Some women will find that they manage to lose some or all their extra baby weight relatively easily (yay!), or may have worked very hard to lose it (well done!), and yet they still have a tummy bulge that just won’t shift. They might then turn to typical abdominal strengthening exercises such as planks and crunches and actually find this bulge worsens.
So, what’s going on? The problem here is usually abdominal separation, known as diastasis recti (DR). One of the Maternity Network’s Pilates teachers (Natasha Sahota) has posted previously about DR (http://www.simple-changes.co.uk/diastasisrecti), so I won’t go into the details of it again, but instead I’ll discuss a few things you can do daily with how you breathe, sit and stand to reduce unnecessary stress to your abdominal wall and therefore your pelvic floor too. Your abdominal wall needs to be functioning well for your pelvic floor to be happy and vice versa, so it’s well worth turning these points into new, better habits.
First up – notice how you’re breathing and how you take a deeper breath, which part of your body moves to allow that extra air in?
For some the shoulders raise up, this isn’t ideal as it uses your neck and shoulder muscles excessively and leads them to tighten and fatigue and puts extra stress on the discs in your neck. Relax those shoulders, let them drop down, away from your ears!
For others, their tummy will noticeably expand with each in breath. This can be ok for a deep relaxation breathing technique when lying down, but it is not the ideal for every day, up and about breathing, as when your abdomen expands, your abdominal musculature is relaxing and switching off, leaving your lower back structures unprotected.
Right, so how should we breathe? The ideal way to increase the space available for your breath is to allow your ribs to open out laterally, to the sides. If you’re not sure how, to first get a sense of the movement, place your hands on the sides of your lower ribs (you could do this standing, sitting or lying on your back). When you breathe in, let your lower ribs push your hands apart. Even better, try using your hands to resist that outward movement of your ribs and you’ll get more feedback of how that feels at your ribs. Once you’ve got an idea of the sensation, take your hands away and let your arms relax (otherwise we’re going back to over using your neck and shoulder muscles!) and continue breathing in to the sides of your rib cage. That is the best way for your body to move for general, minute-to-minute breathing, sighs and deeper relaxed breaths.
Secondly – we all know that slumping isn’t great for our backs. But people mostly tend to think about the effect it has on their neck (forward head position, neck scrunched up), shoulders (rounded), upper back (achey) and lower back (feels weak, achey or spasms). But have you thought about what happens to your pelvic floor when you slump? Your tailbone becomes tucked forwards underneath you so your pelvic floor muscles effectively shorten in length and so become tight and dysfunctional. It’s often assumed pelvic floor problems occur when the muscles are slack, but any muscle can be slack and weak or tight and weak. So, sit on your sitting bones (the clue’s in the name!) not on your coccyx (tail bone) for a happier and healthier pelvic floor.
Finally, who’s been told growing up to ‘tuck your bottom in’ and ‘hold your tummy flat’ when you’re standing? It probably came from a well-meaning female family member, but it is no good for you! Tucking your bottom in over uses your hip flexor muscles and when these are too tight, it compresses your lumbar spine. It also switches off your gluteal muscles, leading to a saggy looking bottom (and a whole host of functional problems for your back and pelvis). Holding your tummy in probably won’t have led to a lovely set of abs, but more likely means you’ve not been using your ribs and diaphragm properly for breathing, which takes you back to my first point!
While this will mostly be read by pregnant and post-partum women, the breathing and postural advice is entirely relevant to any men (though they’re a bit less prone to the ‘tucking bottom in’ issues) with hernias, low back pain or pelvic floor problems too, so do your menfolk a favour and share the wisdom!