“If my belly is going to grow and my stomach is going to be all stretched out in pregnancy, is it really helpful to work the core? If it is going to stretch anyways, why not just work on the ab muscle strength after baby is born?”
This is a common thought process I run into with my prenatal clients. I admit, I had similar thoughts before I became a pre/postnatal fitness trainer. The answer is: yes it is VERY important and helpful to exercise the core during pregnancy. Doing so will not only encourage a quicker, better recovery after baby is born, it will help prevent certain injuries and lessen aches and pains during pregnancy.
However, not “any old ab routine” will work and some exercises will do more harm than good. Knowing which core exercises to practice and (even more important) how to perform them will ensure success in strengthening/protecting the core and the rest of the body!
Something to note about the “core”…your core is not just your noticeable/visible ab muscles (usually referring to the Rectus Abdominis and Obliques). It is also made up of your inner/lower ab muscles (the Transverse Abdominus/TAs), the pelvic floor muscles, the paraspinals, and the diaphragm. The glutes and the hip muscles also play a very integral role in the core’s function. Below is a diagram of the parts of the core. Strengthening the core includes exercises that work all of these muscles and will add stability to the hips and protection to the spine.
Before we start the exercises, I want to go over which ab muscles to engage and how to use them for the exercises. Your TAs (Transverse abdominals) sit behind your “six pack abs”. They also run down in front of the pelvis and attach to the pelvic floor muscles. I often refer to them as the “lower abs” when cuing clients to engage them because you can actually feel them engage in the pelvic area. To find them, place your hands on your hip bones, next run your fingers down in a “V” shape to sit just inside the front of the hip bones in the front of the pelvis. Press hard (especially if you carry extra fat there) to the muscle underneath. Now make a “ha” sound with your mouth or pretend you are blowing on a hot spoon. You should feel this muscle engage/tighten. It may not be a huge movement but those are the muscles we are engaging. That “drawing in” that happens naturally to the TAs when you blow out with the mouth open is the type of engagement we are looking for. It is not an overbearing force but a simple tightening.
Below are some of my favorite exercises to work the core during pregnancy. **Note that this is not an exercise prescription for every person. You should always discuss with your OB or health care provider before beginning an exercise routine.**
Pelvic tilts (on floor, on ball, against wall): **Don’t perform pelvic tilts on the floor after week 20.**While in position (lying on the floor with knees bent, sitting on a stability ball, or standing with back against a wall, inhale as you curve the low back and tilt the pelvis forward (think pubic bone moves down). Exhale as you tilt the pelvis back (flattening it against the wall or ground) and drawing the lower abs in and the pelvic floor up. Repeat 10-15 times.
Shallow wall sit with TA breathing: With back against a wall, get into a shallow wall sit where angle in knee bend is about 270 degrees. Inhale and relax the stomach muscles and pelvic floor, fill the rib cage with air as much as you can. As you exhale, draw the lower abs in and the pelvic floor up, and bringing the ribs together in the front. Repeat 10-15 times.
Stability ball core marches: Sitting on a stability ball, engage the lower abs, exhale and lift one knee slightly. Inhale and lower the leg. Repeat as you alternate sides. Try to not tilt hips too much and keep lower abs engaged the whole time. Repeat 10x per leg
Bridge/ball bridge: With upper back supported by stability ball and feet on ground hip width apart, exhale as you lift hips up to be inline with rest of body. Squeeze glutes at the top of this motion and bring the lower abs in. Inhale as you relax everything, letting the the hips drop back to starting. Repeat 10-15x
Pal-off press: With a resistance band attached to a base at chest/stomach height, move away from base holding the band in both hands and standing sideways to the base. When you are far away enough that you feel tension on the band, so you have to work to not rotate toward base, engage core and exhale as you move arms out in front of your body. Inhale as you bring band back towards body. You will probably feel this in the side closest to the base most. Repeat 10-20x per side
Wall plank: Place hands on a wall and step out until you are in a plank position. Tilt pelvis back (pubic bone moves toward navel) to straighten back and engage core. Hold, while breathing, for 15-60 seconds. If you see any coning in your stomach or this position feels like it is “pulling down” on the stomach too much then don’t do this exercise.
Modified/elevated side plank: Using a table, couch, bed or other sturdy surface, place a hand or forearm on the elevated base. With body sideways, get into a side plank position. Lift hips up so they don’t dip to the floor and draw lower abs in. You should be able to feel your side ab muscle (oblique) that is closest to the floor is tight and engaged. Hold this while breathing for 15-60 seconds. If this feels like too much pulling on the stomach muscles or you notice a coning shape in the stomach then discontinue this exercise.
Enjoy these tips and exercises to protect your ab muscles and keep them strong in pregnancy! Remember to always check with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. These exercises will help prevent injuries and keep you strong for your pregnancy and for postpartum rehab! Check out my online workout programs on the site under “services” and “shop” tabs. Stay strong mamas:)