With her growing baby bump, Michelle Bridges has become an inspiration to expectant mothers who want to stay fit during their pregnancies. But after a recent photoshoot, experts are urging them not to do exactly as she does when exercising.
Liz Evans, a physiotherapist, posted a warning on her Facebook page after noticing a photograph of Bridges doing 'crunches' over an exercise ball. "Like many women who have the best of intentions to stay fit in pregnancy Michelle has fallen prey into the common trap of doing 'crunches' to keep strong abdominals," she wrote.
"Sadly, doing this in pregnancy puts undue stress on the 'linea alba' which is the connective tissue between the two sides of the abdominal wall. Overloading the linea alba in pregnancy can result in Rectus Abdominus Diastasis - a condition affecting 66% of women in their third trimester," said Evans.
Evans notes that in the photo, which appeared in New Idea magazine, a triangular shaped dome is visible above Bridges' belly button. "This is a clear sign that the linea alba is most definitely being overloaded, and doing this repeatedly can result in permanent tearing of this very important fascia," she warns.
While Evans notes that Bridges is an "incredible advocate" for women's health and fitness, she cautions pregnant women not to follow her example when it comes to crunches.
Sue Croft, physiotherapist and spokesperson for the Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA), says that it's normal to have some abdominal separation during pregnancy because of the relaxants and pregnancy hormones that are circulating round the body. However, when women continue to do abdominal exercises such as crunches, they run the risk of further stretching the abdominal muscles - which can lead to seperation.
According to Croft, rectus abdominus diastasis (RAD) happens in a significant number of pregnancies. Women are more susceptible to developing the condition if they are pregnant over the age of 35, are having twins or higher order multiples, or if they've had several children already.
Croft notes that it can happen in varying degrees, but in the worst cases she has seen the muscles have been separated by 5-10cm. "[This can cause] problems such as back pain and pelvic pain in the postnatal period," she explains.
Croft's advice to pregnant women and women who have recently given birth is to look for pelvic floor safe exercise and to consider a post-pregnancy corset or recovery shorts for extra support when exercising.
Jen Dugard, health and fitness specialist and author of the book How to Love Your Body as Much as Your Baby, says that in general there is a lot of exercise that women can do when they are pregnant.
"I meet many women that just stop because they're not sure what to do, but with a few general guidelines (unless they have a medical condition and have been advised not to exercise) they can safely keep moving throughout their pregnancy.
"And, done right, prevent a lot of postnatal conditions through good preparation for motherhood."
When it comes to abdominal exercises, Dugard says that it is a good idea 'down-train' the external abdominal muscles, the rectus abdominus and obliques, and 'up-train' the inner most layer, the transversus abdominus.
"We also want them to become aware of their pelvic floor – how to activate or contract along with how to relax. And knowing what exercises can put it under excess load is very useful," she says.
Dugard suggests that pregnant women who are working with personal trainers or attending classes in gyms be cautious about taking advice. "If someone is giving you advice then it's a good idea to ask them a few questions to work out how much they know. Both in pregnancy and postnatally it's important to know if a woman has separation or not. An experienced trainer would be able to check this," she says.
Dugard offers the following tips for avoiding RAD
1. Stop doing any strong abdominal exercises, including crunching and twisting motions.
2. Stop doing any exercise that creates a 'dome' or 'peaking' of your abdominals - this means that your rectus is being forced apart.
3. Work with a women's health physio to learn how to properly activate your transversus abdominus.
4. Learn to relax your tummy; many of us spend our 20s and 30s sucking our tummies in to make us look slimmer. This often results in a gripping of the obliques – and when this happens it's much harder to relax your abdominals, and as your baby grows this can force apart your rectus. You need to learn to let your belly hang out a little.