Thinking you should avoid any sort of core work during pregnancy because of that bump? Actually the opposite is true. Proper core training during pregnancy can be the key to less pain and injuries during pregnancy, an easier labor, and faster recovery! There is a right and wrong way to train your core, though. Follow these tips to help you strengthen your core in the most effective way during pregnancy. Of course, as with any activity during pregnancy, always check with your doctor first!
What to Focus On
The key to proper core training during pregnancy is to focus on your innermost core muscles – with the #1 most important muscle being your transverse abdominis (AKA your body’s “inner girdle”). This muscle wraps around your entire mid-section -- literally like a girdle -- and is responsible for supporting your back (which means less low back pain!) and stabilizing your entire body (which means less chance for pregnancy-induced pains and injuries).
It’s also the muscle you’ll use to push your baby out (which could mean an easier labor with less chance of needing a C-section). Beyond all this, the stronger your transverse abdominis (TVA) muscle is, the less likely you are to develop Diastasis Recti (a separation of the rectus abdominis muscle that can often occur during pregnancy).
The other important core muscles to strengthen are the often forgotten muscles of your pelvic floor (AKA, the “floor of your core”). These muscles form a sling at the bottom of your core and are responsible for not only controlling when you pee, but also for holding up all your pelvic organs -- including your uterus, which will expand to about 500 times its original size! Obviously your pelvic floor muscles get a great deal of pressure placed on them over 9 months, which can weaken them -- leading to things like incontinence (that accidental peeing during coughing, laughing, or sneezing), or not-fun pregnancy pains like sacroiliac joint pain, sciatica, or pubic symphysis dysfunction. Strong pelvic floor muscles help to stabilize your hips and back, prevent pains and injuries, and of course, prevent that annoying accidental peeing.
What to Avoid
During your first 3-4 months of pregnancy, you can typically maintain any traditional abdominal work you had been doing prior to pregnancy, as long as it feels ok. However, once you begin to develop an obvious belly (usually around the 5th month), you should avoid the following 4 things:
- Crunching or twisting movements: These movements place excessive pressure on your outer abdominal wall and could increase your chance of getting Diastasis Recti. This means not only avoiding those sit-ups and crunches, but also avoiding crunching or twisting movements in your everyday life! So, try to remember to sit up straight (slouching is crunching!), role to your side first when transitioning from sitting up to lying down (and vice versa), and strive to keep your back flat when you bend over.
- Lying flat on your belly: Ok this is a pretty obvious one. You probably don’t need to be told this, as it would be pretty uncomfortable anyway!
- Lying still and flat on your back: Your doctor has probably told you this one. You can always use a wedge or stability ball to place you at more of an angle.
- Full planks (once belly is larger): Planks can be a great core exercise IF you have the strength to keep your core properly engaged (belly button drawing into the spine) the entire time you hold them. If you perform planks without proper core engagement, they do more damage than good -- putting a lot of strain on your back. If you have good core strength, you may be able to perform full planks for a while into your pregnancy. However, once your belly is large, it becomes extremely hard to engage your core in a full plank (not to mention your belly gets in the way!). To modify, try placing your knees on the ground, or pull back to the All 4s hands and knees position. HINT: When doing any abdominal work, be on the lookout for a vertical “torpedo-like” protrusion (almost like a mountain) down the center of your abdomen. If you see this, this is a sign of Diastasis Recti, so you’ll need to pull back from whatever movement that causes you to see this (and instead focus on exercises #1 and #2 below!).
Here’s one exercise to try now: Belly Breathing & TVA Holds.
Before you begin any core work, it’s important to first master the technique of how to engage your TVA muscle (because any core exercise performed without engaging your TVA is ineffective at best, or potentially even damaging). To practice the technique of engaging your TVA, try this move (or actually combination of 2 moves).
How to do it:
- Sit up tall in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, shoulders rolled down and back.
- Take a deep inhale through your nose, allowing your belly and your rib cage to expand with air (not your chest!). Then, exhale through pursed lips as you draw your belly button back in toward your spine as far as you can – staying lifted and tall.
- Repeat this “Belly Breathing” technique a few times through slowly (taking 2-3 seconds to inhale and 3-4 seconds to exhale).
- After about 5-7 slow breaths, take another inhale, but this time on the exhale, hold your belly button into your spine for 15 - 30 seconds. Continue to breathe lightly through your nose as you keep your belly button engaged and pulled into your spine.
- Work to where you can hold this position up to 30 seconds. This is a “TVA Hold.” As these holds get easier, you can progress to doing them standing, and even while walking.
For more details on this technique as well as a progression of 6 other highly beneficial prenatal and postpartum core exercises, try these moves for a stronger core.
Written by Brittany Citron, a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor, and a pre/postnatal exercise specialist. She is also the founder of PROnatal Fitness, which offers prenatal and postpartum group fitness classes, personal training, and Diastasis Recti rehabilitation -- all developed with input from experts in the fitness, medical, and healthcare fields. Brittany lives in Manhattan with her husband and 3-year old son, and a little girl on the way!