There’s a lot of out-dated information about exercising in pregnancy which can make it confusing and overwhelming to know what you should and shouldn’t be doing! Yesterday, I was teaching Prenatal Pilates and a client said that her mum still tells her that she shouldn’t be exercising while pregnant! This is because there has been a HUGE amount of change around recommendations for pregnant women over the past two generations. I want to break down some of most common myths I hear around exercising in pregnancy.
#1 You shouldn’t exercise in pregnancy. This is rubbish – unless you have a high risk pregnancy and you’re GP or obstetrician have advised you not to exercise then you SHOULD be trying to exercise everyday! In fact the most recent guidelines recommend that the pregnant woman should aim to be physically active on MOST preferably ALL days of the week for 10-30 minutes. (Aiming for 150min total/week of moderate intensity exercise ) We now know that there are SOO many benefits to exercising in pregnancy including reduced weight gain, reduced pain, increased placental growth, reduced risk of hypertension and gestational diabetes, it can lower your risk of miscarriage, and has been proven to help reduce labor complications and length.
#2 If you haven’t exercised before now is not the time to start
If you haven’t exercised before now is probably not the time to start training for a marathon or power lifting but gradually progressing from gentle to moderate intensity exercise under the guidance of a prenatal health or fitness professional can have so many benefits! As you progress through your pregnancy the extra weight and hormonal changes around your pelvis and lower back can result in pelvic girdle or lower back pain.
There is significant amounts of research now to show that strengthening the pelvic floor and hips can reduce your pain! Another good reason to get stronger in pregnancy is because postpartum you will have to nurse a 3-4kg baby that will continue to grow. I see a lot of women who experience arm, wrist and upper back pain because there body is not adapt to tolerate this increasing weight demand! Get strong mamas!
#3 You shouldn’t do core exercises in pregnancy This is wrong and it is a very blanket statement that I want to break it down because this causes A LOT of confusion! Firstly it helps to understand what the core muscles are. I like to think of the core as all of the muscles that surround the abdominal and pelvic cavity that work together to maintain an optimal level of pressure and strength around the centre.
The muscles at the front include the deepest layer (the transverses abdominus) which acts almost like a corset wrapping across the tummy, then there’s the external and internal obliques which cross diagonally, then there is the most superficial layer the rectus abdominus which is our 6-pack muscle
If you imagine our abdominal cavity as a balloon the core muscles are the outsides of the balloon all connected closely by fascia – the pelvic floor at the bottom, the deep transverse abdominus at the front, the deep back muscle (multifdus) at the back and the diaphragm at the top!
During pregnancy these muscles stretch and expand – like blowing up the balloon. If these muscles do not work in a coordinated fashion together then dysfunction can occur. During pregnancy this becomes even more of an issue because of the increased weight demands, laxity in the pelvis and increased pressure placed on these muscles.
Core work in pregnancy SHOULD incorporate learning how to breath properly, learning how to properly engage and relax the pelvic floor and deep abdominal muscles.
As for the outer more well known core muscles – it is beneficial to still strengthen the external obliques and back muscles in pregnancy. Research around back pain and pelvic girdle pain in pregnancy in showing improvement with a strength program that focuses on these muscles as well as the glutes and the lats.
The one core muscle where we may want to avoid specific exercises that shorten this muscle is the rectus abdominus (6-pack muscles). This is because as you move into your 2nd and 3rd trimester the linea alba (layer of fascia connecting each side of the 6-pack) starts to stretch and can cause abdominal separation. During exercises that shorten these muscles that gap increases. It is therefore recommended to avoid such exercises as sit ups and head lifts.
When it comes to giving advice around the level of core exercise in pregnancy, the first thing that I consider is what activity were they doing Preconception? So if you are weight lifter, pilates instructor or if you’re an Olympic athlete preconception, continuing some higher level core exercises during pregnancy may be considered safe. However, if you’re completely new to core exercise, it’s probably not the time to start planking.
The next thing I consider is how good is their breath control? So educating around breath control and really emphasising the importance of controlling intra-abdominal pressure.
The ability to maintain breath control and or be able to talk during the exercise is so important and a good indication of your intra-abdominal pressure control. Yoga teaches us that if the breath becomes laboured it’s a sign you’re pushing too hard! I think this is one of the best pieces of advise for core exercises in pregnancy.
As I mentioned already, I don’t recommend head lifts or exercises that shorten the rectus abdominus but I find planks, low planks or four point kneeling knee hovers a good way to maintain core strength in pregnancy and modify the exercises depending on the individual!