Regardless of what misinformation you may have heard – core strengthening is essential during pregnancy to help reduce low back, pelvic and hip pain as well as improve daily activities such as lifting your toddler or groceries.
Pregnancy can be such an exciting time preparing for your new bundle of joy, but it can also be filled with fear and overwhelm as the internet is full of misinformation regarding exercise during pregnancy – especially when it comes to core strengthening. Many providers shy away from providing any guidance on core strengthening during pregnancy due to either lack of knowledge or fear that you may blame them for any diastasis postpartum. What your provider should do instead is refer you to a pelvic floor physical therapist as we specialize in optimizing movement of your entire body during pregnancy – especially your core and pelvic floor.
Let’s clear some of the mud regarding how to safely strengthen your core during pregnancy.
Before I jump into a few principles to follow for core strengthening during pregnancy, I want to first debunk some common myths regarding prenatal core strengthening.
This advice is just straight up false and honestly a disservice to all pregnant women. While it is important to be aware of how you are training your core and modifying your routine, avoiding all core exercises during pregnancy can actually do more harm than good.
When done with proper form, good exercise selection and appropriate load management, core strengthening can improve your posture and balance as well as reduce common pregnancy pains – hello low back pain! What is the purpose of this exercise
I believe the reason a lot of women avoid any core exercise during pregnancy is simply because they do not know how to safely do so – which is why I created my Movement Through Pregnancy program to provide you with weekly workouts throughout your entire pregnancy that include appropriate core exercises per trimester.
If you spend any time on social media you will quickly find videos or posts about why any form of twisting during pregnancy is bad and you should avoid it at all costs. Any time you see or hear a blanket statement using the words “all” or “never” or “always” you should immediately become skeptical because there are very few absolutes in life and even fewer in fitness.
Thoracic (upper back) rotation is key to spine and core health and completely safe to perform during pregnancy.
Where I do take caution is with extreme or heavily loaded lumbar spine (lower back) rotation. Lumbar spine rotation can potentially place too much stress through the fascia in the middle of your abdominals causing your diastasis to become worse or reduce the ability of your diastasis to heal postpartum.
Learn more about diastasis in this blog post.
Raise your hand if you were ever taught to tighten your abs all day long or engage your core throughout your entire workout…
Did you know that you can actually overwork your abdominal muscles just like any other muscle group in your body?
While proper posture and learning to appropriately engage your core and abdominal muscles is important during pregnancy, it is equally important to learn how to relax them.
Your deep core works in conjunction with your pelvic floor, so if you are constantly clenching or gripping your abdominals, you are likely doing the same thing with your pelvic floor muscles.
Overactivity of your pelvic floor and core muscles can lead to pain in your pelvis and lower back as well as potential difficulties with vaginal labor as your pelvic floor muscles need to relax to allow your baby to pass through the vaginal canal.
You have my full permission to let your belly go and stop sucking in all day long!
One of the most important things you can do to improve the effectiveness and safety of all exercise during pregnancy is learn how to properly engage your transverse abdominis (TVA) muscle which is a part of your deep core. Your TVA is the deepest layer of your 3 abdominal muscle layers, and it wraps around your spine like a corset to provide stability to the spine and help manage your intra-abdominal pressure.
One of my favorite cues to get patients to engage their TVA muscle is to think of “hugging” your baby.
Let’s try it out!
On an inhale breathe in through your nose expanding your ribcage 360 degrees. On an exhale breathe out through pursed lips until you feel like there is no air left in your lungs and then imagine your inner TVA muscle wrapping around your baby to give it a hug starting from the pelvic bone and working up to the ribs.
I recommend you practice hugging your baby in multiple positions such as lying on your back, on your side, on hands and knees, etc. because you will notice some positions are easier or more difficult than others.
If you are someone who has a habit of holding your breath with just daily activities or lifting weights – it is time to kick that habit and learn to use your breath to better connect with your core.
Your diaphragm is your breathing muscle and it is a part of your entire core system that works in conjunction with your pelvic floor, abdominal muscles and lower back muscles, so you want to be sure you are using your diaphragm to its fullest capacity. Learning how to diaphragmatically breathe is important for everyone, not just pregnant women, but it becomes harder to take a deep breath with your baby occupying space.
To practice diaphragmatically breathing – sit up straight and place your hands along your ribcage. Inhale through your nose and feel your ribs expand 360 degrees. You should also notice your pelvic floor lengthen and your belly, chest and back expand. Exhale through your mouth for as long as you can feeling your ribs descend and your chest and belly fall.
Now, when you are lifting some heavy, like a toddler or weights, you want to forcefully exhale through pursed lips while engaging your TVA muscle (like you learned above) during the hardest part of the movement such as rising from a squat. When you exhale through pursed lips it becomes much more natural to engage your TVA and subconsciously your pelvic floor.
If that diaphragmatic breathing is confusing, here is a helpful video for all of my visual learners.
Coning or bulging of the core is quite common and if it occurs intermittently then you are likely not causing significant damage to your midline abdominal tissue, but if performed repeatedly throughout your pregnancy it can contribute to a severe diastasis that has a difficult time healing postpartum.
If you have not heard of the term coning, it is when your midline abdominal tissue (linea alba) protrudes beyond your abdominal muscles creating what may look like a cone or bulge in the middle of your abdominals.
Coning is a sign that you are putting too much pressure along the midline of your abdomen which can excessively stretch and weaken the linea alba contributing to a diastasis.
Separation of your abdominal muscles during pregnancy is normal and occurs for your baby to grow, but you do not want to put extra stress along this stretched tissue as it can interfere with your ability to heal your abdominal separation postpartum.
If you notice any coning or bulging with your core exercises (or any exercise) then you are either lifting too heavy or you have lost control of your breath and ability to engage your deep core. This means it is time to modify the movement or lighten the load!
Just like any other muscle in your body, your abdominals and other core muscles need time to recover. Muscle is built in your recovery, not just your strength training.
Too often I see fitness influencers throw core strengthening into their fitness routines and programs every day expecting you to do the same, and this is simply not based in science.
If you complete 10-15 minutes of abdominal heavy exercise every day, your body will never get a chance to repair the muscle which is required for growth.
I recommend dedicating only one day per week to working your core system which includes your abdominals, pelvic floor and lower back.
You can perform core stability movements for neuromuscular reeducation purposes a few times per week within your other workouts, but when focusing on neuromuscular reeducation you are not bringing the muscles close to failure because that is not the goal.
The goal with neuromuscular reeducation is simply to train your brain to connect with your core and activate those muscles in the correct manner so when you call upon them in strength training or just daily life lifting your baby, your muscles will remember the appropriate sequence to activate.
Hooray! You can ditch the daily core work!
While core strength during pregnancy is crucial to reduce common pains and improve posture, your focus should shift from building muscle to maintaining it. Now is not the time to try and get that 6 pack or hit a personal record (PR) while lifting.
As your body changes and your center of gravity shifts, you will not be able to complete your same pre-pregnancy exercise routine or lift the same amount of weight especially as you enter your third trimester.
And for some of you, the advice of “listen to your body” might be complete garbage because your quads and glutes might feel 100% capable of completing your normal routine – but what you cannot see is that your deep core and pelvic floor are not able to handle the same load.
So it often takes an active mindset shift and forcing yourself to reduce your weight or modify your movements despite your body feeling capable of lifting heavier.
Training your core during pregnancy does not have to be confusing or complicated.
My Movement Through Pregnancy fitness program is designed to help you maintain full body strength so you do not have to worry about “what is safe” or “what core exercises can I perform?”
With the program you will receive 4 workouts per week from week 5 through week 41 of pregnancy that are split into: upper body, lower body, full body and core+pelvic floor. Each exercise clip has video and audio cues to help you focus on your breath and proper form.
You can check out a preview here!
Remember, maintaining core strength throughout pregnancy will not only help you feel better now, but it will also help you recover more quickly postpartum as well as allow you to lift, carry and care for your baby feeling strong.