The other day I was having lunch with a friend who is in her third trimester of pregnancy. The moment we sat down she leaned in as if she were going to tell me a secret. “During my pregnancy, I haven’t gotten a very good answer as to what kind of core work I can do…” and she continued further, “Should I even be doing core work?”
I first explained how she should speak to her doctor before beginning any new exercise. And then I dove into why gentle core work is essential during pregnancy.
When many people think of the “core”, they think the front of the abdomen and exercises like sit-ups or crunches. But the core is actually a group of muscles that wrap all the way around, above, and below the abdomen like a coffee can shape — a cylinder wrapping around with a top and a bottom. The core muscles that create this “cylinder” include all four layers of abdominals: the transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques, the rectus abdominis, as well as the back muscles: the multifidus and spinal erectors. The top of the core is the diaphragm, and the bottom is the pelvic floor muscles.
The job of the core is to control power transfer between the lower and the upper body. A strong, stable core will be able to hold the spine and the rib cage in an optimal position for power transfer. Daily activities such as standing up from a chair or picking up your baby, require this strength.
So what is the optimal position for power transfer? It’s the “S” shape curve of the spine known as neutral position.
During pregnancy the alignment of the spine significantly changes. As the center of gravity shifts forward in response to the growing abdomen, the “S” shape of the spine can become exaggerated. Decreased core control, poor core strength, and poor posture can all increase the stress to the low back and hips when the body changes so dramatically. The more stress to an area, the more opportunity and risk for injury or pain. The aim of gentle core work like you find in prenatal Pilates is to minimize muscular imbalances caused by this shift, and then support and stabilize the spine in a more neutral position. That work can help women carry a pregnancy more comfortably as well as minimize potential postpartum issues.
So how do you select appropriate prenatal core exercises?
Gentle is key.
This will be slightly different for everyone. Consider what your core strength and overall fitness level was prior to becoming pregnant. Pregnancy is not the time to try to start a new fitness craze or experiment with the latest fad in exercise.
A stability ball can be an amazing and affordable tool for daily gentle core work.
Just sitting on the ball requires some core engagement. From there, one can add weighted arm lifts or seated marching to increase the challenge to the core while on a ball.
Exercises laying on the back should be avoided in prenatal core work.
The American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology has pregnancy exercise guidelines which specify that after the first trimester exercises shouldn’t be performed laying on the back due to possible obstruction of venous return. Supine positions would also put the abdominals at a 90-degree angle with the line of gravity which would be a more extreme relationship with gravity and may overly stress on the abdominal muscles. Supine abdominal work not only places more stress on the mother and the baby, but is also a more challenging position for a core workout. This higher level of strengthening is typically not recommended during the third trimester.
The supine-incline position on a stability ball is one way to avoid laying on the back for exercise. The side-lying leg series also offers a nice core exercise as well as much needed hip strengthening. Strength through the hips helps to support the pelvis and low back which can also reduce pain and optimize posture during pregnancy.
Gentle balance exercises require core strength for stability and proper alignment.
Examples include balance training sitting on a stability ball, or Pilates Swimming prep on all-fours where the base of support is reduced by moving from a four-point support to a two-point support.
Attention to spinal alignment is critical.
It may be best to watch yourself in a mirror, or join a class where an experienced instructor can monitor alignment and give feedback.
Don’t fight the natural course of pregnancy.
During pregnancy, Mother Nature releases hormones that aid in stretching and increasing the laxity of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the pelvis and abdomen. These changes prepare the body for labor. This “opening” gives the baby room to grow, turn, and ultimately flip head down for delivery.
Gentle core work is an essential component of postural healthy during pregnancy. Pregnancy certainly is not a time to neglect your posture, nor is it a time to begin intense new workout regimes. Pregnancy can be a time to focus on balance both posturally and beyond.