This week in our 'Ask The Experts' Series, I've been chatting to Emily Gilliland - Personal trainer, pre/postnatal exercise specialist and mum of two about all things pelvic floor and core muscles. Emily shares some practical exercises you can do at home to help strength your body in preparation for birth. We discus how this can lead to an easier labour and birth on our Positively Birthing Hypnobirthing Course.
Why should we exercise in pregnancy?
Staying active, healthy and fit throughout your pregnancy is hugely important. Women who exercise during pregnancy often experience less back pain, more energy and a faster recovery than women who don’t.
What is pregnancy exercise?
Often exercise in pregnancy doesn’t look that different to exercise when you’re not pregnant. The main differences being we want to prepare the body for labour and for making a good recovery afterwards. This may mean less high impact movement which could put undue pressure on the pelvic floor and more strengthening and stamina work.
Exercise will also need to be modified for the stage of pregnancy. For example exercises on the back may need to be modified as the bump gets bigger and the pressure of the baby can affect the blood flow through the vena cava (major artery that leads to the heart) and can lower the blood supply to the placenta as well as cause low blood pressure and dizziness.
One of the most important areas to strengthen during pregnancy is your core. A strong stable core can help to reduce the chances of back pain, make labour easier and help with postpartum recovery.
What is the core?
The core includes the muscles of your pelvic floor, the deep abdominal muscles, the muscles of the lower back, along your spine and the diaphragm as well as to a lesser extent the glutes and muscles around your hips and upper back. Although each of these muscles performs a different function individually, together they create stability and movement throughout your body and support your internal organs. The ‘core’ of your ability to move and perform everyday tasks.
Your core during pregnancy
The changes that occur in the body during pregnancy can cause the core to feel weaker and more unstable. Relaxin, the hormone released during pregnancy, causes the ligaments and muscles of the body to become more flexible. This flexibility is necessary for birth but it has the unwanted effect of creating less stability, particularly in your pelvic area. Added to that your growing baby will begin to stretch your front abdominal muscles (the rectus abdominus) and cause your pelvis to tilt with the added weight, creating instability.
Having a well functioning core and pelvic floor during and after pregnancy is extremely important as it can help avoid or reduce issues such as diastasis recti (abdominal separation) and dysfunction such as incontinence.
What most of us think of as “core exercises” crunches, extended front planks and sit-ups are not recommended during pregnancy as these can increase intra-abdominal pressure and make the gap between the abdominal muscles wider (diastasis recti). So what can we do?
Safe pregnancy training to support your core and pelvic floor:
Work on the glutes! Strong legs and glutes will help both during labour - you’ll need those muscles for the pushing marathon that delivery can be - and in postpartum recovery. Weakness in the glutes is often a key cause of lower back pain.
Strong glutes support a strong pelvic floor. Squat, lunge, crab walk, leg raises, kickbacks… there are multiple amazing strengthening exercises you can do when pregnant to ensure you have strong legs and glutes.
Avoid front planks from mid pregnancy onwards: these can be safe and effective during the 1st and into the second trimester if performed correctly. However, once your bump begins to grow they can cause issues with pressure on the abdominals, causing bulging and too much strain in the back. Switch to box planks - come into a quadruped (all fours) position and lift the knees an inch or two from the ground. Your core will still have to work hard to stabilise you!
Exercise to challenge your stability. The Bird-Dog exercise is a great one for this. From a stable position on all fours slowly lift opposite arm and opposite leg and then bring them back to starting position. Ensure your hips and shoulders stay stable and there is no arching through the back during the movement.
Don’t be afraid of resistance training. Doing resistance exercise such as the squat and lunge with weights or bodyweight with correct form, will help to strengthen your whole body and core in a safe and effective way.
A strong body with a stable, well functioning core and pelvic floor will help you achieve a more comfortable pregnancy and recover faster postnatally. Add some pregnancy safe exercise into your day and you’ll soon reap the benefits.
*Always check with your midwife or healthcare provider before beginning a new exercise regime