Strengthen your core the right way
Strengthening your core – which includes your pelvic, back and abdominal muscles – will help you through pregnancy. It will help ease pain and make labour easier on you, as these muscles are used for pushing. Exercising the muscles will also help you have a faster recovery after childbirth. However, there can be some dangers if you don’t do the exercises properly.
Be wary of the wrong kind of abdominal exercises
Sit-ups should not be performed at this stage in pregnancy as they increase the chances of diastasis recti, which is where the two sides of your rectus abdominis (the top abdominal muscle running from the breast bone to the pubic bone) separate too much as your uterus expands into them. Diastasis recti causes your abdomen to stick out even after you’ve had your baby and can be hard to get rid of.
Here is a simple test to check if you have diastasis recti. Lie on your back with your knees up. Place one hand behind your head and the other on your abdomen with the fingertips level with your belly button. While gently pressing your fingertips down, bring your head up slightly so that you do a slight crunch. This should allow you to feel if the two sides of your rectus abdominis separate and, if so, how far. If you can fit the width of more than two fingers in the gap, then that is a sign you have diastasis recti.
Your abdominal muscles will begin to separate at around week 20. This is when the risk of developing diastasis recti will increase, but it can happen as early as the beginning of the second trimester (this is more common if you’ve had children before because the abdominal muscles are already weakened), so be sure to check from this point onwards.
If you already have diastasis recti, don’t worry. It is very common and your abdominal muscles should be able to recover on their own within a couple of months after childbirth (although more severe cases may require surgery to correct it). You will need to take extra care when doing exercises to work your core. Sit-ups, crunches, and twists will only put further pressure on the muscles, increasing the separation. The Royal College of Midwives says that prescribing stomach-strengthening exercises would be an ineffective treatment method because this will “make the problem worse through doming”, which is a where the abdomen herniates through the abdominal wall during exercise.
Safe exercises for your abdominals and other core muscles
So, you know what not to do, but what about a good abdominal exercise? Pilates is a good way of strengthening your core. Choose a specialist antenatal Pilates class, as this will make sure all the exercises are suitable and the instructor will modify poses in order to avoid diastasis recti and other complications.
Below are a few exercises suitable for expectant mothers. You can ask your antenatal Pilates instructor about more exercises that safely work your abdominals. As always, don’t forget to check with a healthcare professional, before attempting any of these exercises, to make sure they’re suitable for you.
Transversus abdominis contraction – There are more muscles which make up your abdominals than just the abdominis recti (which is the top layer). The transverse abdominis is the deepest of the abdominal muscles, giving support to your organs, like a girdle. It is for this reason that it’s been nicknamed the ‘corset muscle’. Strengthening this muscle will help support your back and pelvic floor, help maintain abdominal tone during pregnancy, and won’t lead to diastasis recti.
You can contract the muscles while seated or on all fours. Sit with your shoulders aligned with your pelvis. Take a deep breath in, allowing your belly to expand. As you exhale, draw your belly button back towards your spine and hold it there for a few seconds. Then inhale with another deep, belly-expanding breath. To do the exercise on all fours, make sure your hands and aligned with your shoulders, your knees are aligned with your hips, and your spine is neutral. Take a deep breath, and then pull your belly button up towards the spine as you exhale and hold it there while making sure your spine remains neutral. Learning to breathe in this way will be very good for your core, so try to get used to it as you do your core exercises.
Kneeling leg extension – Start on all fours with your wrists in line with your shoulders and knees in line with your hips. As you inhale, extend your right leg behind you and keep it at hip height. Return to all fours as you exhale, and then do the same with your left leg. This exercise will help strengthen your lower back.
Side-lying knee lifts – Lie on your side with your knees bent together at a 90 degree angle and your lower arm extended out past your head. Keep the palm of your top hand flat on the floor for support. While exhaling, lift your top leg as far as it will comfortably go and then lower it again. After you’ve done ten repetitions, flip over to the other side so you’re lifting your other leg.
Heel drops – Lie on your back but make sure your upper back, neck, and head are propped up (lying flat on your back at this stage can cause feelings of dizziness). You can use a pillow to prop yourself up. Bend your knees at a 90 degree angle and lift your feet off the ground so they are in line with your knees. Slowly drop one heel to the ground and then bring it back up to the starting position. Now do the same with the other heel. Alternate dropping each heel for ten repetitions.
Heel slides – A similar exercise to heel drops. Start in the same position as your heel drops but bend your knees at a sharper angle so your heels are dropped closer to your buttocks. Simply extend one leg outwards, making sure you keep the heel slightly lifted above the ground at all times, and then bring it back to the starting position. Then do the same with the other leg. Alternate legs for ten repetitions.
Working your abdominal muscles properly should not only help avoid complications but also be very beneficial for you during childbirth and the postnatal period.