Pregnancy and birth are physically taxing events but can also be empowering experiences. Exercising during pregnancy can help the birth process go more smoothly and offer other incredible benefits, lowered stress, better posture, less back pain, and less complicated postpartum recovery. Best of all, you’ll feel more powerful and in control of how your body is changing and growing. While most exercise is great even for pregnant women, there are some exercises you really should do before giving birth.
Why is exercise so important during pregnancy?
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, let me explain why exercising during pregnancy is so beneficial. Exercising during pregnancy has been shown to provide:1,2,3
- Shorter labor
- 49% lower incidences of gestational diabetes
- 79% lower incidences of gestational hypertension and preeclampsia
- 18% lower frequency of cesarean delivery
- 38% lower rate of spontaneous preterm birth
- May stimulate the healthy growth of the baby throughout childhood
- May increase the intelligence of the baby
- Decreases the risk of chronic disease for both mother and child
How your body changes during pregnancy
There are so many side effects and symptoms during pregnancy. It’s impossible to list them all. Each woman experiences different changes during the three trimesters, but some physical adaptations occur during every pregnancy. Changes occur with:
- Hormonal and metabolic systems
- Respiratory system
- Cardiovascular system
- Musculoskeletal system
- Abdominal wall and pelvic floor
These changes play significant roles in how and why you should exercise during each trimester of pregnancy. Some of these physical adaptations can cause pain and discomfort. Doing these and other exercises during pregnancy can help lower the risks and symptoms.
Common issues that arise during pregnancy
During pregnancy, your abdominal wall and ribcage expand to make room for your growing baby. Changes occur to the muscles’ line of pull and the ability to twist and turn and create force with your abdominals. Your abdominal wall also separates — something called diastasis recti. This process is normal; most women experience a diastasis of more than 16 millimeters during the third trimester.4
The lengthening and weakening of the abdominal muscles can cause discomfort like low back pain or pelvic girdle pain. These pains occur in the lower back, base of the spine, or front of the pelvis. Discomfort can arise in the buttocks, inner thighs, and lower abdomen.
Other common issues during pregnancy and after birth are pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence. Urinary incontinence affects between 17 and 25 percent of women in the early stages of pregnancy and 35 to 67 percent in the later stages.5 Studies show that properly exercising during pregnancy can help improve and treat these issues.6
Exercises for a Stronger Core and Pelvic Floor
Thankfully, exercising during pregnancy can help relieve these symptoms and help prevent your diastasis recti from worsening.7 Exercise can also help make healing your diastasis easier post-pregnancy if you start while pregnant.
A stronger core and pelvic floor assist in making the birthing process easier, faster, and safer. The American Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women without pregnancy complications should participate in moderate-intensity aerobic activity for at least 150 minutes per week.8
The following are exercises you should do before giving birth. They will strengthen and protect your core and pelvic floor, helping to prevent diastasis recti, pelvic organ prolapse, and urinary incontinence.
1. Connection Breath
Breathing seems like an unconscious process that requires no thought, but being able to breathe correctly helps keep equal tension through your core muscles to prevent diastasis recti and issues with your pelvic floor. Being able to connect your breath through your core and pelvic floor is a beneficial skill.
How to do it:
Step One: Get your body in alignment
- Stand tall, keep your rib cage over your pelvis, and don’t round your shoulders
- Don’t push your bottom out or tuck it under; allow a natural lower back curve
- Become aware of your core, starting at the diaphragm and traveling down to the pelvic floor muscles
Step Two: Breathe
- Sit on a firm chair, keeping the proper alignment of step one
- Place one hand on your tummy and one on your chest
- Inhale, breathing into your hands, envisioning your pelvic floor like a balloon you are filing with your breath
- Exhale, paying attention to your hands sinking and lowering as the air deflates
- Think of your pelvic floor deflating upwards
Step Three: Take it further
- Inhale, envision your vagina and anus filing with air, pushing your sit bones away from each other
- Exhale, and focus on your breath flowing out of your rib cage, tummy, and pelvis
- You should focus on the muscles of the vagina and perineum tightening and pulling upwards slightly
- Keep breathing, fully relaxing your vagina and anus when you inhale and tightening and pulling upwards when you exhale
- When you get the hang of this, try practicing it when you are lifting things in your daily life or during exercise
- Try 1 to 2 sets of 10 per day
2. Proper Kegels
Kegels are one of the most important exercises you should do before giving birth. Traditional cues for Kegels come up short. There’s more to Kegels than just being able to stop your urine flow while on the toilet. This process does help you to find your pelvic floor muscles but does not do much to improve your pelvic floor muscles. It may even be detrimental.
Here’s how to do them properly:
- Using your connection breath, inhale, filling your diaphragm, and feeling it lower, relaxing and expanding your pelvic floor muscles
- Exhale, feeling your diaphragm lift back up and pull in your pelvic floor muscles
- Tighten your abdominals at the end of the exhale, feeling the pelvic floor muscles continue to tighten in connection with your core
- Envision your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles working as one unit
- Perform two sets of 10 per day, focusing on quality and taking your time
Squatting is known for creating firm, round glutes, but it is also a very functional and important exercise for your core and pelvic floor strength. Doing squats with proper form helps to establish an appropriate alignment in your posture while you move around during the day — stooping to pick something up, lift a child or some groceries, or get up and down from a chair.
Squatting is also a fantastic posture for birthing. Throughout history, women squatted to give birth, which is still common practice. Using gravity and proper body alignment during squatting is a fantastic way to give birth.
Studies show that avoiding laying on your back and instead birthing in a squatting position can help the baby descend through the birth canal more efficiently and may result in:9
- shorter second-stage labor
- less forceps or vacuum births
- fewer episiotomies
- fewer abnormal fetal heart rate patterns
- less pain during pushing
There are many varieties of squats you can do, even while pregnant, as long as you are medically cleared to do so.
- Bodyweight squat
- Goblet squat holding a dumbbell or kettlebell close to your body
- Barbell back squat or front squat
- Dumbbell or kettlebell front squat
Most exercise is safe for pregnant women
Aside from these exercises you should do before giving birth, the activities you were doing before pregnancy are acceptable during pregnancy if you are medically cleared and have no complications. Movement patterns like pulling, hip hinges, pushing, and core work are still great to do.
Some safety guidelines are:
- Watch your intensity — exercise will feel more intense during pregnancy. If you were working out at a moderate to high intensity before pregnancy, stick to a 7 to 8 out of 10 effort while pregnant. If you weren’t working out at all or only at a low intensity, stick to 2 to 6 out of ten intensity.
- Call a medical professional if you experience vaginal bleeding, painful contractions, dizziness or loss of balance, headache, chest pain, calf pain, weakness, shortness of breath before exercise, fluid leakage, or even if you just feel off. Remember to listen to your body above all else.
- Avoid contact sports: sports that could result in falls, such as skiing or horseback riding, scuba diving, high-temperature sports like hot yoga, or outdoors in hot weather. Avoid anything that feels painful or uncomfortable, any exercise that causes you to leak urine, and any activities that cause your abdominals to bulge, like planks and crunches.
- Avoid laying on your back for any exercise or prenatal yoga in later pregnancy.
Exercising during pregnancy has many benefits — better health for you and your baby and decreased risks of complications before, during, and after labor and delivery. So, find your connection breath, and do your squats. Your body and baby will thank you!