Core training during pregnancy? Yes!
It may seem confusing to navigate how to approach core training as your body continues to change, particularly with concerns around diastasis recti. But, strength training during pregnancy is recommended (with no contraindications and doctor’s OK), and incorporating core specific training will help your body in so many ways: good posture, support your pelvis as your belly increases in size, facilitating an easier and more efficient labor, and alleviate pressure on your low back to keep you moving well and pain free. Additionally, understanding how your core system works and how to train will help you in everyday mom life, during your workouts, and with your postpartum recovery.
Build the Foundation for Core Training
Before I dive into how to train your core during pregnancy we must first start with the foundation: breath. This applies to anyone, whether they are pregnant or not. Proper breathing patterns are important for balanced pressure in your core and for exacerbating diastasis recti and pelvic floor dysfunction. Note: 100% of women will have diastasis recti by their 35th week of pregnancy, so we cannot completely avoid it 🙂
Foundation Step One: Finding neutral alignment
What is neutral? Neutral spine is your aligned (or optimal) position that allows your body to properly recruit your core muscles (diaphragm, pelvic floor, transverse abdominis, and multifidus). From a postural standpoint, think of alignment as how your body’s joints and bones stack up to create your posture. Although it varies from person-to-person, there is generally a mild curve in your lower back. A cue you might here pretty often is “ribs stacked over pelvis.”
As pregnancy progresses the pelvis is going to pull into a more anterior (tilted forward position) with the increased weight of the baby. This position can often lead to lower back pain and excess pressure on the abdominal wall. How can you tell? This “anterior pelvic tilt” position is often seen by an exaggerated low back arch and booty pop (middle picture above). You may also notice a “rib thrust” position, in which the bottom of the rib cage is positioned upward. Julie Wiebe would refer to this as “bell rung up.”
A great video below with Julie Wiebe as she explains the importance of finding neutral.
More on neutral alignment here.
Foundation Step Two: Master Diaphragmatic / 360° Core Breathing
“Learning how to breathe correctly is the single most important thing you can do to keep your core intact during pregnancy and to help heal your body post baby.” – Expecting and Empowered
When it comes to core training in pregnancy, mastering 360° breathing is essential for learning how to activate your deep core muscles. I recommend practicing and mastering breath work early on in pregnancy, as it will get progressively harder over time.
Check out this post for more on how to breathe through pregnancy.
How to Train Your Core during Pregnancy
Core training during pregnancy may look a bit different than what you’ve done before. But once we’ve mastered step one (neutral alignment) and step two (breath work and getting our deep core muscles to fire properly), we can focus on increasing core strength. We increase strength by creating conditions that challenge our core to work harder. The muscles then have to adapt to the increasing demands by getting stronger.
One of my favorite ways to do this is through anti-movements. Anti-movements are exercises that attempt to pull us out of neutral — bending sideways, forward, backward, and into rotation. We are forced to work against the resistance to keep our bodies in our neutral position. I also love anti-movements because they are functional and train us for everyday tasks.
Extension refers to the spine. Extension of the spine occurs when the spine “extends” backwards, or when the lower spine arches. You may notice the hips coming forward. If you are in a plank, you may notice your hips “dropping” toward the ground. To prevent excess extension, we train anti-extension core movements.
Plank: The plank is the most widely known anti-extension movement. Our body must resist being pulled into extension. For example, if you are completely relaxed, your hips would sink towards the floor. Therefore, to train a plank most effectively we need to recruit our core muscles to resist the pull and keep the body straight and strong.
A plank can be quite taxing on the anterior core (front), so I recommend modifying to an incline surface starting in the second trimester. In the third trimester and postpartum I recommend starting with a wall plank. The more elevated the more protective of your core. Focus on your inhales and exhales in your incline plank versus breath holding.
Incline Push-up: This exercise takes the incline plank one step further by adding some breath-to-movement, as well as a horizontal push exercise. Inhale on the way down, then exhale as you push away from the elevated surface.
Other anti-extension exercises include dead bug variations and band assisted leg lowering. I would also consider a back squat an anti-extension exercise as you are working to not let the bar pull you backwards.
Anti-flexion movements aren’t as widely discussed, but they are important to consider, particularly for moms-to-be and new moms. We do a ton of tasks that pull us forward into flexion, like baby wearing, lifting and lowering a baby into a crib/stroller/carseat, picking up toys off the ground, etc. Training anti-flexion movements will really work the posterior chain (back body) as these muscles work extra hard to keep our bodies from collapsing forward.
Goblet Squat: One of my favorite variations in pregnancy with the wider stance. The heavier the weight the harder your body will have to fight to keep from collapsing forward. Later on in pregnancy I recommend flipping the grip to make room for baby.
Goblet Hold March: Another variation is to hold the dumbbell with palms up as you march your legs out in front. Not only does this challenge the core, but the movement also incorporates balance and your hip flexors. The further you hold the weight out from the body the more challenging it becomes.
Deadlifts: One of my favorite exercises to include in pre-& postnatal programming. Why? A deadlifts mimics bending down to pick something up off the ground, which as we noted above – we do a ton! It’s common to see a rounded spine as people descend. A deadlift is a hip hinge, so step one is to initiate the movement by sending the hips backward and keeping your spine in neutral. Engage your lats and keep shoulders back and down. I like to imagine I’m squeezing lemons with my armpits.
**I’ve switched to a more Suitcase variation in my third trimester, as pictured below. I do not recommend looking up towards a camera though 🙂
Squat with Dumbbell press out: As you sink into your squat, press a single dumbbell out in front, watching that your chest does not collapse forward. Inhale down, exhale press out, inhale bring weight back to center, exhale rise. This movement works the lower body, core, shoulders, and is a personal favorite.
Anti-Lateral Flexion Exercises
Anti-lateral flexion exercises are so important to train for expectant moms. Think about all the carrying coming up soon, like lifting a car seat, diaper bag, or even a bag of groceries. The weight of the bag attempts to pull your body into a side bend position. Practicing anti-lateral flexion can train your body to resist the force to pull your body sideways.
Side Plank: Option to take a side plank from your knees as pregnancy progresses, and/or place a support under your wrist or forearm. Now heading into the back half of my second trimester I find a side plank off an elevated surface (knee down) to be the best option in my body.
Carries / Farmer’s Walk: You can perform this exercise as a suitcase carry (weight right beside you), racked at your shoulder, or overhead. Overhead or racked may be a better option in the first and second trimester, and then I recommend switching over to a suitcase carry variation in the third trimester. Although carries can be done with weights in both hands, priority should be given to single-sided carries, as this more mimics mom life. Your goal is to keep shoulders back and down, ribs down, hips even, and to walk tall and proud 🙂
Suitcase Squat: I love this variation during pregnancy. Instead of holding the weight out in front, you’ll hold one single weight on one side. Later on in pregnancy I recommend grabbing a step stool or something you can use to prop the weight up and bring it closer to you, should you need it. As you lower into the squat you’ll have to work hard to keep your lower half from falling towards the side.
Single Sided Lunge: Same concept, but with the lunge movement. You can hold the weight low, racked, or overhead (advanced). I recommend starting with a static lunge variation before progressing to the reverse lunge.
Anti-rotation movements train the hips and spine to resist rotation. There is a lot of discussion around rotation in pregnancy. Allowing your body to rotate isn’t typically the main issue. After all, our bodies need to know how to rotate and move. However, if you are pregnant or early postpartum, it’s key to understand how to keep your trunk in neutral so your hips and shoulders move in unison during rotation. We want to move in a controlled manner.
I also notice that during pregnancy our mid backs get super tight and we don’t get a ton of movement through the thoracic spine. So, adding in some rotation and mobility work will really help alleviate back pain, overall stiffness, and allow our bodies to move through rotation.
Pallof Press Variations: This movement can be done with a resistance band and door anchor at home. Step away from the anchor point, with the band held at your sternum. The farther away you are the more challenging the movement becomes. Inhale, relax the belly, and exhale as you extend your arms away from your body. You can progress this with a step out, overhead reach, pulses, etc. or move into a half kneeling or tall kneeling position. This post shares my band and door anchor favorites.
Bird Dog Variations: This could also be considered a bit of an anti-extension exercise too. But, bird dogs are anti-rotation because we have to resist our hips dipping into the direction of the extending arm. Hips square hips square! How I coach the bird dog: Inhale, let the belly go. Exhale extend the arm and leg out and bring towards center (exhale through entire ROM). Start with the arms, then the legs, and then progress up to arms and legs at the same time.
Single Arm Standing Row or Single Arm Standing Press with Band: The push or pull variation with hips square (versus taking a staggered stance) also adds in some anti-rotation work. As one arms extends forwards or backwards the body is being pulled towards rotation. The core has to work hard to avoid the twisting motion.
Hinge with Long Band: This movement combines the hip hinge with a little anti-rotation. The force of the band is going to try and pull your hips out of alignment. Not only will you get a great glute contraction at the top of the movement, but you’ll also be using calling on your deep core for that extra stability and strength.
Wow! As you can see there are a ton of ways to strengthen the core during pregnancy. I hope some of these movements gave you a few ideas 🙂
Need help creating a pregnancy training program, or navigating some of these core exercises? I got you mama 😉 Contact me today for a customized 1:1 training program. I look forward to connecting <3
Feel good mama.