Wednesday, 18 May 2016

My Favourite Pregnancy-Safe Core Exercises

Engaging and connecting with our core during pregnancy is so important. A strong core protects our pelvis and low back while baby grows and shifts within and around it. Strengthening these muscles throughout our pregnancy also helps to prevent injury and decrease discomforts. Engaging our core during pregnancy and in the immediate postpartum period is very different than when not pregnant or a new mom, as our goals are very different and there are precautions we need to be aware of.

During pregnancy, our goals for a strong are not to develop defined "abs" or a "flat tummy". These more superficial muscles are called the Rectus Abdominis (RA), and are the group that is stretched the most as baby grows. We no longer do sit-ups, crunches, or v-sits to develop the strength of this muscle group, but instead learn to engage our deepest core muscles. We avoid these "crunching" motions, as the excess strain on the RA can cause or worsen Diastasis Rectus (DR), which is the separation of the RA. This condition can be uncomfortable during pregnancy and although there are ways to prevent worsening until term, we are unable to correct and heal the stretched fascia until post-birth. Diagnosis of DR can be done postpartum by a trained healthcare provider. Diagnosis during pregnancy is very difficult, as most women have some degree of separation naturally, however, most of us will not require physiotherapy to heal these muscles after delivery. If we are diagnosed with DR postpartum, it is important to begin the healing process as soon as possible through a trained physiotherapist who can provide treatment and exercises. 

Knowing how to properly connect with our deep core muscles, or Transverse Abdominis, (TVA) not only provides the benefits listed above, but also assists in the pushing stage of labour and recovery post-birth. This deepest group of core muscles contains baby, as they are the closest to him or her. They connect to the pelvic floor muscles, which is another crucial group of muscles to connect with during our pregnancy, but that is for another day. When we connect with our TVA throughout our pregnancy and connect the movements to breath, this develops the mind-body connection we will use in the pushing stage of labour. Even women who have an epidural and a decreased sensation of where and how to direct their pushing energy will be more effective at this stage if they have practiced their connection with their deep core. A trained TVA also helps in the recovery process, even if we have a caesarean birth. This muscle group is severed in the delivery process and therefor requires much healing from the inside out. If we challenge this muscle group during our pregnancy, through isometric (i.e. side plank) and mindful movement (i.e. cat cow rotations), they will be better prepared to heal themselves post-birth. There is much to be said for muscle memory and knowing how to return to a normal state. This muscle group wants to contact back to where it was post-birth and with intentional exercises pre- and post-nasally (once able), we will return to a "flatter belly" sooner. 

I mentioned connecting breath to movement and this is extremely important in the mind-body connection of exercising while pregnant. We should be connecting all intentional exercise to breath, but especially our deep core and pelvic floor exercises. When explaining each of the exercises below, I will cue when to inhale and when to exhale. 

My favourite pregnancy-safe core exercises and how to properly engage and connect to ensure you are performing these exercises safely and effectively.

Belly Breathing

  1. This technique can be done essentially anywhere that you are able to sit comfortably, adjust into a tall posture, and find at least five deep breaths. 
  2. Once sitting, place one or both hands on your belly. 
  3. Inhale to relax your core. It will expand, but do not force it outwards. 
  4. Exhale slowly, but audibly to draw your entire front body including baby and obliques in towards your spine. 
  5. Inhale to release. 
  6. Exhale to draw in and contract the TVA. 
  7. Continue for 5-10 breaths. If you ever feel dizzy, please stop, take a break, and then reconnect. 
This is one of the most important exercises to prepare for the pushing stage of labour and for healing post-birth. Once we feel confident in our form here, we can begin to add a pelvic floor exercise to the breath.  Note: I performed this exercise standing for photo/video purposes, but typically practice while sitting with my eyes closed. 

* Video available on Instagram @kellie.fityourlife 

Reverse Plank

  1. Begin by sitting on your bum with feet extended in front of you. 
  2. Place each hand beside each hip. Inhale, allow your belly to relax. 
  3. Exhale while drawing baby in towards your spine and lift your entire body through your palms and heels. 
  4. Hold and breathe for 30 seconds. 
  5. You can work your way up to 60 seconds. 
  6. If this is ever too much pressure on your hands or front body, bend through your knees to bring the soles of your feet to the floor. Hold and breathe there. 

Kneeling Superwoman

  1. Begin on all-fours with hands directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Engage entire arm by rotating elbows to have creases face each other.
  2. Slowly lift right arm in front and reach finger tips forward. Lift left leg to pull heel behind and backwards. 
  3. Find a neutral spine. 
  4. Engage core by "hugging" baby in towards your spine as you exhale. 
  5. Either hold here for 5-10 breaths or gently pulse upwards (maximum one inch of movement) for a count of 5-10. 
  6. Repeat second side. 

Cat Cow Rotations

    1. Begin on all-fours with hands directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Engage entire arm by rotating elbows to have creases face each other.
    2. Exhale to draw baby in towards your spine in a "hugging" motion. 
    3. Press through your hands and knees as you begin to round your spine towards the ceiling and draw your chin towards your chest. 
    4. Curve around baby as much as you are able with comfort. 
    5. Inhale to slowly release baby towards the floor as you shift your gaze upwards and curl your tailbone towards the ceiling. 
    6. Maintain some engagement with baby to prevent excess pressure on your low back. 
    7. Continue to move with breath at your own pace for 10 rotations. 

    Kneeling Side Plank with Leg Abduction

    1. Place right elbow directly under right shoulder and right knee in line with the body and right foot behind. 
    2. Lift through knee and elbow to press right hip upwards. 
    3. Left hip should be directly stacked over right hip with baby "hugged" in towards spine. 
    4. If you are able to find balance, lift a strong left arm towards the ceiling. 
    5. If balance allows, now lift left leg upwards. 
    6. Maintain strong core while keeping both arms and legs engaged. 
    7. Hold and breathe for 30 seconds. 
    8. You can work your way up to 60 seconds. 
    9. Repeat second side. 

    Complete all exercises at least 4 times per week for 
    1-2 sets each time. 


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