It’s important to stay fit while you’re pregnant. But you need to make sure that how you exercise won’t cause diastasis recti—a common condition that can leave you with pelvic muscles that don’t work properly. You might also be at risk for this common condition because of other factors. The good news is that strengthening the right muscles can help you avert diastasis recti. Below are three exercises that help.

Diastasis recti is the abnormal separation of abdominal muscles. The outer muscle of the abdominal wall is the rectus abdominis, two columns of muscle that run vertically down the abdomen. Between these two columns is the linea alba—a long strip of connective tissue that is an extension of the fascia that covers the rectus abdominis. During pregnancy, pressure from the expanding uterus against the abdominal wall causes the linea alba to widen. Diastasis recti occurs when the space widens more than it should.

Pregnancy is the most common cause of diastasis recti, especially for successive pregnancies, pregnant women over age 35 and pregnancies with multiple births. Genetic tendency and/or excessive abdominal fat can also put you at greater risk…as can rapid changes in weight and intense weight-lifting. The condition can affect men as well as women. Diastasis recti prevents core and pelvic floor muscles from functioning properly and, besides giving you a loose, saggy belly, can cause back pain, constipation and urinary leakage.

Do You Have a Diastasis?

There is a simple way to check for a diastasis…

When you are not pregnant (or for men): Lie on your back on the floor, knees bent and feet flat on the ground, and place your index finger and middle finger about two inches above your navel. Curl your head, neck and shoulders off the ground while gently pressing down with your fingers to feel for the sides of your rectus abdominis muscles. If you feel a gap that is more than two fingertips wide, you probably have a diastasis. (A gap greater than four fingertips is typically considered severe.)

When you are pregnant: When lying on your back and flexing up, a diastasis may look like a visible bulge down your midline where the muscles should be together—often described as “coning.” (Your pregnant belly should look rounded…coning looks like a peak.)

Moves to Avoid…and Exercises That Help

While your abdominal wall is already under stress as a result of pregnancy, you don’t want to put any more pressure on it. So, avoid crunches, planks, push-ups and other spinal flexion exercises that is, curling up of the upper torso from a supine position).

What you want to do instead is strengthen your transverse abdominis, the deepest layer of your abdominals. Pilates exercises are one great way to safely work these weakened muscles. But not all Pilates exercises are OK to do during pregnancy, so look for an instructor who has experience with prenatal clients. If you already have a diastasis, perhaps from a previous pregnancy, it’s best to consult a qualified physical therapist who has postpartum therapy experience before doing any kind of exercises.

Moves That Safely Strengthen Abdominal Muscles…

Transverse abdominis engagement: Lie on your back with your knees flexed and feet flat on the floor, about six inches away from your sit bones (the part of the pelvis under your glutes). Place your hands on your navel. Inhale through your nose….then exhale through your mouth as you pull your navel toward your spine without tucking your pelvis underneath you. Do ten reps.

Heel drops: Besides strengthening the transverse abdominis, this exercise also works spinal-stabilizer muscles. Lie on your back with your arms at your sides and both legs in tabletop position (knees bent, legs together and lower legs in the air and parallel to the floor). Inhale and drop your right heel about halfway toward the ground. Exhale while lifting your foot back to starting position. Do the same with your left heel. Do ten reps for each leg, alternating sides. Make sure to keep your shoulders relaxed and your abdominals engaged and avoid arching your back.

Bridging with articulation: This exercise increases spinal mobility while working the abdominals. Lie on your back, knees bent and feet flat on the ground about six inches away from your sit bones. Inhale…then exhale while slowly lifting your hips towards the ceiling, peeling your vertebrae off the mat until you are supported on your upper back. Avoid putting stress or pressure on your head or neck. Hold the position as you inhale…then exhale while slowly rolling back down to starting position. Do five to 10 reps.