We believe core work should form the foundation of every prenatal exercise program. Unfortunately there is a lot of “core confusion” when it comes to what is regarded as safe abdominal work during pregnancy leading to misinformation and conflicting ideas.
So where does the confusion come from?
There is a lot of discussion in the fitness world regarding what the core is and therefore what core exercises are safe when you are pregnant.
For example - you may have been in a yoga class when the instructor has told you to no longer do any core work now that you are pregnant. Or perhaps you have been in a group fitness class where the trainer has passed you a prop that is supposed to make crunches safe for you to do.
In my opinion - both of these are not advised.
You absolutely must continue to strengthen the muscles of the deep core to support you during your pregnancy, assist in labor and help you in a speedy postnatal recovery. As for any form of crunches during pregnancy - please please please NO.
BodyLove Pilates wants to help demystify the core and answer the WHAT, WHY & HOW of core work so that you know which exercises are effective, which are not and those that are dangerous.
The facts are rooted in anatomy so let's start by examining which abdominal muscles you will need to focus on and those you should avoid.
The Core refers to the deep postural muscles which attach to and support the pelvis and lumbar spine (LOW BACK) – these are :
- The Transverse Abdominus (TVA) - This is the deepest abdominal muscle. It is a spanx or corset like muscle that wraps around the torso providing compression and support.
- Pelvic Floor muscles (PFM) – These are a system of muscles under the pelvis whose job it is to support the growing uterus, and spine and postnatally has suffered the most trauma.
- Diaphragm – This is our main breathing muscle, dividing our chest cavity from our abdomen, it also aids in natural childbirth and support of the spine.
Lumbar Multifidus are also important deep core muscles. They form the laces of the corset and are deep and close to the spine, supporting and stabilizing it. They turn on with correct TVA and PFM activation.
It is 100% safe and vital to strengthen these muscles during your pregnancy.
The superficial abdominal muscles of the body are:
- The Rectus or 6 pack muscles – These flex/forward bend the spine
- The Internal and External Obliques – These rotate and forward bend the spine
Our goal is to AVOID activating these and STOP all training of this muscle group during pregnancy. This means no more crunches.
When activated in an exercise like a crunch, the muscles pull on the connective tissue at the midline of the body called the Linea Alba and can cause extensive damage, worsening the separation created by pregnancy causing pain, discomfort and making it much harder to recover after the baby.
Lets now examine why the deep core is important and why the superficial abdominals are not.
What are the benefits of a strong core?
- Help you maintain posture and comfort during pregnancy
- Help support the weight of the growing uterus
- Keep you connected to your spine for support and alignment
- It will provide stability throughout the lumbo-pelvic region – countering the effects of Relaxin (pregnancy hormone) on the joints.
- It will assist during labor and delivery
- Speed up recovery time postpartum so you can return safely to your regular exercise routine
During pregnancy the most superficial layer of our abdominals, your 6 pack or Rectus, has to separate to make room for the growing baby inside. This separation stretches the delicate tissues of the Linea Alba.
This separation is 100% normal and has to happen. It is called DIASTASIS RECTI.
Join Ali Handley as she talks about the prenatal core and takes you through a wonderful core focused workout.
- The deep core exercises in The Fundamentals focus on strengthening the muscles which support the stretched tissue during pregnancy. Having a strong connection to these muscles will aid in your recovery of these muscle after childbirth - getting you back in shape quicker!
- The superficial abdominal muscles, when engaged, pull on the Linea Alba tissue, creating a bigger separation, often tearing the structure. Not only does it do nothing for you while you are pregnant but it delays your postnatal recovery and more work must be dedicated to healing the tissues when they are further apart!
How else can you prevent tearing or over stretching of this tissue?
- All forward bending should be avoided! In exercise and everyday life
- Forward bending causes the 6 pack to engage and pull on the Linea Alba
- Extension and rotation should have a limited range of motion as the Obliques will turn on and similarly pull on the stretched tissue
- Below are some examples of forward bending exercises you should NOT do
Unfortunately it is most likely the pedestrian movements in your day-to-day life that often do the most damage and make the diastasis worse. For example:
- Getting up out of bed
- Getting up off the couch
- Pulling yourself out of a taxi
- Getting up out of the bath
When done incorrectly – you are likely to unwillingly flex the spine and engage the 6 pack. BodyLove Pilates wants to bring a new awareness to these everyday activities.
Instead of hauling yourself up, turn to your side and push yourself up using your upper body strength and by doing this you will keep the abs quiet and eliminate further damage to the Linea Alba.
Importantly also be aware of how you get up and down to the ground/exercise mat so you do not engage the rectus!
”From a seated position slide all the way down until you are sidelying, only when your head is completely down can you roll onto your back!” To come back up – “Roll over onto your side. Using your top arm push yourself up to an upright seated position.”
This is the best part about deep core training - The core muscles are thinking muscles - you don’t move to engage this muscle group!
- Using the power of your breath you need to connect your mind with the action of that muscle and it will engage!
- The more you think about the action of the muscle, the stronger the neural pathways will become and so too the target muscle
- You need work on your mind body connection to the muscles of the deep core and this can be challenging for many
- It is indeed harder than it sounds – but patience and hard work will pay-off for the rest of your pregnancy, labor and your postpartum recovery!
- Whilst these exercises don’t ask you to move a great deal – they require a lot of concentration, they are challenging and your core muscles will feel like they have worked out!
The Fundamentals are the best core exercises for a prenatal woman to practice.
These can be performed in the following positions;
1. Sitting on a bolster or pillows up against a wall/flat supportive surface behind you.
- The bolster/pillows are important to ensure you are able to comfortably achieve the seated position in neutral. Be sure to sit right on your SITS bones
- Your SITS bones are exactly as they sound - to sit on. When you find these - your pelvis will be in the correct neutral position to begin the exercise - you want to be evenly weighted on each side
- If you have it available I like to place a half roller against the wall to place my spine on so I am sure I am working to keep the back of my head, ribcage and sacrum connecting to the roller
- The crossed legged position is helpful if you find yourself squeezing your butt together when attempting to find the PFM
2. Seated on the Pilates/Physioball
- Your feet are firmly and evenly on the ground, hip distance apart, you’re sitting with your SITS bones (correct position mention above) evenly weighted on the ball
- Seated on your knees with a yoga block and small ball under your SITS bones
- I really like this position to find neutral spine in - the ball underneath me gives my body feed back to ensure I am right on my SITS bones and I have the sensation of my pelvic floor resting on something
- Be sure that you are not arched forward but that your sacrum (tailbone) is pointing straight down to the mat/ground below you
3. All Fours
- In All Fours your shoulders are directly above and inline with your wrists, knees are bent, below and in line with your hips
- All Fours can be challenging as the position requires you to use other muscles to stabilize your neutral spine and pelvis, and are therefore more challenging and should be included once you feel like you have mastered the exercises in the seated positions