Recently on facebook, a long question came up from somebody with diastasis recti. It's the kind of questions I hear and answer a lot. I wrote out a pretty lengthy answer and I think it should be up here too (I edited and organized it a little bit).
Here is the question:
I am told to keep my tummy tight and bring my belly button to my spine when walking and doing activities.....lifting, cleaning, etc. Then I am told to let my belly go and not suck in...... When am I supposed to let my belly go? When I stand beside a mirror and let it go, I look HUGE and I feel a pressure burst to my pelvic floor. What is this? So basically when should I let it go and when should I try and bring my belly to spine? I am so confused! I don't know how to hold myself anymore! Oh and I go back to work in Feb and I can't let it go all of the way all of the time there..... I am super petite, 5'7 and 120lbs and I have DR. Could you imagine if I let my belly go all of the way....... My coworkers will definitely ask when I am due especially since the rest of my body looks like it did before pregnancy except for my big old hard round belly!
A Healthy Core
A healthy TvA (transversus abdominis) responds to your activities (varying loads) by engaging more or less. I like to think of muscle being ON. Or ON ON. Or ON ON ON. So when you lie in bed, the TvA is not ON much. But as you sit up it will be ON more. Once you sit, its ON a little less. And when you start walking its ON some more. When you lift, sneeze or birth a baby, its ON way more. We are talking about a healthy TvA. So when its healthy and does what its supposed to do, it just goes ON and ON more by itself. It responds to changing loads all the time. Your brain tells it to do it. You don't have to think about doing it. It just does it. So point is that the TvA (or any muscle for that matter) is never engaged at the same level. It always changes in accordance with what you do with your body.
An Unhealthy Core
Now, we are talking about a dysfunctional muscle like when you have diastasis recti (DR). Your TvA likely doesn't know when to be ON and when to be ON more. In that case you need to train it so it can learn how to respond properly.
How To Get From Unhealthy to Healthy
That is the part that has 337 steps. Sorry. The cool thing is that by taking the first steps, you yield results right away.
It starts with learning to release the belly. When you suck your belly in, the muscle fibers get stuck in one position. When you have a muscle that is stuck in one position, it cannot respond to changes in load by shortening or lengthening. So you sneeze and instead of shortening (engaging), it stays put and the pressure from the sneeze blows against the tissue of your separated abdominal wall. If we want a muscle to work and change in length, we need to get it unstuck first. So that is why releasing the belly, ultimately 'strenghtens' your TvA.
Another big part of it (the biggest I would say) is getting the pelvis and rib cage in alignment and stabilzed, hence all the Restorative Exercises you are learning from Katy's blog.
(Note to readers: I teach Restorative Exercise in Ottawa. Just contact me!)
And yet another big part is learning to breathe properly and to coordinate your breathing with your movements.
Hint: releasing the belly + working on alignment = better breathing
And somewhere in between your body and you learn how to contract the TvA properly. I personally don't make TvA contraction exercises a big focus with my DR clients but I do teach how to contract it and how to coordinate the contraction with movement.
To your questions:
"when am i supposed to let my belly release?'"
When you stand, when you sit, when you walk. Don't push it out (but don't suck it in either) and just allow it to be ON (when you walk you might feel it ON ON). Just keep it relaxed, walk, breathe and notice what happens. When you feel pressure or your core not participaing when walking, notice it. And work on the above. And keep walking every day.
"when should I bring my belly to the spine"
a) When you want to take a moment to train your TvA. You can do it backlying or on hands and knees or seated. Keep pelvis in neutral and ribs over pelvis. Exhale and draw belly slighlty towards your spine. Then take a few easy breaths until belly is fully released again. (might release right away or not). Then draw in on the exhale again. Maintain neutral spine by not moving your pelvis or rib cage. Allow the part below and the part above your belly button to draw in at the same time.
b) You should also do this contraction when you sneeze, lift, exercise, ect. Unless your TvA already knows what its supposed to do and it goes in (is ON ON ON in response to the increased pressure) by itself.
So you need to get to know your body. For example when you sneeze, put your hands on your belly and notice if it goes out or in. If it goes out, you need to make a conscious TvA contraction and make it go in instead.
You might also feel pressure in your pelvic floor during a movement or activity. So, again, make belly go in a little bit.
Always keep breathing.
Never hold your breath.
Always draw belly in on the exhale.
Eventually the muscle will become more functional and will be ON more when it needs to be ON more without you thinking about it.
Pressure Down Low
The pressure you feel in your pelvic floor when you release your belly, is the truth. Its what's truly going on with your body. Keeping the belly pulled in is hiding the problem. So it might be that you have a mild prolapse (get it checked by a pelvic floor physiotherapist) or, even without a prolapse, it could be that you feel the weight of your organs and your pelvic floor is not used to the weight because you suck it up all the time.
Note: she does have a prolapse
You are worried about showing your current real belly to your co-workers... and I totally get that this is HARD. But to get your TvA to be functional, you need to release it. Its just the way it works.
We can carry and store trauma in our belly. See it as an opportunity to learn more about yourself. Notice the situations when you suck your belly in more. Notice how you feel. And release it. If people make stupid comments, just tell them 'I have diastasis recti and I am working on fixing it by not sucking my belly in all the time.'
We are all belly suckers to some degree. I suck in my belly sometimes. Still. The week at the Restorative Exericse Institute where I got certified was quite revealing. I've never before seen yoga and pilates teachers and personal trainers with bellies. Yet there they were. They had bellies. Because they didn't suck them in. We need more women who are brave enough to not suck in their bellies all the time.
It's a fact that the belly becomes flatter as the TvA becomes more functional. But it's also a fact that women have bellies. Especially women who had babies. Some more, some less. Let's just accept it.
The flat and ripped abdomen is not part of a healthy body. Word. And I'll be the first one to admit that I admire flat bellies. But I admire women who allow their bellies to be out even more.