t eat a nutritious, varied diet.  For a vast majority of people, it’s not about making a huge change it’s just about making a change. A single change can make the biggest difference, like a butterfly effect. It almost doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something; something different to what you have been doing before. Antony Lo explained this concept in 3 words; “do something different”.

Before my second pregnancy I was fairly inactive. I hadn’t done any regular physical activity since high school. I had an office job and sat at a desk for 8 hours a day. I ate fast food regularly and was well below the recommended 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week and three strength training sessions. My life and body had been stagnant for 8 years. And then I had two babies in two years, and in 24 months my body and my lifestyle changed dramatically. My body experienced loads it had never experienced before and I was subject to stresses I was completely unfamiliar with. The same things that worked before were no longer working and I needed new strategies.

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A couple of years ago I was training a client with diastasis recti. I used the information I had learned in my postnatal course and took her through all the check marks. She saw some improvement over several months but became stuck. In the postnatal course I had read about the dangers of doing crunches with diastasis recti so for years I intentionally kept this movement out of mine and my clients programs. When the client’s progress stalled I urged her to seek out more help. She contacted Diane Lee and travelled to Vancouver to get an ultrasound. The ultrasound revealed that her transverse abdominis was responsive; her pelvic floor was healthy but her belly remained distended. The distention wasn’t because of the existence of a gap, or because of weak connective tissue. It was because of an overstretched and weak rectus abdominis (RA). Her RA didn’t shorten with contraction. Diane Lee recommended the client add crunches to her training program. Crunches: the one movement we had intentionally avoided because the literature was telling us crunches were bad. What this diagnosis revealed is that while were were aware of the changes that a pregnancy causes to the RA, for fear of the diastasis recti we had never retrained it. The abs that we trained got stronger but the ab that we didn’t train didn’t. I began to wonder, how can you prepare your body for crunching, twisting and jackknifing movements if you never train for it?

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I knew it was important to understand how the core changed postpartum but I was learning it was also important not to hold hard and fast to the rules of postnatal exercise. We had to understand the changes but rather than fearing them, we had to adapt to them and train with them in mind.

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“DON’T DO PUSH-UPS WITH DIASTASIS RECTI” – But did I die? STOP WITH THE LISTS! STOP WITH THE FEAR MONGERING! – Just because you read it online it doesn’t mean it’s true! The ability to do a push-up has NOTHING to do with a diastasis recti and everything to do with how the push-up is performed! I was told for years what I can and cannot do and started believing so much of the limiting information about my body. It has taken me 6 years to realize that shit just ain’t true. Core changes, core dysfunction, core weakness can happen with or without abdominal separation. Diastasis is not something to be feared but something to be understood. Your body is adaptable and if what was working for it before isn’t working now it is not because you are broken. It is because you are different so you need to do something different (@physiodetective). If you want truth based and research led information and not fear based, sales inspired language, reach out to those who are going to empower you with better knowledge. Fear breeds fear, knowledge breeds power. Most of the information out there on diastasis is just regurgitated misinformation. #ppacoach @pregnant.postpartum.athlete #dosomethingdifferent

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Seeing my body heal in a way that, even now, I read is impossible is teaching me that there are no hard and fast rules to health. Understanding your body is important but fearing it is debilitating. The fittest people before pregnancy still get diastasis recti. The fittest people during pregnancy still get diastasis recti. In fact, there is nothing you can do to prevent it, only strategies to try and manage it. So perhaps the key to core health is not in avoiding challenging movements or fearing an adapting body but in embracing change and being willing to do things differently if what you are doing is not working. Health in not in perfection but in adaptation, as Darwin put it, “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” The less I had known about exercise the more progress I had made because it didn’t come down to me being the most intelligent trainer but in me trusting my body, listening to my symptoms and adapting when something wasn’t working for me, even if a text book didn’t agree.

Beyond having diastasis recti what I found most challenging about my postpartum body was that it looked and behaved so differently to what I was used to. I felt helpless and weak in it.  What I needed was to feel empowered in my new body; weightlifting gave me that. When I began training I wanted to go back to what my body used to look like, but weightlifting taught me that rather than going back I could move forward and become so much more. Discovering weightlifting was important in my journey because it helped me overcome the mental barriers so I could make physical progress. When I began training I was depressed. I was hurting physically and emotionally and felt defeated. The language around diastasis recti played into those feelings. Being constantly told that my body could not do so much made me feel disconnected with it, and angry at it. Because I was angry at it, I had no patience with it. Because I had no patience with it I was unable to stay consistent. The mental impact of being told that you can’t do so much because of what has happened to your body is defeating, and it makes you feel hopeless. And hopelessness is powerful because it can make you just stop trying.

Walking up to a barbell gave me hope. It helped me focus on what I could do rather than what my body was too broken to do. Because I enjoyed the movements I was doing I began to look forward to training. Because I looked forward to training I began doing it regularly. And the more I regularly focused on what I could do, the less hopeless I felt in my body. The less hopeless I felt in my body the more I was able to embrace the changes. The more I was able to embrace the changes the more willing I was to adapt based on them. The more I continued adapting, the more I continued to do differently based on what happening to my body, the more progress I saw.

Fitness is about more than physical changes, it’s about mindset. Fear is crippling and those who fear their bodies are afraid to challenge it. Mindset will take you places no exercise can so when training postpartum women language is the most important tool in our arsenal. The text can help, but nobody is text book so always train the client in front of you, not the theoretical client you read about on your courses.

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