Crunches are often thought of as the most simple, easy-peasy, go-to exercise for your belly muscles. Turns out, crunching requires a fair amount of technique, especially when a diastasis recti gap is present. Done poorly and in high reps, they typically bulge the very area you may be trying to flatten.
I’d like to offer five accessible exercises that can help diminish some of that extra roundness that makes you look pregnant when you’re not. Not that we’re opposed to curves around here! I’ve got a few natural ones myself because my body will always be postpartum, and I welcome the changes that don’t indicate dysfunction.
I’m happy with my stretch-marks and wider hips, but a dysfunctional pelvic floor and core with diastasis recti? No thanks! Those are aspects of womanhood that I’d like all of you to know you can ditch!
Wait—Why No Crunches?
Because, if you’re dealing with untreated diastasis recti, hernia, prolapse, or any other core issue that hasn’t been addressed or resolved, you need rehab, not crunches. Without the foundational + functional strength required, crunches can make your injuries and dysfunction worse, causing you to take two steps back and zero steps forward.
The video below will demonstrate and discuss that more in-depth, but allow me to spell it out here, too:
- Crunches imitate slumped posture: When the head and shoulders lift off the ground, that’s the same position as when you slouch in a chair, only from a different angle. Most of the women I serve here on Fit2B are spending enough time hunched over their children while mothering, so I focus on elongation, alignment, and stabilization. It’s not that we can NEVER flex the spine, but doing a bunch of crunches won’t solve this issue.
- Crunches can bulge the belly: Do a lazy crunch. But just one. Does your belly go in or out? One of the most basic principles of fitness is that “form follows function.” Maybe your mother was like mine, and she told you that if you made a certain face long enough, it would stay that way? Same concept. Train how you want to look. If you want a flatter stomach, and doing a curl-up (another word for crunch) makes your belly poof outward, then it’s time to join Fit2B. Our videos will teach you strategies for properly recruiting your core + whole body!
- Crunches do not help diastasis recti: Having a thinning and separation of the fascia in the center of your abdominal wall is pretty common, especially after having children. When your “fupa” fascia isn’t transmitting load correctly – and when you don’t know how to engage your abs right, your belly may pooch out more when you’re cranking out crunches. This very recent 2023 study by Gluppe et al proved that “curl-ups” (aka: crunches) did not improve Diastasis Recti in postpartum women.
- Crunches focus on one portion of your abs: But your abs have FOUR layers, and I can think of MANY exercises that work all the layers at once! Do you have time to work every single muscle in your body individually? Ha! I don’t, and neither do most busy moms! Your abs have four distinct layers, and I’ll happily show you how to work them all along with the rest of your body here in our Fit2B home workout videos
- Crunches can compress your intervertebral discs: With 40% of people over age 40 having degenerative disc disease. Dr. Stuart McGill, in his book The Back Mechanic offers evidence from his 30+ years of research and clinical experience studying the impact of crunches and sit-ups on human and animal spines. We need to be doing exercises that decompress the spine, not compress it!
I know, I know . . . Many of you have been taught to default to doing crunches your whole life! They’re in just about every media picture of ab work in mainstream magazines and even fitness textbooks! Having built this website, I can vouch for how hard it is to find stock photography without them—and with clothes.
Without crunches. With clothes.
Is that too much to ask? Yes?
Fine, I’ll make my own!
Oh, wait . . . I already did! Haha!
So, about those 5 moves . . .
Okay, so crunches are out. Situps are definitely out. Planks are also tricksy when diatasis recti is present. So what’s a person to do? How can you un-muddle your middle without buying into some weird gimmick, pill, or lotion?
First and foremost, if you haven’t already, please look into physiotherapy (as they call it up north of me and overseas) or physical therapy with a specialist like this one, or read this to find one in your area.
After you’ve been booked in for that life-changing help, please consider joining us here at Fit2B for everything from beginner to challenging workouts that will help you connect to your deep core muscles without undoing the valuable work of your specialist. I coordinate carefully with several women’s health physiotherapists (WHPT) to be sure Fit2B stays between the lines and builds on what they do with my clients.
For the sake of everyone everywhere, this shortlist of five of my favorite core-activating exercises can be done just about anywhere, anytime. Really, I can think of hundreds beyond this list, which is why I’m always filming new total-body tummysafe workouts for this website you’re on right now, but I wanted this list to be as accessible as possible.
#1: Proper Breathing
Perhaps you’ve never thought of breathing as a type of exercise, but the way you breathe can get seriously messed up when you’re dealing with deep dysfunction. A huge part of my approach to fitness involves strategic breathing and alignment during all the workouts on Fit2B to allow for the best core recruitment. Physiological breathing requires a major amount of movement and work in your whole core. The terms I use on Fit2B are “core breath” or “belly breath” and a few others like them in the Fit2B Basic Breath Work video that I posted on my YouTube channel.
Really, not running? No, not if you have a distended diastasis belly bumping around, and definitely not if you’re experiencing any leaking.
Walking can actually burn more calories than jogging, and it works the entire core: glutes, pelvic floor, abs, hips, EVERYTHING! I’m such a fan of walking that I’ve created a whole mini eCourse called Walking As A Workout.
I could write a lot about how squats recruit your abs and pelvic floor, but I already did, so feel free to click here and read all the little things about squatting + watch yet another awesome video from us!
The Gate Pose has got to be my all time fave exercise position, and it gets a lot of use in my workout videos here at Fit2B Studio because it works your obliques without twisting them, which can be problematic for those in the early phases of healing their diastasis recti. Later, it’s fine—again, with proper technique, which I will teach you in our workouts here on Fit2B. It’s also such a great springboard move into other motions. For example, I love adding side-leg Pilates motions to it and playing with the angles of the arms and legs.
#5: Hula Hooping
Using a basic or lightly weighted hula hoop can be a fun workout, and this upright exercise forces kids of any age to draw their navel slightly inward to create a place for the hula hoop to rotate about their midsection. The gentle motion is awesome for your legs, hips, glutes, AND arms since it’s impossible to hula hoop with your arms relaxed. Skip the weighted hoop if your diastasis recti (DR) is still healing. Check out this cardio routine we filmed with Kelly Dean of the Tummy Team that uses a hula move.
More Core Alternatives
You might find yourself in a group fitness training situation where everyone is being led to do crunches, sit ups, or planks when you know your body isn’t ready. When the fascia of your abs isn’t ready to generate tension against the pressure of those moves yet, that’s where this video comes in handy.