Around 70% of women experience physical discomfort like backaches and general muscular aches and pains during pregnancy. So many factors go into this, and it can’t be avoided entirely. However, there are ways to protect and strengthen your core muscles to help decrease pain during pregnancy and make recovery from pregnancy smoother. Let’s take a look at safe core exercises during pregnancy.
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How Muscles Change During Pregnancy
During pregnancy, the musculoskeletal system experiences many changes. One reason is due to weight gain, which alters your center of gravity and increases the force on your joints (5). Additionally, estrogen and a hormone fittingly called relaxin are thought to make your ligaments more relaxed during pregnancy (6). This is especially useful in your pelvic cradle, as it helps loosen things up and make room for your baby as he or she grows. However, this loosening means that your core support and posture are thrown off, and some moms develop a waddling gait. As your muscles work to support this shift, you may be left with aches and pains.
What are the Core Muscles?
When you think core muscles, your mind might go to a rippling 6-pack. These easy-to-see outer core muscles include the rectus abdominus and obliques. However, we can’t neglect the need to strengthen the inner core muscles which lie under that 6-pack — the diaphragm, transverse abdominis, multifidus, and pelvic floor muscles.
The main job of our inner core muscles, aside from holding our internal organs (bladder, uterus, bowels) in place, is to provide deep support and to stabilize the lower spine and pelvis (2). During pregnancy, the pressure of your growing baby and uterus cause these muscles to stretch out. Without as much muscular support, your pelvis can tip forward and cause strain on your lower back.
On each side, running from the lower part of your ribs to your pelvis, are muscles called the rectus abdominus muscles. As your baby grows, these muscles are stretched and may push apart, causing a separation down the center of your abdomen. This separation is called diastasis recti (3). (We discuss diastasis recti in our Week 27 Pregnancy article.)
If it persists after pregnancy, how would you know it? Well, you may be able to feel the edges of the muscles or may notice what looks like a bulge running down the center of your abdomen when you lean backward. You may even be able to press your fingers into the empty space left by the muscle separation. The condition isn’t painful and isn’t harmful to you or your baby, though it may further shift your shape and posture. Exercise won’t necessarily prevent diastasis recti, but it can help strengthen these muscles before, during, and after pregnancy.
What Core Exercises are Safe During Pregnancy?
Transverse Abdominal Contractions
This exercise aims to strengthen the transverse abdominis, which is the innermost abdominal layer. It helps provide core stability and helps during the pushing phase of labor (4). To perform this exercise: Sit upright against a wall or straight-backed chair to support your back. Take a deep breath in, and then slowly exhale, bringing your belly button toward your spine. Then hold this abdominal position (while breathing normally) for twenty seconds. Do two sets of ten repetitions.
Pelvic Tilt on Back
Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Exhale, tightening your abdominal muscles near your belly button and bladder, and hold that contracted position for five to ten seconds. You will feel your pelvis tilt upward and the small of your back flatten. Focus on contracting the abdominal muscles rather than tightening your buttocks or pushing with your feet. Do ten repetitions.
Pelvic Tilt on Hands and Knees
Get on your hands and knees with your back in a neutral position. This means that you don’t allow it to sag downward and don’t arch it upward. Tighten your abdominal muscles for five to ten seconds. You’ll feel your pelvis curl under. Do ten repetitions.
Pelvic Tilt While Standing
Stand 12 to 15 inches away from a wall and then lean back against the wall with knees slightly bent. Your back should touch the wall, from shoulders to buttocks. Contract your abdominal muscles as in the other pelvic tilts. You’ll feel your pelvis and pubic bone tilt up and your lower back press against the wall. Do ten repetitions. (If you’re comfortable with the wall-supported pelvic tilt, you may also try it while standing upright, unsupported.)
More on Safe Exercises During Pregnancy
Kopa Birth has a more complete resource on exercise during pregnancy, core and beyond! This article talks about safety, how much exercise to get, how to exercise, exercises to avoid, and more. Read more: Exercise During Pregnancy: Benefits & Safety.
For a five-minute core workout that demonstrates several additional exercise moves, check out this video.
Kopa Birth’s online childbirth classes allow you to prepare for a natural childbirth from the comfort of your own home, 24/7. Enroll today in our free online childbirth class to learn more about preparing for a natural hospital birth.
- Barratt, Judy, et al. The Pregnancy Encyclopedia: All Your Questions Answered. Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2016.
- Hogan, Emma. “Core Strength during Pregnancy.” Les Mills, 13 June 2017, www.lesmills.com/us/fit-planet/pregnancy-child/pregnancy-your-abs/.
- Curtis, Glade B., and Judith Schuler. Your Pregnancy Week by Week. De Capo Lifelong, a Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2016.
- Simkin, Penny, et al. Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn: the Complete Guide. Da Capo Lifelong, 2018.
- Karzel RP, Friedman MJ. Orthopedic injuries in pregnancy. In: Artal R, Wiswell RA, Drinkwater BL, eds. Exercise in pregnancy.
- 2nd ed. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1991.
- Artal R, O’Toole M. Guidelines of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for exercise during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Br J Sports Med. 2003;37(1):6–12. doi:10.1136/bjsm.37.1.6