The real reason you have a post-pregnancy belly bulge

You were probably elated when your belly started to grow during pregnancy, but now that you’ve given birth, it’s not so endearing.

Even if you eat healthy and exercise regularly, that belly pooch can stick around. Chances are it’s due to diastasis recti, a common condition that can actually start before pregnancy but can linger on for months, even years, if it’s not corrected.

Find out what causes diastasis recti, the easy fix and why you should avoid crunches at all costs.

What is diastasis recti?
Stop comparing yourself to celebrities who are walking the red carpet weeks after giving birth. Maybe they’re wearing layers of Spanx, but the reality is that there’s no magic way to have a flat stomach right after giving birth. Six to eight weeks postpartum, your uterus is still shrinking back to its normal size so give yourself and your body a break.

After the first few months however, that belly pooch can stick around in spite of your best efforts. It’s known as diastasis recti, a separation of the rectus abdominis or “6-pack” muscles that run along the midline or center of the stomach. The connective tissue gets thin and weak and stretches sideways, which causes the waistline to widen and the belly to bulge forward.

“As those muscles migrate, it dramatically decreases the integrity of your core— especially in the front,” said Leah Keller, a pre- and post-natal fitness expert and founder of the Dia Method.

Diastasis recti is quite common. According to a study in the Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy, 68 percent of women had diastasis recti above the naval, while 32 percent had it below.

The rectus abdominis muscles also stretch vertically to create space for your baby, which can cause the muscles to be weakened.

“It takes a long time for that connective tissue to come back to its original tone,” Keller said.

Not just weak core muscles.
Because of the way the muscles connect, diastasis recti affects the lower back and pelvis, too. So you might have pain in your hips and back and a weak pelvic floor, which could lead to urinary continence.

What’s more, because women with diastasis recti don’t have a strong abdominal wall holding their organs in place, many suffer from digestive problems, said Jill Hoefs, a certified physical therapist who specializes in treating the condition.

Since the abdominal muscles are so weak, your posture can be affected because of the tendency to lean back.

“They rely on the ligaments around their vertebrae to support them, but in doing so they stick their bellies out. It’s something that will never help a diastasis,” said Hoefs, also the co-author of “Your Best Pregnancy: The Ultimate Guide to Easing the Aches, Pains, and Uncomfortable Side Effects During Each Stage of Your Pregnancy.”

It can start before pregnancy.
During pregnancy, the hormones relaxin and progesterone are in full force so they can soften the connective tissue to open the pelvis up for childbirth. Yet because the way relaxin is distributed is unique for each woman, there’s no telling who will get it and how severe it will be. Most women will get a diastasis by the 3rd trimester of pregnancy if they haven’t done the right exercises to prevent it.

What’s more, diastasis recti can start before pregnancy and become worse when you’re pregnant if you do exercises that cause bulging and pressure on the midline, like crunches.

“If you’re doing crunches a lot over an extended period of time you might have a low level separation already,” Keller said.

The right technique is key.
Often times, diastasis recti goes undiagnosed or physicians will jump to make a referral to a plastic surgeon without exploring other options, Hoefs said.

For some women who also have a hernia or have lingering pain, surgery is appropriate, but for most, diastasis recti can be corrected with simple exercises.

The most effective way to correct a diastasis is to use core compression exercises that draw the belly into the spine. In fact, according to a study in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, women who did isometric contractions of the transverse abdominis, resistance training, and cardiovascular exercise during pregnancy and after delivery significantly reduced their diastasis.

Be sure to avoid abdominal crunches andmany Pilates exercises— even the plank—because they won’t do anything for a diastasis and could even make it worse.

Re-learning how to use your muscles correctly and engage the transverse abdominal muscles is also important for day-to-day activities like picking up your baby, Hoefs said.

The good news is that diastasis recti can be corrected in as little as five minutes a day to start and work whether you gave birth three months or three years ago.  Find a DVD or online program or get help from a practitioner who specializes in diastasis recti, and you’ll be back in your bikini in no time.