Core strength training is the answer to common prenatal discomforts such as back, shoulder and hip pain. During the postpartum period, a strong, stable core will also help you lift and carry your baby and lug around all that heavy baby equipment.
During pregnancy and the postpartum period, form and posture become extremely important. Core strength training helps you maintain good form and proper positioning during exercise, and good posture throughout the day.
“As your belly gets bigger, your posture changes and your pelvis tips, which alters the alignment of your spine in a way that makes your movements less efficient,” says Helene Byrne, perinatal exercise specialist and author of the DVD Bounce Back Fast! Post Natal Core Conditioning. Developing a strong core helps you adjust to the changes in posture and alignment.
During the third trimester and postpartum period, hormonal changes relax your joints, says Andrew J. Satin, M.D., chairman of obstetrics at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, MD. Core strength training helps you compensate for that joint laxity. After childbirth it also helps flatten your abs.
You build core strength when you work your mid-section, especially the deepest abdominal muscle, called the transverse abdominus, or TvA. “This is also your major pushing muscle during labor,” says Byrne. The TvA is your internal girdle that keeps your spine and pelvis in the proper position when you move.
“To work this core muscle, choose exercises that keep your spine in the neutral position, either standing or sitting,” says Byrne. At the gym, cable pull machines are best for building core strength because they require you to stabilize your own spine in space, she says, “and cable pulls allow you to work in three dimensions, which is where life happens.”
Dos and Don’ts
Other core-strengthening exercises include lunges and heel raises, and some yoga positions, such as the Plank Pose. Certain Pilates exercises strengthen your core, says Byrne. But work with an instructor who will be able to help you avoid those not recommended during pregnancy.
Avoid crunches and sit-ups during pregnancy because your ab muscles have a tendency to separate (called diastasis), says Satin. Be careful not to overstretch during range-of-motion exercises. And avoid lying flat on your back when you exercise during pregnancy, since the supine position can reduce blood supply to the baby. Most importantly, says Satin, “do not work through the pain.”
Byrne recommends the following simple exercise during pregnancy and after your baby is born.
Transverse Abdominis Isolations
1. Stand with your back about 12 inches away from the wall, with feet hip distance apart, toes facing forward, knees slightly bent.
2. Using your hands for support, lean your spine against the wall, head to sacrum. Align your spine in the neutral position, keeping a small gap between your waist and the wall.
3. Inhale deeply through your nose, expanding your ribcage and tightening your abs.
4. Exhale slowly, hissing through your teeth as you pull your belly inward.
5. Repeat two more times.
6. Exhale deeply, relaxing your muscles and allowing your belly to expand naturally, without pushing your belly out.
7. Perform four repetitions.
Kathy Summers is a freelance health, nutrition and fitness writer based in Half Moon Bay, CA.