Popping out a baby does a number on your body: Your boobs get droopier, stretch marks crisscross your middle, and your vagina, well, let’s not even go there. (Hint: Expect pigment changes.) But of all the issues brought on by a bun in the oven, one of the most frustrating is post-pregnancy belly flab. Is the squishiness fixable, or are flat abs a thing of the past? Even super glam Reese Witherspoon said in a recent interview with the blog Cricket’s Circle that her abs were “nonexistent” after she gave birth to her three kids. So we went to an expert to find out if it’s actually possible for every woman to get her core muscles back in pre-baby shape.

RELATED: 7 Honest Things Celebs Have Said About Losing Baby Weight

The truth: Though genes and your before-baby fitness level play a role, you might have to accept that some pooch is permanent. “A small number of women will be able to get a flat stomach again, but for the majority, it may take a lot of time or not happen at all,” says Alissa Rumsey, R.D., certified strength and conditioning coach and spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It took nine months for your belly to stretch out to accommodate your baby, so it’s reasonable to expect it to take at least as long to lose the belly fat.”

And this is assuming that you gained the recommended 25 to 30 pounds of pregnancy weight. Putting on more than that means the fat may end up being stored as visceral fat, which is tough to get rid of. The other thing to keep in mind is that a after-baby belly jiggle may not have anything to do with your abs. The bulge can be the result of stretched out skin that’s lost its elasticity, and all the crunches in the world can’t firm it up again, says Rumsey.

RELATED: What to Do During Pregnancy to Make Losing the Baby Weight Easier

If you’re a new mom dealing with a wobbly middle or a future mom freaked out by the news, don’t be discouraged. Reframe it like this: It’s actually freeing to know that it’s unlikely you’ll look like Fit Mom (or Reese Witherspoon, for that matter) once you’ve delivered a kid. Good for them for being so devoted to staying in shape. But if rock-hard abs are not in the cards for your body, why sweat it? Instead, focus on being healthy and getting to a good fitness level for you by easing back into your pre-baby fitness routine on your own schedule.

RELATED: How Your Vagina Changes in Your 20s, 30s, and 40s

Contents

How To Have 3 Kids And Six-Pack Abs

Okay folks, so last day Holly Rigsby from ClubFYM.com and I were discussing the most effective methods for overcoming oddly shaped abs after pregnancy. It’s a fairly common problem amongst women, and Holly tackled it head on with some great advice. Check it out here.

But what if you’ve had 3 or 4 kids…is there still a chance you can have those flat and sexy, six-pack abs? Well, let’s hear what Holly has to say, shall we?

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Craig Ballantyne: Just kind of a general question here. Two specific questions came in.

1. Is it possible to have a six pack after three kids?

2. How do you tone your abs after pregnancy, especially after several in a row?

It’s kind of a general question after we’ve talked about these very specific issues and I know you’ve probably covered the general strategy for this, but is there maybe 3 to 5 rules that are common across everything that we kind of talked about, kind of summing up all the great information that you’ve given so far?

Holly Rigsby: Oh, heck yes. I will say that yes, it ABSOLUTELY is possible to have six pack abs after three kids. I’m like, “This sounds like a really familiar story,” because I’ve posted on my blog a couple times about moms who have three children who now have six pack abs.

When it comes to six pack abs it truly is a matter of setting a goal that allows you to burn excess body fat. You know this, you want to lower your body fat and you know how to do this. I’m not going to keep repeating myself. But, we get the exercise part, it’s the eating component that is the DIFFERENCE MAKER in turning flat abs into six packs abs.

While it’s very easy to think that we do eat right, we must be willing to take it to the next level if you want to see more definition in your abs. If we’re talking six pack here you have to understand what type of goal you need to set. Not only measuring where you are right now, but setting that goal of understanding that six pack abs are going to be achieved when you get your body fat in the mid to lower teens.

Once you get under 20 percent that’s when you’re going to see the top portion of your six pack. When our body loses fat from the top down, and that last little bit to go is going to be around the belly button or lower area. So, the lower your body fat percentage is the more definition you’re going to see in that area.

It’s a matter of, and I’ll say this as ONE OF THE RULES, make sure that you’re eating enough.

A lot of women think, “Hey, I’m going to reduce my calories to be able to see six pack abs.” If you’re at the point in your fitness plan where you have flat abs and you’re pretty darn fit you’ve got to make sure that you’re eating enough to fuel your body to be able to burn more fat, because cutting calories is just going to cause your body to go borderline starvation mode and it’s not going to let go of that last little bit that’s preventing you from seeing the true definition.

So, making sure that you’re eating enough.

Just for an EXAMPLE, I personally do not eat anything less than 2,000 calories and typically more than that. I’m 5’ 4”, 115 pounds and on my Facebook fan page for Fit Yummy Mummy I had posted my Bahamas bikini ready results where I was able to really cut some definition into my abs. I did that by telling you everything that we’ve done today.

It was really cleaning up what I was eating, but making sure I was eating enough.

This is where JOURNALING is a must, because you’ve got to identify the foods that you could swap out for cleaner eating and eliminate the foods that are going to hold onto fat, such as sugar, processed foods that are loaded with chemicals that are going to hinder your results, artificial sweeteners, and those top two food groups that I talked about before, breads and dairy, especially pasteurized milk, a lot of milk products.

It’s so funny, because when I do my research on this stuff I’m like, “Dairy and fat loss or belly fat.” Every single article that’s online talks about how dairy is good for you to lose more belly fat and that’s just contradictory advice. It’s a matter of going through the elimination diet and seeing what a difference it can make to be able to cut that last little bit off of your abs.

The best way to approach EATING FOR SIX PACK ABS is to plan all of your meals around protein and produce.

Produce, of course is your fresh fruits and vegetables. Your protein is lean meat, fish, eggs, nuts, beans, some dairy, because of the way that it is processed it does not hinder the belly fat to be burned. That would be like Greek yogurts or organic cottage cheese. Once again, making sure that you’re eating enough, making sure that you’re eating every three to four hours.

When you follow this type of plan it’s allowing you to:

  • Get the protein that your body needs to help burn more calories
  • Boost your metabolism
  • Build muscle so your body has that fuel
  • Get about 10 servings of produce a day, which not only keeps you energized and satisfied so you’re not turning to junk food that hinders your ability to burn more fat, but it’s cleansing out all the bloat in your belly in addition to providing the fat burning effect.

Since your body has the nutrients it needs to create a healthy metabolism. I always tell the ladies a healthy body is going to burn more fat than an unhealthy body. So, that being said, taking a good quality multivitamin is also essential.

Going along with all this, obviously, women give up way too easily, way too quickly. You’ve got to STICK TO THIS. When I hold my challenges or I’m helping Fit Yummy Mummy get started on the plan I make it very clear that you’re going to re-measure once you’re four to six weeks into the plan. That’s just the start.

Then you’re going to reassess your goals and see what you’ve learned about your body and what you’ve been able to achieve, and then set new goals for the next four to six weeks. This is a process and it takes time, especially when we have these problem areas and we want to see things change, we want to see definition, we want something very noticeable.

Sure, our skinny jeans fit and everybody else is giving us compliments, but when we look in the mirror we’re looking through a filter and our eyes go right to our problem areas. It’s important to take those BEFORE PHOTOS, and I know Craig, you talk about that all the time. This is so essential to take those before photos, because as you’re making those changes you can’t see them day to day.

After four to six weeks if you take those before and afters and you’re like, “I see improvement. I see a difference.” Then you want to continue to see that difference, and that’s where your commitment to being consistent with the plan is so essential. Don’t give up after two weeks. Don’t give up if you had a bad day or a setback. Get right back up and keep applying what you know works.

We keep telling you each and every day, “This is what works.” It’s all a matter of staying consistent with it and you will be so pleasantly surprised when you look back and say, “Wow. I’m glad I followed their advice.”

Craig Ballantyne: Alright, cool. A lot of great advice there Holly, thanks.

Let’s finish off the interview where in part 6, Holly reveals just how much time you really need to lose fat, and how you, as a busy mom, can do it!

If you’d like more information about this or anything Holly has covered over the past few days, then you can go to ClubFYM.com.

Craig Ballantyne

If you want to double your income, work less, and become the ambitious millionaire you’ve always wanted to be… Craig Ballantyne is the coach who will help you do it. With more than 20-years of experience as an entrepreneur and five 7-figure businesses under his belt, he specializes in helping “struckling” entrepreneurs get out of the mud and build the business of their dreams. To see if you qualify for Craig’s “Millionaire Coaching Program” send an email to [email protected] with the subject line “Millionaire”.

The post-pregnancy belly problem that nobody tells women about

Why some people object to calling it “mummy tummy”

DR can give the belly a soft, protruding appearance. It can push the bellybutton out, or look like a visible gulch at the midsection when a woman bends or does an abdominal curl.

Courtney Wyckoff, the founder of the Momma Strong workout program, suffered from a large DR and related pain after pregnancy. But she argues the focus around DR should be on mobility and function, not aesthetics. For instance, can a woman bend and touch her toes? Can she wake up without pain? Is she peeing herself?

But most of the DR advice out there is on how to flatten the tummy and “bounce back” after pregnancy rather than how to strengthen the function of the core, pelvis, muscles, and organs. A recent NPR story, “Flattening the Mummy Tummy With One Exercise 10 Minutes a Day,” elicited a huge response, both positive and negative. Some women felt it reinforced the problematic cultural standard that women should have flat tummies. A follow-up NPR story addressed some of the comments and recommended additional exercises.

Still, few studies have evaluated DR treatment thoroughly enough for there to be definitive clinical guidelines about how to treat it.

Exercise may help, but you can’t talk about repairing DR without talking about the pelvic floor

The clinicians I interviewed who have diagnosed and treated hundreds of DR cases collectively agree that it can be treated. But they stress that the abdominals are only part of the equation. McGurk coaches women to reconnect to their pelvic floor and their transverse abdominis muscles, which can essentially turn off during pregnancy and childbirth.

Abdominal exercise, coaching, and visualization that incorporates the pelvic floor and proper breathing techniques (inhaling when relaxing, exhaling when contracting) can reestablish the connection between the muscles and the brain and strengthen not only the abdominals but also the pelvic floor, she says.

“Stabilizing diastasis during pregnancy and postpartum is all about reconnecting the brain with the deep abdominal layer called the transverse abdominis,” says Willoughby. “The transverse abdominis and the pelvic floor are best friends that need and can’t work without each other.”

A 2014 review of eight studies evaluating what impact exercise has on preventing or healing diastasis was inconclusive. Recent studies have tested two specific exercises on DR — abdominal crunches and an exercise called “drawing in.”

Drawing in involves inhaling to fill the belly with air, then exhaling and moving the belly back toward the spine. (Willoughby says the key is to inhale as you relax muscles and then engage as you exhale.) But in the study, the subjects were only measured doing the exercises in a lab, not over a period of time.

Wyckoff teaches a technique called bracing that involves contracting the abdominal muscles in concert with lifting the pelvic floor “like a claw crane.” If you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, see a trained professional who can test and feel if the proper muscles are engaging during the exercises.

New DR research is looking at techniques that go beyond exercise

Brandi Kirk has treated DR for a decade. She and others trained in visceral manipulation, a physical therapy technique developed by French osteopath Jean-Pierre Barral, have applied it to the small intestine and seen DR patients improve function and narrow their gaps. Kirk presented the findings of a very small case study of the technique at the American Physical Therapy Association conference, and will expand her study next year.

A controlled trial from Cairo University in Egypt recently discovered that women who used neuromuscular electrical stimulation, which uses electrical current to get muscles to contract, on their abdominal muscles in addition to exercise saw more DR improvement than women who did exercise alone.

Exercises can only go so far if other daily movements don’t support the work, according to Bowman. “It’s not only about how or how much you exercise — there’s a whole bunch of non-exercise things, like how you breathe, how you hold your body (read: suck in your stomach), and even how you dress, that can place unnatural loads on your linea alba,” she explains in her book.

Some doctors opt to repair DR with laparoscopic surgery or abdominoplasty, often accompanied by liposuction. This can be a viable option for severe cases of diastasis and abdominal hernia. But research on the DR-repairing operations has found that surgical correction carries risks and is “largely cosmetic.”

The pelvic health therapists I spoke to stress that surgical repair won’t teach the muscles to function properly, and that women who undergo surgery should seek out rehabilitative physical therapy afterward. These surgeries are also costly and aren’t usually covered by insurance.

DR is technically healed once it measures two finger widths or less. But the pelvic health physical therapists are concerned with more than measurements — they want to see that the tissues support the abdomen, and that woman can function without pain elsewhere in the body.

Crunches done wrong can make DR worse

Some health care providers and fitness instructors believe that a flabby postpartum belly can be flattened simply with abdominal exercise, such as crunches — which many people with DR end up doing wrong and with too much force.

“A lot of women out there taking Pilates and yoga classes are not engaging the correct muscles,” McGurk says. “One of my primary concerns is to get the proper muscles firing. Are you feeling the two sides of the TA glide together? For the majority of women it’s not happening, or it’s asymmetrical.”

Particularly, crunches done wrong can encourage diastasis, or worsen it. PTs tell pregnant and postpartum women to avoid any sit-up-like motion or abdominal exercise in which the head or feet leave the floor. Upper body twisting, spinal extension (like in a bridge pose), and bearing down during a bowel movement can increase pressure on the linea alba and encourage muscle separation.

Anything that forces the belly to bulge can pose a risk for further separation or even abdominal hernia, when an organ protrudes through a gap. Willoughby says that a DR is not healed “if there is doming or bulging along the middle of the abdominals when a load is placed on the body, such as lifting a child.” Wyckoff recommends that women with separation lift themselves up from a supine position by rolling to one side and using their arm to push up, rather than curling straight up.

DR can be prevented during pregnancy

A common occurrence clinicians see leading to DR is when pregnant women ignore their core altogether. “During pregnancy the core muscles take a little vacation,” Willoughby explains. “We need them to work and stay functional. Keep those muscles active through exercise. That may help prevent DR or speed recovery.”

Bowman says OBGYNs often tell pregnant women to avoid abdominal exercise altogether because they, like many, are only thinking of crunches. Instead, they can do strengthening exercises like drawing in or bracing that engage abdominal muscles and pelvic floor muscles. (See the Momma Strong for more details on the exercises.)

Pregnancy can be one of the best times to work on diastasis prevention. “Your body, your baby’s body, your pregnancy, and your delivery could benefit greatly from working to restore functional, biologically necessary core strength while you’re pregnant,” Bowman writes.

The other good news is that it’s never too late to work to repair a diastasis, according to clinicians. And Wyckoff stresses that if unhappiness with a DR’s appearance is why women decide to address their stability and function issues, that’s fine.

“It’s okay to not want a pooch,” she says. “I think that’s a primal, normal way in. Once you feel that, the question becomes how am I going to support this, and what else does it mean for my body? It’s going to take a lot for us to start focusing on function.”

Allison Yarrow is a journalist, a TED resident, and author of the forthcoming 90s Bitch: Women, Media, and The Failed Promise of Gender Equality. Find her on Twitter @aliyarrow.

Pelvic Floor First

Re-thinking abdominal training in pregnant and postnatal women

Abdominal separation is one of the most common conditions that physiotherapists see in pregnant and postnatal patients. As many as two in three pregnant women have some degree of abdominal separation. As a result, it is essential that abdominal exercises in the childbearing years be carefully considered and modified.

What is DRAM?

Diastasis of rectus abdominis muscle (DRAM) is a separation of the connective tissue (linea alba) joining the two strips of muscles (rectus abdominis) down the middle of the abdomen. It occurs when the abdominal-wall muscles and their connective tissue attachments stretch. This is the result of the combination of abdominal weakness, hormonal changes, weight gain and abdominal-wall stretch exerted by the growing foetus.

The abdominal wall has four layers of muscle, from superficial to deep: rectus abdominis, external oblique, internal oblique and, the deepest layer, the transversus abdominis.

Often in cases of DRAM, the rectus abdominis muscles are weak and their function is compromised. Because of the interconnectivity of the muscles (via the linea alba), this impacts the deeper muscles of the abdomen and pelvis, resulting in a destabilised support system. Stable tendinous attachments are required for the abdominal muscles to transmit forces in the desired direction, and alterations of a muscle’s angle of insertion will affect this function. Changes in rectus abdominis length, width and angle of insertion can occur after childbirth and are associated with a reduced ability to stabilise the lumbopelvic area.

As a result, DRAM can have a number of implications for pre and postnatal women. It can affect the stability of the trunk and may contribute to pelvic floor dysfunction (66% of patients with DRAM have reported to have pelvic floor dysfunction), back and pelvic girdle pain, and hernias. This may be a factor in persistent postnatal lumbar, pubic symphysis and sacroiliac pain, and even incontinence, due to the interaction of the pelvic floor and abdominal musculature as a stabilising unit.

How to test for DRAM

  • Have your client lie on her back with her knees bent and feet on the floor approximately hip-distance apart
  • Place fingers along the linea alba (midline of stomach)
  • As client relaxes her abdominal muscles while lifting head and shoulders gently off the floor, feel for a gap or bulge just above or below the belly button
  • If a diastasis is present you will feel the rectus abdominis tightening on either side of your fingers. If you cannot feel this muscle contracting you may need to place more fingers in the gap between the muscles so you can measure it more correctly. In some cases this gap may be more than 10 fingers-width.
  • You also need to determine the condition of the connective tissue. The deeper the fingers go towards the spine, the weaker the connective tissue.

If the gap is larger than two fingers-width, outer abdominal exercises should be avoided until the deeper core and pelvic stability muscles are strengthened.

Management of DRAM

When it comes to managing DRAM, it is best to encourage clients to seek a thorough assessment by a women’s health physiotherapist, and to create a specifically tailored exercise program. Real-time ultrasound is often used to assist in determining abdominal-wall functioning and to give instant feedback on the quality of deep abdominal and pelvic floor activation. Exercises should focus on improving core stability, strengthening pelvic floor muscles and improving abdominal-wall function.

In addition to a specific exercise program, abdominal muscle support (compression garments) is essential for the management of DRAM. This combination of compression and a tailored program will achieve optimal results.

Prevention tips

Avoiding any activities that work the outer abdominals from the early stages of pregnancy is important. That means no sit-ups, planks or high impact activities such as running and jumping. Also, avoid heaving up from a lying position to sitting or standing, instead rolling onto your side first. That’s a good idea for all pre and postnatal women whether they have a separation or not. Also, avoid excessive coughing and constipation. Getting started on some deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscle exercises will optimise the function of your torso during pregnancy and as a new mum.

Training considerations for clients with DRAM

After ascertaining whether a client is experiencing DRAM, it is also prudent to consider the following:

  • Prescreening: by conducting a pre-exercise analysis with your pre and postnatal client, you will be able to identify special considerations for her exercise programming and tailor the exercises appropriately
  • Work in conjunction with a women’s health physiotherapist to devise a safe and effective program.

Many traditional exercises (e.g. abdominal curls, oblique curls, double leg lifts) increase the stress on both abdominals and pelvic floor and can further increase muscle separation.

When working with clients with DRAM, the focus should be on strengthening from the inside to the outside. The deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles are the priority.

In addition to the training you deliver your pre and postnatal client, it is also a good idea to encourage her to protect against further muscle stretching by activating her pelvic floor muscles while performing everyday activities such as lifting her baby or lifting a pram in and out of the car.

Written by Shira Kramer, women’s health physiotherapist and Pelvic Floor First ambassador.

3 Steps To Flatten Post-Pregnancy Abs

Congratulations, you had your baby 3 months ago (or maybe 3 years ago) and now you’re wondering, “How do I get rid of my baby bump?”, as Jennifer Garner calls it. The two main causes of the baby bump is an abdominal wall separation, also known as diastasis recti, and belly fat. The good news, both of these issues are correctable and entirely within reach of every mom.

Most pregnancies result in some degree of diastasis recti, a greater than normal separation of the two muscle fibers of the rectus abdominis. When the soft connective tissue (linea alba) in-between the rectus weakens or thins out, it’s what leads to the abdominal muscles having a separation between them.

This muscle separation can lead to a post-pregnancy pooch that may not go away on its own, even if you lose all the baby weight, and have been working out like crazy. (In severe cases, physical therapy will be necessary to help mend separation.) This separation is correctable. An important step in flattening and firming post-pregnancy abs is by re-engaging your deep ab muscle, the transverse abdominals (TVA)—it’s your natural corset; and by retraining the muscle pattern of the rectus abdominis.

The TVA is the deepest layer of abdominal muscles and runs between the ribs and the pelvis, horizontally from front to back. When activated, the TVA muscles create a deep natural “corset” around the internal organs and lumbar spine. This activation flattens the abdominal wall – and also helps to engage pelvic floor.

Here’s 3 Exercises to Activate & Strengthen Your Core:

1. Activate Core Muscles with Belly Breathing

You can feel your transverse abdominal muscle at work when you cough, sneeze or laugh. The following corrective exercises are an integral part of restoring your core strength and are recommended if you are healing an abdominal wall separation post-pregnancy, between pregnancies, or if you’re many years into your mom gig.

  • Lie on your back in a hook-lying position and place one hand on your chest, the other hand on your belly.
  • Inhale and feel the bilateral expansion through the ribs, gently into the belly, and think about the front of your hip bones getting slightly wider and wider apart. The downward movement of the diaphragm muscle enables your lungs to take in more air, which will likely facilitate your ability to feel your transversus muscle during the exhale.
  • Exhale to gently lift the pelvic floor up and into the body, and think about bringing the front of your hip bones back in closer together. Think about using 30% of your max effort here – it’s easy, not aggressive.
  • As you return to inhale, really focus on letting go of that “lifting” you felt through the pelvic floor and the belly. This is key!
  • Do 10 slow breaths.

Strengthen Deep Abdominals

  • Your going to use your breathing technique above with each rep of this exercise.

  • To begin, lie on your back in hook-lying position with pelvis in neutral position. Place hands on the hip bones, and exhale and slowly extend one leg out straight – hovering it above the floor.
  • Remember as you exhale, you’ll gently lift “up and in” with the pelvic floor muscles and imagine the front of your hip bones getting closer together. You should feel deep tension in your abs, between the front of your hip bones.
  • Keep the pelvis completely stable. Inhale to bend the leg back in.
  • Do 8-10 reps each side.

3. Hip Bridges

  • This seems like such a simple exercise, but is really powerful if you focus on your form and make move steady, strong, and stable.

  • Exhale to lift the pelvic floor “up and in”, then lift the hips up by squeezing your glutes (i.e., your tushy). You want to be sure to keep your ribs down in front.
  • The lift doesn’t have to be super high – just steady, strong, and stable.
  • Inhale to return back down to the floor. The upper and lower body move as on unit throughout.
  • Do 10-15 reps.

You can do these exercises every day; practice them at least 3 days per week, for 1-2 set.

If you are a Chicago mom and need more guidance to help strengthen your body after birth, check out our Postnatal Recovery Class or Post-Baby Body Express training program, or come in for a consultation/private training session with Coach Cassandra.

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Other related articles from Active Moms’ Club blog:

Diastasis Recti: From How to Assess to Safe Exercises to Heal – A Few of My Favorite FAQs

What You Should Know About Postpartum Pain & Childbirth Injuries

New Momma Wrist Pain

4 Exercises to Rebuild Your Core After Diastasis Recti

Diastasis Recti happens when the abdomen stretches during pregnancy and separates at the center, leaving a gap. “Diastasis” means separation. “Recti” refers to the rectus abdominis, aka the six-pack muscle group. When those muscles come apart, the belly may bulge out, causing a “pooch” that can make a woman look pregnant long after she has given birth. Now that I am dealing with diastasis recti personally, I know firsthand how frustrating it can be.

Diastasis is common in moms who have repeated pregnancies, are older than 35, or deliver twins, multiples, or a baby with a high birth weight. With my first son, Timothy, I only gained about 28 pounds and was three years younger than I am now. With my twins, Robert and William—who just turned seven months—it’s been a whole different story. I carried them nearly to full-term; and they weighed 6.8 and 7.1 pounds at birth.

I have a separation right above my belly button that’s about two fingers’ wide. Even though I am back down to my pre-pregnancy weight, I still have a pregnant-looking belly by the end of the day.

I didn’t realize that I was dealing with diastasis recti when I first started exercising again; I was eager to get back into my routine, and probably doing too many things, too quickly—without a proper focus on healing and strengthening my core. That’s why I want to warn all postpartum moms to check if they have diastasis recti, since so many things (including crunches) can make it much worse. Aside from the pooch, the condition can cause constipation, low back pain, and urinary incontinence as well.

RELATED: 5 Ways Having a Baby Changes Your Hair

To do a self-test for diastasis recti, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your fingertips across your midline and parallel to your waist at you navel. Place your other hand behind your head and lift your head up while gently pressing your fingertips down.

If you don’t feel the space between your muscles narrowing, or your fingers sink into the gap, you may have a diastasis. Move your fingers down your abdomen and keep testing along the way. (Some moms can have a separation as wide as four fingers or more.) You may also want to get a professional to check for you.

If you are dealing with diastasis recti, you should avoid doing exercises that can make the separation worse, such as crunches, planks, and twists. Jumping out of bed is also a no-no (always roll to the side first), as is any movement that causes a visible coning, or doming, in your ab muscles. Learning to use your deep core to lift your legs is important. And strengthening the transverse abdominals, the deepest layer of abs, is essential.

The key to healing (and I know this is probably not what you want to hear) is working mindfully and slowly—and taking deep diaphragmatic breaths into the back of the ribs. As you work your core, think about knitting the muscles together, and drawing in and up. Some people recommend a splint, but I personally think it’s better to work the core internally.

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Diastasis recti exercises

In the video below, I demonstrate a few moves you can practice at home on a daily basis. Of course, if you feel any pain or see coning in your abs, you should stop.

Start by lying on your back. I like to do these exercises on a prop called the Parasetter, because it helps me direct my breath to the right place as I work. If you don’t have a Parasetter, try placing a rolled up yoga blanket or towel between your shoulder blades. And if you don’t have either of those, just lie on the floor.

Remember to contract your pelvic floor as you exhale, and keep your core engaged throughout the exercises.

1. Hold a magic circle, yoga block, or squishy ball above your chest, arms straight. Squeeze in as you imagine wrapping your front ribs together, and engaging your oblique muscles and pelvic floor muscles.

2. Extend your arms overhead without letting your ribs open. Use the abs to draw everything in. Then return to the start position.

3. Lift your legs to table top, mindfully keeping everything drawn in. Slowly lower one leg at a time to tap your toes on the floor. If you see coning in your abs, don’t drop your toes all the way to the floor. Alternatively, you can place your feet flat on the floor and use your core muscles to lift each foot a few inches at a time.

4. With the circle, block, or ball between your legs, and your feet flat on the floor, raise your butt until your back forms a straight line from knees to shoulders. Really concentrate on engaging your pelvic floor and inner thigh muscles as you exhale and lift up into the hip bridge. Then inhale as your lower back down. And repeat.

Kristin McGee is a leading yoga and Pilates instructor, and a contributing fitness editor at Health.

From 20s to 60s, Here’s How 9 Women Got the Abs of Their Dreams

While some may see the journey to a six-pack as a superficial chase, they’re really much more than that. Flat abs aren’t just for athletes, models, and the genetically blessed — they’re a result of head-to-toe body care and love.

You may know some who have them as a result of good genes while others have them because of the many health choices they make. But as you age, especially as you enter your 40s, the paths to abs become more and more a result of commitment and hard work.

We spoke to nine women, from the ages of 29 to 62, about their journey to their “ideal abs.” No matter what motivation they started with, they all end up here: healthier, stronger, and loving life.

On being patient and finding time to achieve your goals

After Katrina Pilkington, 38, gave birth to her daughter one-and-a-half years ago, she stared at the mirror and wondered what in the world she should do to get back into shape.

“For me, it was about being patient. Your body goes through so much. It’s not just a matter of how hard you work or what you eat but letting your body get back to where you were,” she says.

In addition to slowly working on her mobility and strength, Pilkington also began to change her diet. For example, she switched to a primarily plant-based diet.

She also eliminated dairy because she noticed it made her breastfeeding daughter gassy. Without dairy, her daughter was less fussy, but Pilkington also noticed she herself was feeling less bloated too.

Now, 18 months after giving birth, she’s leaner than she was before she became a mother.

Pilkington’s plant-based diet

  • whole foods
  • grains
  • veggies
  • plant-based protein
  • meat, once a week

Pilkington credits her current success to her daughter.

“Before, it was about fitting into a bikini or a midriff dress. Abs were a great side effect of what I was doing,” she says. “Now, I want to be healthy for my daughter.”

The other key factor? Time, or lack of it. Pilkington fits her workouts in when and where she can. “My workouts need to be efficient and effective,” she says. Her sessions typically include a mix of cardio, intervals, plyometrics, strength, mobility, and flexibility. “It’s made me a better athlete.”

On achieving them through total commitment and hard work

Two years ago, Dawn Moore decided to challenge herself. “As you get older, it’s more about longevity and having the sustainability to do these things, not just when you’re 40 but when you’re 60 and 70,” she says.

While the 48-year-old nurse from Los Angeles ate healthy foods and enjoyed endurance sports and yoga, she wanted to step it up.

So she joined a local gym and began taking boot camp classes and lifting weights. As she started seeing gains in her strength, she finally decided to work toward her goal of strong abs with visible muscle definition.

She knew it would require a higher level of commitment — both in the gym and in the kitchen — and she was ready to go all-in.

This spring, Moore signed up for a two-month challenge at her gym. With the help of her coaches and a supportive community, she took on an intense training, clean eating (think lots of lean protein and vegetables, but no processed food or sugar), and carb-cycling program.

It was a lot of hard work, and Moore made sacrifices to achieve her abs goal — waking up early, working out late, saying no to happy hours, prepping meals, and bringing her own food while she traveled.

Her workouts easily spanned two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. But she says it was worth it.

Moore’s weekly workout for abs

  • cardio every day (she loves high-intensity spin classes)
  • weight lifting, five days a week
  • high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes, three days a week
  • rock climbing

Not only is she the leanest she’s been (her body fat percentage went down from 18.5 percent to 15.8 percent), but also her posture and gait have improved. She’s also grown mentally stronger. “I rediscovered that youthful fire to push my potential,” she reflects.

Don’t stress about abs “The more pressure you put on yourself to have this perfect body, the more your cortisol levels increases. You’re literally stressing yourself out instead of just focusing on doing the work.” — Katrina Pilkington, 37, mother

Now that she’s achieved her goal, Moore intends to keep cardio workouts and rock climbing in her schedule and scale back her strength training to three days a week. And she’ll loosen the reins on her diet, too, opting to count her macros and allowing herself some cheat meals.

“I want to know that each year is a celebration of the best health I can possibly achieve for myself,” she says.

On abs and their ever-changing angles

As an Instagram fitness megastar with 1.3 million followers, you’d assume that Anna Victoria would be all about her abs. But her physical transformation has been more focused on improving her health than changing how she looks or losing weight.

Victoria grew up eating fast food. In her early 20s, she says it took a toll on her health, forcing her to change her habits. In 2012, she decided to commit to a healthier diet and lifestyle along with exercise. Overall, she says that it took about nine months to see her body change to the one you see today.

But even with enviable abs, Victoria says her belly pooch is still there.

“It’s just my body type!” she acknowledges. “I’ve had to accept that everyone has a different body type and holds fat in different places.”

She also wants to send a clear message to her community: there’s a lot to posing on Instagram; don’t compare yourself to others.

“Typically, the images you see are very curated, intentional, posed, and perfect. They’re the 1 percent of someone’s life, if that! I wanted to show the “99 percent” and show a photo where I wasn’t posed and done up,” she reminds us.

This body love philosophy has shot her to social media fame. As the founder of the Body Love app, Victoria follows her own HIIT strength workouts and meal plan, tracking macros and following the 80/20 rule. While she likes to push herself, maintaining a balanced lifestyle is her priority.

“As I’ve gone through my fitness journey, lost body fat, strengthened my core and abdominal muscles, I am definitely proud, not so much of the lean tummy, but of the strength in my core,” she says. Abs aren’t just there for looks. They’re crucial for body support through daily life and can give you the confidence to carry yourself with purpose.

Your body doesn’t have to look “perfect” to love it.

On whether or not abs are really a sign of health

Alison Feller doesn’t want to see her abs. That’s because it means that she’s in the middle of a Crohn’s disease flare.

“It’s the only time in my life I have visible abs muscles, but only because I’m so malnourished and dehydrated,” the 33-year old freelance writer from West New York, New Jersey says.

“People who don’t know I’m sick always tell me how great I look. What they don’t know is that I feel like I’m dying inside. I don’t have a six-pack because I’m working my butt off for it and planking ‘round the clock — I only look that way because of my disease.”

Feller was diagnosed with Crohn’s at the age of seven, so she’s acutely aware of the constant shifts in her body. As an adult, she tends to carry weight around her midsection. The ever-changing numbers on the scale bring on conflicting feelings of wanting to look a certain way and what it means for her health.

“When I start to regain the weight I lost, it does something weird to me mentally. I’m thrilled to feel well, eat, and not run to the bathroom 30+ times a day. But it’s weird that, at the same time, clothes that looked great are tight again. The compliments stop,” she says.

She no longer expects her body to look a certain way. Her “ideal abs” are more about her insides than how she looks on the outside. On her healthy days, she takes advantage to do the best she can —whether that’s a run, a class, or a hike.

“I hope that no struggle or disease ever fully robs me of my motivation and the joy I get from a great sweat,” she says. “While yes, a flat stomach does make me feel strong and confident, nothing compares to how great I feel when I’m healthy.”

On how abs are made, not just in the kitchen, but also in your body

When Jamie Bergin started working with a health coach in March 2018, it wasn’t to reveal her abs or lose weight. She wanted to figure out why she was tired all the time.

“I know I run, have kids, and work, but I was always exhausted. I never seemed to bounce back like all those other mother runners,” says the 39-year old mother of two from New Brunswick, Canada.

Bergin tweaked her diet and discovered that she was sensitive to gluten and that caffeine was causing her inflammation.

She also learned to make smarter, quality food choices while she continued to train for a spring half marathon. The mother runner added strength training to her routine too, complementing her weekly Pilates sessions.

See a doctor

  • Persistent bloating, along with other symptoms like fatigue, unexpected weight loss, or a tight abdomen, can be a sign of an underlying disease.
  • If you have persistent bloating that doesn’t go away, try the elimination diet to check for food intolerances. This can help determine if foods are triggering your bloating or gut inflammation.
  • If this doesn’t work, see a doctor. They can help determine what the cause is.

By the end of 28 days, Bergin lost seven pounds and regained her energy. “I was shocked by the weight loss. I thought I was in pretty good shape. I ran the Marine Corps Marathon and was training for a half marathon,” she says.

Plus, her abs started to become more defined. “I’ve never had visible abs muscles. I just wanted to be strong,” says Bergin. She plans to continue what she’s started and maybe see if she can reach her abs goals.

“It would be amazing to see especially because I’ve had two kids,” she says. Each week Bergin runs 35 to 40 miles, does two Pilates sessions, and aims for two strength training workouts. “I know I’m stronger than I have ever been in my life, and that’s very important to me,” she says.

On knowing when your abs are still great abs

Jody Goldenfield worked hard for her abs. Really hard.

As a child, she was heavy and teased for it. And so most of her life, Goldenfield thought that if she just looked a certain way, she would be happier and feel better about herself. “Right from the beginning, I never learned to like or love myself. I didn’t like the way I looked,” she says.

In her 20s, she got hooked on exercising, opting for cardio workouts and lifting weights. In her late 30s, she discovered bodybuilding and competed in two competitions. She also watched her diet, sticking with what she describes as a fairly restrictive, clean eating plan.

Even into her late 50s, Goldenfield still tried to keep her sculpted abs very defined and show them off on social media, but her muscular midsection still wasn’t the golden ticket to happiness.

“I’m conflicted because I really do like how they look. I like bigger muscles and a tighter stomach,” she says. But she also recognizes the mental toll her quest for toned abs has taken. “Don’t do it to make yourself feel better about you. Just having abs does nothing to correct the internal dialogue in your head.”

Right now, Goldenfield feels OK with where she is in her fitness journey, but she also wants other women to know that the lean, cut physique, while possible even as you get older, doesn’t come without a cost.

“It’s great to look good too, of course. There’s nothing wrong with that. But having physical goals as your primary goal very rarely brings you to a healthy place, mentally, and emotionally.” — Anna Victoria, 29, trainer

“I’m going to do what I can to look decent but not eat super restrictive. If I wanted the abs that I had a year ago, I would have to cut out so much,” she mentions.

To maintain her trim, muscular build, she knew she was going to have to eat better and exercise for the rest of her life — but now abs are not the only reason she wants to stay healthy.

“For me, staying healthy is about aging healthy and being injury-free so that I can have fun with my grandkids and be able to do things until I die.”

On having abs as a perk, not a goal

When Denise Harris first started working out consistently in college, she was convinced she had a hernia. The pain in her abdomen was so bad that she made an appointment with her doctor. Her doctor’s response after examining her?

“Those are your obliques, Denise,” Harris recounts.

From those early days of struggling to work out, Harris never imagined she’d eventually fall in love with fitness or make a career of it. The truth is, she just likes to move. She says that it’s this joy that keeps her motivated to sweat and to stay consistent.

“It’s the one time I’m truly in control and my mind isn’t racing. Afterward, for a solid hour or two, I have this joy,” she says. “Now I get to spread my love of fitness. I just want you to move. It doesn’t have to be fancy.”

Harris, who turns 50 later this year, didn’t start exercising to lose weight but admits that seeing definition in her arms and abs is a nice perk. While she says that it’s not as challenging for her to stay trim from the waist up (thanks to her build and genetics), she doesn’t do crunches all day.

Abs are inner strength“When you think about the word ‘core,’ core of your inner strength, from within. You’re actually training the inside of yourself to be strong first. If you focus less on the physical and focus more on the mental game, the physical part just happens.” — Dawn Moore, 48, nurse

“I’m not doing ab-centric work. Running or HIIT will lean out your abs,” she says, increasing muscle definition. She also works with a trainer. “Yes, I do enjoy the way it looks, but my core is literally my powerhouse,” she says.

Harris’s secret? Just move.

“It doesn’t matter what it is you’re doing. Just moving in some way is important,” she says. “I’m probably the most comfortable with myself that I’ve ever been. I’m healthy, strong, and able.”

On enjoying abs as a 15-year work-in-progress

If you looked at Amanda Brooks’s running blog and fitness posts, you’d think that the 36-year old Denver, Colorado, resident always sported a flat stomach. But in fact, she described her younger self as “definitely chubby.”

Growing up, Brooks didn’t know a lot of nutrition, and she ended up developing a “good food, bad food” mentality. She prioritized fat-free, low-calorie choices, thinking that was the best way to lose weight. But she never really slimmed down.

In college, Brooks picked up running. “Running gave me a different feeling about my body. It was hard, but I was choosing to do it, so for me, it was empowering,” she says.

But the real turning point came when she focused on what she ate. She started with eating seven to nine servings of fruits and veggies a day and shifted toward thinking about what she could eat. And that made all the difference.

Brooks continued to look for different ways to slip fruits and veggies into her diet— like adding zucchini in her bread and greens in her morning smoothie. “That alone made me feel so much better and made it easier to lose the weight and keep it off,” she says.

She lost 35 pounds and has kept it off for the past 15 years.

Today, Brooks runs roughly 35 miles a week and fits in two to three runner-specific strength training sessions, mixing in TRX, and bodyweight moves. She says that she’ll never have a six-pack and that’s OK. She loves her body for all that it allows her to do.

Do ab workouts burn belly fat? Ab-centric workouts can help build your core muscles and help you obtain more defined abs, but whether or not your abs show is a matter of body fat. While it’s impossible to target body fat, an active and healthy lifestyle may help you reach your goal.

On the mastery of weightlifting for powerhouse abs

Spending time outdoors in Colorado and using her body is just part of her DNA. And she wants to keep it that way.

Committing to a healthy and fit life has become more important as Balogh ages. She’s witnessed people around her slow down, and she’s determined to keep going. “I want to remain strong, not to be vain but physically strong. If I lose that strength, everything that I love will be taken away from me.”

Weight lifting, which she took up five years ago, has really changed how her body looks and feels.

Cathy Balogh’s workout

  • 15 minutes on treadmill
  • weight lifting twice a week
  • regular yoga classes

“Being healthy and active allows you to enjoy life,” she says. “You have to keep lifting weights, doing yoga, walking, and doing it all or else, when you’re 75, you’re not going to be able to do it.”

So here it is

You may think that achieving abs is impossible, but the real story is that it can happen at any age, anytime. But more important is what these women realized on their journey: abs, while often a visual sign of physical health, don’t represent the total effort a person puts into their body.

Health is more than achieving a lean stomach and visible muscle definition.

“Whether it’s belly rolls, cellulite, stretch marks, and more, these things make us beautiful, they make us human, and they’re nothing to be ashamed of. It’s great to look good too, of course,” Victoria reminds us. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But having physical goals as your primary goal very rarely brings you to a healthy place, mentally, and emotionally.”

Christine Yu is a freelance writer, covering health and fitness. Her work has appeared in Outside, the Washington Post, and Family Circle, among others. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, or at christinemyu.com.

Lingering abdominal bulge after baby? It could be diastasis recti

Pregnancy can do strange things to women’s bodies. Our bellies stretch in weird ways, sometimes leaving lasting marks. While some moms get stretch marks or “tiger stripes” on the skin surface only, others develop diastatis recti (DRA), a separation of the abdominal muscles that shows up as a bulge or dome at the center of the abdomen when using your abdominal muscles forcefully.

Robyn Horsager, M.D., and I see many women during pregnancy and after they have a baby who don’t know they have diastasis recti – they assume the lingering abdominal bulge is just part of having a baby. Or if they have been diagnosed, they don’t know how to fix it.

We give women who might have DRA three pieces of advice:

  • Don’t ignore or accept it. It’s common, but not “normal,” and it requires help from a health care professional to properly rehabilitate.
  • Hold up on the crunches! While it is important to stay strong and health during pregnancy, performed incorrectly, this exercise won’t help and will often make the condition worse.
  • Think beyond the surface. I completely understand wanting to tighten up your abdominals postpartum, but DRA can contribute to long-term body pain and women’s health problems that we can help you avoid.

Before we start physical therapy for diastasis recti, we make sure our patients understand what it is, what can happen if it’s not taken care of, and how you can regain strength in your abdominal muscles to prevent further damage.

What is diastasis recti, and what causes it?

DRA is an abnormal separation of the muscles in the front of your tummy (your rectus abdominus muscles). The condition is typically painless, and it happens when hormone changes cause the ligaments separating the abdominal muscles to thin and stretch out as your belly expands to accommodate a growing baby. During pregnancy, it can be caused by:

  • Overlengthening, or excessive stretching, of the rectus abdominus muscles, which makes them weak, requiring more effort and exertion to use them.
  • Poor coordination of the deep, front, and side abdominal muscles (they can pull against each other instead of working together)
  • Increased weight gain
  • Poor posture or body mechanics as your belly grows heavier
  • Improper abdominal use and lack of strengthening

DRA is common, but we don’t consider it “normal” – it’s a muscle injury that requires medical care. DRA happens most often during a woman’s first pregnancy, and women who carry twins or multiples are more likely to develop it. The condition often is detected during the third trimester of pregnancy, and the rest are after pregnancy when the trademark abdominal separation and bulge is easier to see.

When we suspect a woman has DRA, we can diagnose it with a physical exam or ultrasound. For the physical exam, we press gently on the abdomen to feel for muscle separation between the muscle bellies while the women is curling her head and shoulders off the table. Then we feel for a softening of the ligaments and separation of the muscles which can show up anywhere from the pubic bone to the rib cage.

You can check your own body for DRA as well using the same technique. In general, if your abdominal separation is more than 2 finger-widths in the vertical line from your pubic bone to your rib cage (which is best felt when using your abdominal muscles actively), you might have DRA. Also, if you are unable to contract or squeeze the muscles in the front of your tummy, and are struggling with strengthening them, you might have DRA. A physical therapist can help properly diagnose and show you how to monitor this condition on your own.

What can happen if I don’t get treatment for DRA?

If you have a lingering abdominal bulge related to a DRA on your abdomen, and it doesn’t bother you, more power to you! However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get it checked out.

Beyond its cosmetic appearance, diastasis recti can contribute to painful women’s health and sexual complications later in life, including:

  • Core weakness: Our ab muscles are an important part of the body’s core, which helps to support our entire lumbopelvic region and promotes mobility. Our bodies are only as strong as our weakest link. If our abdominal muscles are weak, our internal organs don’t get the support they need, and neither do our backs. This can result in low back pain and many of the conditions listed below.
  • Women’s health and sexual problems: Urinary incontinence (inability to hold in pee) and other pelvic floor disorders such as pelvic organ prolapse and painful intercourse are three women’s health conditions that cause pain and discomfort, and they can affect quality of life and relationships.
  • Cosmetic appearance: Not looking like your pre-baby self can affect your self-esteem, quality of life, sex life, and more.

Dr. Julie Wiebe, a physical therapist colleague in Los Angeles, says diastasis recti is like a zipper that doesn’t close properly. When you try to zip up a pair of jeans and the zipper is broken and bulging open, you don’t just go about your day as if nothing is wrong. You have to assess and address the whole situation, from the cogs of the zipper to the surrounding material, as well as the way you move to prevent it from splitting further.
That’s the same approach we take when treating DRA. It’s not a spot fix for one part that’s broken – we need to approach it as a series of parts, head to toe, that work together.

Physical therapy exercises to repair and prevent DRA

We teach women many exercise and moves to repair DRA and prevent it from getting worse. Please note, Texas regulations require a referral from your Ob/Gyn or other doctor who is caring for you in order to participate in physical therapy.

Related reading: Body after birth: Treating post-pregnancy problems

The first thing our physical therapists teach women with DRA is how to practice good posture. It helps the muscles align properly and makes it easier to breathe, particularly during exercises such as weightlifting when you may be inclined to hold your breath.

One important muscle you use for central stability is the transversus abdominus muscle, which is your “inner girdle” that assists with breathing and holds up your core. We focus on this muscle in physical therapy to help you learn to strengthen it, tighten up the muscle gap left by DRA, and promote better breathing. Two exercises that strengthen this muscle are planks and “bird-dog” exercises.

We often recommend women with DRA stop doing crunches. Women often are shocked when we say that, but crunches are easily performed incorrectly when there is a weak link in the system.

Outside of physical therapy, work on your body mechanics, such as breath control and posture while maintaining a neutral core. This is important for lifting, such as lifting your baby, and standing. Your spine should have a gentle curve when you stand, your breathing should be relaxed as you move, and you should avoid holding your breath when lifting your baby.

As with many conditions, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight before, during, and after pregnancy can help reduce the size of your abdomen over which the muscles must stretch and help tighten your muscles again after baby arrives.

If physical therapy proves unsuccessful for your diastasis recti, your doctor may recommend surgery to tighten up the loose, bulging stomach muscles. Talk to your doctor about all of your options before you decide which route to take.

To talk with a physical therapist about care before, during, or after pregnancy, request an appointment online or call 214-645-8300.

After pregnancy belly workout

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