Can’t lose the mummy tummy? You could have a diastasis recti.

In my last post I wrote about easing back into a realistic doable fitness routine post pregnancy. One of the things that I had mentioned was that it is important to exercise safely. Pregnancy is a time of many physical changes, while it is important to remain physically active during and after pregnancy it is also important to understand these changes and modify or alter your fitness routine accordingly.

During pregnancy your posture tends to change. The increasing weight around your mid-section tends to pull your lower back into a hyper extension that can cause lower back pain both during and after pregnancy. This pain can get worse post pregnancy when your hormones are still in flux and ligaments are still in a relaxed state and now you have the additional task of caring for your baby. Constant bending, lifting during bath times, diaper changes carrying the baby on your hips all contribute to the stress on your lower back.

Pilates helps by strengthening muscles that support not just your back but also your pelvis restoring a more neutral alignment of the spine and thereby alleviating back pain.

One of the most common mistakes new mothers make in a bid to lose the “mummy tummy” is to do endless crunches or sit ups.  Not only can traditional sit ups hurt your already weak lower back but it can actually make your tummy pooch out even further.

This is due to a condition called diastasis recti.Print

Your abdominal muscles are layered with the transversus abdominis being the deepest or inner most followed by the external and internal oblique muscles and the rectus abdominis or the 6 pack forming the outermost layer.

During pregnancy the increasing load around your tummy puts pressure on your abdominal muscles from the inside (intra-abdominal pressure) and this causes the thin connective tissue running vertically down the center of your torso from the sternum to your pubic bone to stretch out and the rectus abdominis muscles to separate this leaves the contents of the abdomen unsupported with very little to hold them in. This is what causes the permanently 5 months pregnant pooch that some women face many months and years after the baby.

(It is important to note here that a diastasis is possible even among men and infants. For men the reason is typically very weak core muscles made worse by heavy lifting and doing traditional sit ups or after surgery.)

The diastasis post pregnancy normally tends to shrink on its own but doesn’t in many cases.

In the next post I will be talking about how you diagnose if you have this condition and what you can do to heal it.

How does Pilates help with back pain

Many people who have back pain and practice Pilates benefit greatly from it. So what makes Pilates so effective in alleviating back pain?

Pilates exercises target basic structural imbalances in the body that are generally the reason for back pain. Lack of core engagement, pelvic instability, muscular imbalances, poor posture, and lack of body awareness all effect the back; this is exactly what Pilates helps improve.

Core muscles and how they help support the spine

Deep Core muscles of the trunk
The muscles that support the trunk (abdominals, back, hips and pelvis) are called core muscles. Lack of core muscle strength can be equated with a tree that has a hollow trunk and is trying to support heavy branches! Together the core muscles provide support and stability for the spine. As part of developing core strength Pilates teaches how and when to activate and release muscles.

Pilates focuses on deep muscles like the Pelvic floor muscles (think kegels), transversus abdominus (a built in corset!), deep muscles in the shoulder, and psoas (used when you bend at the hip); while these are not muscles of the back they are important because the prevent undue pressure on the spinal column especially in movement.

Improving posture is essential to a pain free back (other than the fact that you will look taller and slimmer!). Posture is how your body parts are aligned with each other. The ideal points to check for alignment are ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and ears. While standing in one place and keeping good alignment is not not too difficult, the challenge is to maintain good posture as you move around through the day at work or at home. This is what Pilates exercises teach you…maintaining alignment and stability as you move or ‘dynamic stability’ (I just love that phrase!!) .

A man in front of his PC with his cervical spine hyperextended

A man in front of his PC with his cervical spine hyperextended

A simple example is when people do ab crunches I have often heard of complaints that the neck hurts more than the abs! This is because typically the position of the cervical spine (the back of the neck) is not correct and as you lift the shoulders to curl up its the neck that’s doing all the work rather than the abs. Pilates will teach you how to align your neck in this movement so that the abs are targeted instead of the neck.

Pilates increases flexibility. A healthy spine should be able to bend forward, backwards, bend from side to side and twist. The deep supporting muscles once strengthened protect and work along with the spine to allow us not only to increase the range of motion but appreciate the subtle movements that the spine is capable of.

Pilates increases body awareness. What I find the most exciting is that from the first session onwards people walk out with better body awareness. Pilates teaches us to look at our body differently and pay more attention to how we carry ourselves through life. Something as simple as pulling the ears away from the shoulder can diffuse tremendous tension that builds up around the neck and shoulder causing aches pains in the back of the neck and head.

Finally to quote Joseph Pilates “The art of *contrology proves that the only real guide to your true age lies not in years or how you THINK you feel but as you ACTUALLY are as infallibly indicated by the degree of natural and normal flexibility enjoyed by your spine throughout life.”

*Pilates was originally called Contrology.

The man was truly ahead of his time…

What is Pilates and how does it help?

Pilates pronounced (pi-lah-teez) is an exercise system that is focused on building strength without bulk, improving flexibility and agility, and helping to prevent injury. It was developed in the 1920s by Joseph H. Pilates, who was a physical trainer and founder of The New York Pilates Studio®. It involves a series of controlled movements that engage both your body and mind.

Pilates utilizes specifically designed exercise apparatus and is supervised by highly trained teachers. It was initially created for rehabilitation, but was later adopted by dancers and athletes and is now utilized by millions. A beginner class generally consists of very gentle exercises done on a mat in either a sitting or lying down position. The primary focus is on awareness of the spine, proper breathing, core strength and flexibility.

The outcome of Pilates training is a balanced body which is strong and supple, flat stomach, balanced legs, and a strong back.

Pilatesmatwork shot

“STOTT PILATES® photography © Merrithew Corporation”


What is Core strength?
Core strength is the ability of the muscles around the trunk of your body; the deep abdominal muscles (no not the famed six/eight pack!) we’re talking deeper (transversus abdominis), the pelvic floor muscles, the muscles around the hips and the muscles around the back that work together to support and stabilize the spine in any movement or when we lift any load.

Why a strong back? the flat stomach requires no explanation, “what am I going to do with balanced legs and a strong back?” you ask
“You are as old as your spine is flexible” said Joseph Pilates, so true!
The most common complaint among the urban population is that the back is stiff. Its stiff from sitting in front of a computer all day, or carrying a baby around all day for new mothers or just plain couching out in front of the T.V.

In Pilates the focus is on mobilizing the spine and strengthening the supporting back muscles so as to be able to move it forwards, backwards and to the sides without any undue strain.

Pilates gets people to become more aware of their body posture and movement habits that over the years have created stress and teaches them ways to maintain a neutral body alignment.

Weight Loss and Pilates
I always get asked this question at least by one person in a crowd! “so this is all just swell but…can i lose weight just doing this stuff?”

In the long run Pilates will beautifully complement your weight loss activities.
When one aims to lose a significant amount of weight one of the first things to do would be to enroll in any aerobic or cardio activity. As you begin to shed those pound Pilates can help to create lean muscle mass that increases your calorie burning potential. As you already know it improves your posture making you look and feel thinner. it also sculpts and tones the body for than leaner fitter look.

Great I’m going out and buying me one of those home Pilates DVDs!
Hey its a free country go right ahead! Its certainly has some positives- you save money and you can do it on your own time. However the down side are worth considering- at best you could execute the exercises incorrectly and feel none of the great benefits promised, at worst, you could injure yourself.
Pilates is a precise form of exercise and in order to experience its benefits it is important to have a qualified and experienced instructor to watch over you.

It may take a while for you to experience the full benefits of Pilates. Just as it has taken most of us years to pile on the weight or create postural imbalances that contribute to a stiff back, learning to use deeper core muscles that support the body efficiently takes time and commitment.