Men, Diastasis Recti and Beer Bellies
I've been getting more questions lately about (and from) men with beer bellies who have noticed that when they do crunch-like exercises, the tummy tents up, making a sort of triangle. They've seen my posts about diastasis recti at some point and wondering if it's at all related. I got this question the other day and decided to turn it into a blog post.
Q: Jen, my dad has started doing some work to strengthen his core. He's not done much exercise for a long time and he's experiencing this kind of bulging whenever he does crunches or leg raises. I'm presuming this is just as normal in men?
A: Hey Richard, actually you're right. This is a really good question and something that I am being asked more and more. Does your dad have a "beer belly"? (excuse the un-PC term). What happens in men's bellies is actually very similar to what happens to pregnant women. Most men store most of their fat on the trunk, and often on the belly. This fat is mostly visceral, which means that it lies UNDER the muscles of the abdomen (and not on top of them). This stretches the muscles AND MOST IMPORTANTLY connective tissue OVER the shape of the belly. This is very similar to what happens in pregnancy when the growing foetus is under said abdominal muscles. In both cases, the muscles of the core are not lined up nicely from ribcage to pelvis, they don't work in straight lines, rather they have to make their way around the fat/foetus. When this connective tissue (namely the linea alba) is stretched out like this, it is weakened and thin. It doesn't contain intra-abdominal pressure correctly and loses its tensile strength in certain movements, especially when the muscles of the core are contracting strongly. This condition is called diastasis recti (DR). It's not often talked about among men, but it is absolutely critical to address the issue, and the same guidelines should apply as for postpartum women with the condition. The most important thing for you dad right now is to stop ANY movement that causes this bulging. Crunches, sit-ups and leg raises are the main culprits, along with planks and push-ups (what are collectively called "front loaded" exercises) as the same will be happening in these positions (although he probably won't have noticed because it's not directly in the line of vision) The second most important thing would be to lose the belly. Sounds harsh, but it's really non-negotiable. A pregnant woman gives birth and loses the thing that was causing the stretching and can work on getting everything back aligned correctly. For her, the muscles are displaced only temporarily. An overweight man does not have this luxury. As long as he has a belly, the muscles will continue to be stretched and displaced and it will be extremely difficult to rectify the issue. By the way, if he is experiencing back pain (which I presume is the reason he is trying to strengthen his core), this is very likely due to the DR. It is very unlikely that doing crunches etc will do anything to rectify the issue. Especially when this "tenting" is taking place. Thirdly, he should probably focus more on strengthening his back - deadlifts and squats are the best ways to do this. Starting light, focusing on form and gradually increasing the load according to his ability and strength gains. (I made a Squat Series and Deadlift Series on YouTube that you can refer to: ) There is unfortunately a (misguided) focus on "core" (read: abdominal muscles) in the fitness industry. Often strengthening the anterior wall of the core is pretty useless and more focus on the posterior wall of the core (and entire back) would bring far more results.
Fourthly, I've posted a whole series of no-crunch core exercises for postpartum women. If he is hell-bent on doing ab work, he should probably focus on these, ensuring that there is NO bulging EVER, in any exercise. (he may need to roll to his side to get in and out of bed in order to not make it worse too). BUT... I must insist that these exercises will probably have limited effect (although they probably won't make it worse) until he loses the belly (if he has one!). I'm just thinking out loud here that my clients who are pregnant with DR, there is little we can do to improve it until the baby is out. We can only focus on not making it worse by regulating intra-abdominal pressure with the breath and choosing the right exercises.
And that's my fifth and final point. He should ensure that he has proper breathing mechanics, as most people have pretty shocking habits that have built up over the years, usually a lot of chest-breathing. Correct breathing regulates intra-abdominal pressure, which plays an important role in correcting conditions like this. Thanks so much for the question!