Although you may be anxious to strengthen your abdominal wall soon after birth, it is wise not to start doing crunches and situps too soon. During pregnancy, the abdominal muscles become stretched and weakened, which can lead to a separation of the muscles. If there is a wide gap in the abdominal muscles, special strengthening exercises may be necessary before starting a more rigorous ab workout. Always check with your care provider before beginning exercises after pregnancy.
What is Diastasis Recti?
Your rectus abdominis muscles, commonly known as the "six pack," run from the chest to the pubic bone and are connected in the middle by a narrow band of tissue. As your abdomen grows during pregnancy, this band of tissue stretches, causing a separation of your recti muscles known as diastasis recti. Depending on the size of the gap, it may naturally close up in the first few weeks after birth, but strengthening exercises may be necessary to help close the gap.
Checking for Separation
Check to see if you have a separation in your abdominis rectus muscles while lying on your back with your knees bent. Press in above your navel with the fingers of one hand and slowly lift your head and shoulders off the floor. You should be able to feel a gap in the abdominal wall. If the gap is less than 1 inch, it will naturally close in the first few weeks after birth. A gap wider than 2 to 3 inches needs to be closed before beginning crunches or situps or it will continue to widen and defeat the purpose of doing ab strengthening exercises.
Closing the Gap
Two simple exercises can be done to help close the gap in your abdominal muscles -- head lifts and transverse abdominal contractions. Both of these exercises help to close a separation of your rectus muscles and tone and flatten your stomach. The normal width of the recti muscles is about half an inch. Head lifts are done while lying flat on your back with knees bent and hands crossed over your abdomen. Lift your head as you exhale, drawing your navel toward your spine and hold for a slow count of five. Repeat twenty times per day until separation has returned to normal. Transverse abdominal contractions is done while sitting cross-legged with your back against a wall and hands on stomach. Your navel is drawn toward your spine as you exhale and hold for a count of 10 without holding your breath. Do two sets of 10 repetitions daily until the gap has returned to normal.
Continuing to Strengthen Your Abdominal Wall
Once the gap in your recti muscles returns to a normal width of about half an inch, you can begin more vigorous exercises to continue to strengthen your abdominal wall. A few good exercises to try include pelvic tilts, heel slide, opposite-limb extensions and the bicycle. These exercises are low-impact so you do not strain your back muscles, but they are effective at flattening and toning your abdomen. For each exercise, do two sets of 10 repetitions.