After sharing my prenatal core routine on Instagram a few weeks ago, I had TONS of requests to write a blog post about it. For the record, I am neither a certified personal trainer nor am I certified in pre- & post-natal exercise, but I am deep into pregnancy #2 and have taken an immense amount of time to educate myself and find safe, appropriate, and effective ways to work my core during pregnancy. If you’re pregnant, the #1 person you should talk to about exercise if YOUR doctor—not someone you follow on social media, even if he or she claims a bunch of credentials.
The first question I get a lot is: “When should I stop doing traditional abdominal exercises?” Well, the answer will be a little different for everyone depending on how your core starts to stretch. Medical and fitness professionals like to use the “end of the first trimester” as a benchmark, but I stopped around 8 weeks with this baby! Why? I could see my stomach starting to CONE:
See that little ridge down the middle? My ab muscles are tightening, but my “guts” no longer fit under them. As your belly grows (or prepares to grow), the fascia connecting your ab muscles also stretches. So that cone is the fascia, which is already stretched around my growing belly, stretching even more as my abs contract. That can case even GREATER abdominal separation, which in turn leaves you with more severe diastasis recti on the back end.
When you see coning, STOP TRADITONAL ABDOMINAL EXERCISES. If you see coning during other exercises, like lifting, you should also stop or modify those. You may be tempted to think, “Oh look, my abs are still engaging,” but those abs are actually pulling farther and farther apart as you stress the fascia. Extra stress to your fascia only increases your chances of having severe diastasis recti.
Follow up question: “What is diastasis recti?” DR is abdominal separation often seen in pregnant and postpartum women. It’s exactly what I described above: the connective tissue in your core stretches to accommodate a growing baby bump, but it doesn’t always “snap back.” ALL women will have this immediately postpartum. In some women, it heals naturally. Others have to use deliberate rehab to fix it. But if it stays stretched out, your “guts” will continue to protrude for weeks, months, of years after delivery. More importantly, your core can’t support your effectively. This leaves you more prone to injury, and can impact your strength, speed, and endurance...and even your ability to pick up your baby.
So: “What is safe?” The short answer is that a lot of exercises you do already engage your core in a safe manner during pregnancy. Running requires a lot of core strength. Overhead presses, like the should press, engage your core. Carrying a bag of groceries in each hand engages your obliques. Even without dedicate core work, don’t discount what you’re already doing!
However, there are huge benefits to targeting your abdominal muscles (front, obliques, and lower back) while pregnant. Especially as a runner, I need the stability of a strong core. As a toddler mom, I need a strong lower back (hello baby belly + 30-lb toddler in my arms!). Based on LOTS of possible options, I found some that work great for me:
Exercises the order that they appear:
Banded lateral walks: Stand on a light resistance band, bend slightly forward at the waist, and pull in the slack (arms should be mid-row). Walk side-to-side using tiny, controlled steps.
Toe sliders: Get on all fours. Keeping your toes on the ground, slide one foot back until your leg is fully extended, then slide back until your knee hits the ground. You can alternate sides each rep or do a full set on each side.
Fire Hydrants: Start on all fours. Keeping your leg at a 90° angle, pick one leg up to the side until it is almost even with your butt. Return to the ground in a controlled manner. You can alternate sides each rep or do a full set on each side.
Diagonal arm raise: Start on all fours. Use either a light (1-5lb) dumbbell or a light resistance band. Keep your back flat and your core engaged. Take the band or dumbbell in one hand, and slowly raise you arm at a 45° angle from your body until it’s parallel to the ground. Return to start slowly.
Band pull downs: Loop your resistance band around some sort of pole or frame. Stand facing your resistance band, and grab one end in each hand until your hands are about 30°-45° in front of you and you get the slack out. Slowly pull the band back so your arms are parallel to your body, and slowly return to start. Beginner: Stand normally; Intermediate: Kneel; Advance: Balance on one leg. (This holds true for the next two exercises as well!)
Band pull ups: Now, turn away from your resistance band. Grab one end on each hand, keep your hands at your sides, and remove the slack. Pull the band forward until your arms are about 30°-45° from your body; return to start slowly.
Band push outs: Stand sideways, so your band is to either your left or right. Put the ends together, and grip them in front of your body, between your belly button and chest. Slowly press forward, trying to keep the band directly in front of you, then slowly retract back to start.
I've made it my goal to do 2-3 rounds of 10 reps, 1-2x per week. Three-quarters of the way through my second pregnancy, I'm running more miles, exercising more consistently, and experiencing less lower back pain than with my first -- all good signs!