Pilates: building a strong body and mind
Pilates is an effective form of exercise that is suitable for all fitness levels. If completed often enough, it can have effects that may benefit you during your pregnancy and beyond.
What is it, and how can it help?
Pilates gets its name from its creator, Joseph Pilates, a German physical trainer who devised exercises to create a strong bond between mental and physical health. It’s similar to yoga in how it aims to relax both the body and mind and create a sense of well-being.
In other words, Pilates is all about strengthening your muscles, improving your balance and co-ordination, making your joints more flexible, and refining your posture – all things that are advisable for pregnant women. And, as with almost all forms of regular exercise, it can help relieve stress.
It is also thought that regularly attending a pregnancy-focused Pilates class while pregnant will help better prepare your body for childbirth. Flexibility and strong tummy muscles are two invaluable assets when it comes to giving birth, and a good Pilates workout will help you develop both of these. Many women have claimed that they believe doing Pilates regularly allowed them to have a smoother labour.
As you’re in your first trimester, it’s likely that you lack a noticeable bump. But as your belly starts expanding to accommodate your developing child, and as your ligaments become softer to prepare you for labour, the extra weight at your front can take its toll, straining your back and pelvis. This is why many pregnant women will often experience back pain.
Pilates, however, is thought to strengthen the abdominal muscles that support your back and growing bump, meaning that you should be better prepared to cope with the later stages of pregnancy.
Although you may not be dealing with any pain in your back as of yet, it’s a good idea to strengthen these muscles early on to give yourself the best chance of avoiding discomfort later on.
Why are strong pelvic floor muscles important?
Pilates can also help reinforce your pelvic floor muscles, which is really useful as you prepare for labour. Your pelvic floor muscles support your bowel, bladder, and uterus (if you stop yourself urinating midstream, then you’ve just used your pelvic floor muscles). The stress of pregnancy and labour on your pelvic floor can cause it to weaken and lead to incontinence over time. Pilates can help these muscles stay strong, fighting off incontinence and possibly leading to a smoother labour.
However, if you don’t already have a good level of control over your pelvic floor muscles, then you may find Pilates a bit too challenging. There’s also the danger that Pilates can make already weak pelvic floor muscles even worse by straining them too much.
To test whether you have good pelvic floor muscles, get onto your hands and knees, keeping your back flat and your hands aligned with your shoulders. Breathe as you would normally. As you exhale, squeeze your pelvic floor muscles and try to hold for 10 seconds. Then relax.
If you’re able to do this exercise without struggling too much for 10 repetitions, then you should be fine attending an antenatal Pilates class (but you should always check with your doctor or midwife, just to be on the safe side).
If you can’t comfortably do this exercise – or if you can’t feel the muscles – then a Pilates class may not be for you. It’s possible that you could have a pre-existing problem with your pelvic floor muscles, which will need to be checked by a doctor or physiotherapist. Attending a class may still be a possibility, but it’s all the more important that you seek medical advice from a doctor beforehand.
Turning up to your class – what the instructor needs to know
If up to now you have attended a regular Pilates class, no matter how long you’ve been doing it for and how confident you feel with the moves, you should let your instructor know as soon as you know you’re pregnant. They can then modify the exercises or let you know if there are any you shouldn’t do.
If you have never done Pilates before, the best option is to see if you can find an antenatal class near you instead of joining a regular class. For one thing, this will mean that you’re around other expectant mothers and will have the chance to socialise and feel supported – it always helps to be around a group of people who are going through a similar experience to you. Secondly, it means that your instructor will know all about leading pregnant women through exercise and what the limits are. An antenatal class is the best way to ensure that you don’t stretch yourself too much because the exercise is guaranteed to be carried out at a much lower intensity.
As well as informing the instructor of your pregnancy, you should also tell them how far along you are. Many precautions apply to all pregnant women regardless of what stage of pregnancy they are in, but a few are specific to particular trimesters. The antenatal Pilates instructor should be aware of this and know which moves are unsuitable for you to undertake.
However, remember that instructors are not the same as medical professionals. Your body and health are completely unique, so, again, you should always check with your doctor or midwife to be absolutely certain that Pilates is safe. If you have an underlying condition that makes certain exercises dangerous, no matter how low-risk they seem to be, it’s not worth endangering yourself or your baby.
Doing Pilates the smart way
As you are still in the relatively early stages of your pregnancy, it is likely that your energy levels are a little, or possibly a lot, lower than usual – the dizziness and nausea that occur in the first few weeks of pregnancy can make any aerobic exercise feel like a challenge.
This is also when your risk of miscarriage is at its highest as your baby is still in the delicate stages of early development. Therefore, while being very safe, it’s vital that you keep the intensity of your Pilates exercise low and take extra care to ensure you remain sufficiently hydrated. Your comfort should be the main priority, so take a bottle of water with you and have frequent sips, and you must also wear suitable clothing – stretchy and light is the best choice.
In your first trimester, the main focus of your workout should be on building core strength and endurance. To prevent yourself from feeling sick, strenuous abdominal exercises should be avoided, along with inversions and exercises that require you to bend forward over your legs.
Because you do not yet have a significant bump at your front, positions that involve lying on your front (prone) may still be carried out, but some women choose to avoid them early on anyway because such positions are not good for their nausea. It may be a good idea for women to modify these poses, so that they are lying on their side, and perform a similar movement one side at a time. Again, ask your instructor for help.
Remember that certain moves and exercises will become off limits once you progress into your second trimester, such those which require you to lie on your back, as these can cause you to feel dizzy. So stay in tune with your body and take note of anything that feels outside the norm.
Above all, any exercise in pregnancy should be about relaxing and enjoying yourself. If you ever feel pain or discomfort in anything you do, even if you’re following all of the safety advice given to you, then you should stop. Ultimately, you have to judge whether something doesn’t feel right. Don’t be afraid to speak up and tell your instructor if you’re struggling with certain exercises. You’re attending the class for your benefit, after all.