My daughter Willa was born about a year ago. Her birth turned my world upside down, inside out, and ultimately changed it for the better. My body is also forever changed.
Sure, I lost the weight, but things aren't quite what they used to be or where they used to be (hello, boob droop). I'm fine with that for the most part, but I haven't been able to reconcile what happened to my abs.
After throwing my back out in my late 20s, I started doing Pilates and balance exercises, which strengthened my back and had the wonderful side effect of giving me a very strong set of abdominal muscles as well.
When I became pregnant, I continued exercising—spinning, yoga, walking, and weight training. I thought that if I stayed in shape, I'd be able to avoid getting a mom pooch. Unfortunately, there's nothing much a woman can do to prevent developing diastasis recti, a separation between the two sides of the rectus abdominis muscle, commonly known as your abs.
I always thought a diastasis was something that happened during the birthing process, and only to women who weren’t in shape. So I was shocked to find out at 36 weeks that the divide had already happened to me, under the strain of the growing baby against the abdominal wall.
My prenatal yoga instructor walked around the class and asked everyone if they’d like to be checked for it. She told me to lie on my back and bring my head into a crunch position. She placed her hand right below by breast bone and declared, “Oh yeah, you’ve got a doozy. It’s about three fingers wide.”
WTH? I asked what I could do about it and she explained that there wasn’t a thing I could do about it now, but I could try to rehab it after the baby was born.
After my daughter's birth, it felt as though a bomb had gone off in my stomach. I used a splint to help bring the two halves together so they could heal, and at about three weeks postpartum my doctor said I could start exercising again.
I started slowly with long power walks and light weights, and eventually worked myself up to running and regular gym classes. Over the course of several months, my split came back together somewhat, but the two halves of my abs are still about 1 1/2 fingers apart.
Could I ever get my abs back or was I destined—like so many moms out there—to just deal with the space and the pooch it caused?
Feeling like I'd done about as much on my own as I could, I enlisted the help of a professional. Deemsy Arias of Manhattan's High Performance Gym is a certified personal trainer with a background in pre- and postnatal fitness.
I came to him with this challenge—give me my pre-Willa abs. We set up a schedule to work on overall strength, with a focus on my core. I'd continue running 3.5 miles, 2 to 3 times a week, for cardio.
Deemsy explained that we wouldn’t be doing any crunches or reverse crunches because those types of ab exercises require spinal flexion, which can increase tension on the abdominal wall, causing the left and right sides to separate even more.
He explained that this can significantly compromise strength levels and core integrity, depending on the individual. (For women who are pregnant, crunch style moves can increase the chances of an umbilical hernia.)
Since we wouldn’t be crunching, we’d work the abs from every other direction, including my obliques and my transverse abdominals. We would incorporate pushing and pulling movements. He promised that it would not be easy, and he didn’t disappoint. Here's what we did:
Focus: Determining my baseline strength
- Crazy plates: You start in a straight-armed push-up position, and move a stack of weights from your left side to your right and vice versa.
- Assisted pull-ups: Deemsy attached a really strong resistance band to the pull-up bar. I put one foot inside the band and then was able to pull up. Depending on the strength of the band you use, it can help you with 1/4 to 1/3 of your body weight.
- Lunges: Just an all-around great exercise that helps you focus on balance and pulling in your core muscles.
- Elevators: You go from high plank to low plank over and over (and over) again.
Focus: Core stabilization
- Evil twists: Deemsy attached a handle to the cable pulley machine and had me pull the weight in a twisting motion from the side to the front (on both sides). You can do this with a medicine ball too, but it’s not quite as effective.
- Rifle presses: This is one of the toughest and coolest exercises I’ve ever done. Deemsy attached a bar to the cable pulley machine and then had me press it straight out in front of me and then down to the side like a military rifle drill. Tough.
- Lunges with medicine ball: I progressed from basic lunges to a lunge followed by lifting a 3-kilogram medicine ball over my head (that's about 7 pounds!).
- Kettlebell swings: I swung a 12-kilogram kettlebell (25 pound!) through my legs and then up to chest height. You do use momentum, but it’s still a seriously exhausting move.
After week one, I was extremely sore, but in a good way—in the way that makes you feel like your muscles have woken from a deep slumber to say, “OK, fine, if you’re going to make such a big deal out of it, I’ll listen.” Now I’m just waiting to see if they’ll respond. Check back for next week’s installment.