Before we start, you are probably wondering what I mean by the “pregnancy pooch” and it may even be a little “off putting”, if you will.
In all honesty, I wrote this post several years ago when I first started helping mamas along with documenting my own journey’s through pregnancy. The “pregnancy pooch” was a term mamas would use to describe their tummies after having babies. At the time, I thought it was only fitting to title this article what moms were calling their tummies after babies.
Looking back, this was probably not the best choice of words to title this article. I can see where some may find it a little “off putting”.
Nonetheless, here we are. This article has been saved over 40,000 times on Pinterest and I feel compelled to keep the title the way it is for now.
Now that we have that covered, moving forward!
Training your core during pregnancy can be a confusing thing to navigate. Especially when you are unsure of what ab exercises are safe during pregnancy or how to modify them as your body changes.
There are numerous core exercises and movements that should be avoided during your second and third trimesters to avoid worsening abdominal separation known as “Diastasis Recti”. I will talk about those below.
However, know that maintaining abdominal strength and incorporating appropriate exercises into your prenatal fitness plan is not only safe when done correctly but it is also very important for reducing aches and pains and can even help with faster deliveries.
After three pregnancies in four years…
I can assure you that maintaining core strength during pregnancy is a MUST!
My third pregnancy felt much harder than my previous two. Not because of lack of core strength. But likely because my body probably had not had much recovery time in between pregnancies and because let’s face it, I’m getting older. I turned 35 a few weeks before she was born.
This is why keeping my core strong was so important. As the baby grew and my belly got bigger, I always noticed a lot more aches and pains in my hips and back when I slacked on my core exercises.
Not only did maintaining core strength help with aches and pains, I only pushed for less than three minutes and she was out! I couldn’t believe how fast it was.
I pushed for 18 minutes with my first baby, 22 minutes with my second and only three minutes with my third!
Prep Yourself to Push
Here is a good example of why having a strong core can help with delivery.
My second baby was MUCH bigger than expected. She was 8.4 pounds, 21 inches. This was two pounds and three inches bigger than my first. Needless to say, no one was expecting her to be so big.
During delivery, she got stuck in my pelvis with the umbilical cord tightly wrapped around her neck. I had doctors and nurses screaming at me to push so they could get her out and free her from the cord which was causing her heart rate to significantly drop. It was very traumatic for everyone, even the doctors.
I am confident that working on my core strength during pregnancy allowed me to push her out quickly.
My third delivery was by far the fastest of all three. Granted, some say that deliveries get faster with each baby. However, I also focused on my core the most during this pregnancy and only pushed for three minutes and she was out!
What are the benefits of strong abdominal muscles during pregnancy?
- Prevent back problems both during pregnancy and postpartum
- Reduce pelvic pain and pressure
- Make pushing during labor easier
- Likely improve recovery time postpartum
What are the core muscles?
In order to understand how a strong core can help during pregnancy, it is important to understand what your “core” is. Hopefully this will provide you with a visual to help engage the muscles that act as a natural corset during pregnancy and after.
Core muscles: Deep abdominal muscles that act like a corset around your middle section and the small muscles around your back.
“Core training” is strengthening the muscles that support and stabilize the spine.
Your deep core muscles are basically composed of two parts:
- Pelvic Floor Muscles=Strengthened by exercises like Kegals
- Transverse Abdominals=Imagine hugging your baby and drawing your belly button up.
The Transverse abdominal muscles are the muscles that wrap around your lower torso. These are the muscles that not only help to support your growing baby but they also work with the pelvic floor to push the baby out! This is why keeping them strong and engaged during pregnancy is so important.
These muscles also have a “pulling in” effect hence why they are sometimes referred to as our inner corset muscles
Strengthening the Transverse abdominals helps:
- provide back support for your growing belly
- possibly minimize abdominal separation (diastasis Recti)
- help push your baby out during delivery
- help bring your ab muscles back together after pregnancy
Strengthening the Pelvic floor muscles helps:
- Urinary Incontinence
- Improve Sex-Reason enough to work on these muscles, right?
How to activate your core during pregnancy
The best way I have found to activate my core during pregnancy is to imagine hugging/squeezing your baby and lifting her up with your core muscles.
Activating your core is NOT sucking in. The motion is a drawing in and lifting up movement.
- In a seated position, start by exhale as you gently do a kegel. Imagine you are pulling your pelvic floor up like you are sipping a milkshake through your vagina. (are you blushing yet?)
- Draw your lower belly in, up and around. This engages the transverse abdominal muscles.
- As mentioned above, imagine you are lifting and hugging your baby with your abdominal muscles.
As you can see in this video, I am drawing up and in, not sucking in. This is an exercise that can be done anytime, anywhere. As you can see, I do them while brushing my teeth.
What happens to our “abs” during pregnancy?
During pregnancy, abdominal stretching and even separation occurs in order to make room for your growing bundle of joy.
The two hemispheres of your rectus abdominal muscles, also known as the “6-pack muscles” are connected by a connective tissue called fascia. During pregnancy, this fascia stretches as the baby grows and the two hemispheres begin to separate.
This abdominal separation is a necessary and natural process. However, often times these muscles do not go back together on their own after pregnancy and result in something called “Diastasis Recti”.
Avoiding movements or exercises that place too much pressure on this connective tissue is important in reducing the degree of separation.
Left unprepared, Diastasis Recti can cause things such as chronic back pain, urinary incontinence and a “pregnancy pooch”.
What exercises should I avoid during pregnancy?
I advise expecting moms to avoid any exercises, especially in the second and third trimester, that places too much intra-abdominal pressure on the abdominal wall.
This includes exercises like crunches, planks and pushups. Any movement that causes your stomach to form a cone should be avoided.
If you see any coning while preforming certain exercises, this is an indication that there is too much pressure on the intra-abdominal wall and those exercises should be avoided.
What about crunches?
Being as straightforward as possible, there is absolutely no benefit to doing crunches during pregnancy and they can actually make abdominal separation worse.
Crunches specifically target the “6-pack muscles” which is not the entire core as a unit. This means that they will not provide the necessary back and pelvic strengthening and support needed in pregnancy and postpartum. So just don’t do them!
You definitely do not want that!
Can proper Nutrition help Prevent Diastasis Recti?
Yes! Proper nutrition is the number one most important thing to focus on during pregnancy.
Gaining too much extra body weight during pregnancy can lead to greater degree of abdominal separation.
During pregnancy, I always say…
“What you feed your body, you feed your baby. You wouldn’t feed your baby processed food when they are born, right? Don’t neglect proper nutrition while your baby is developing at the most important time of their lives.Healthy eating habits developed during pregnancy will last you a lifetime!
I also took collagen protein every single day during my pregnancies. The connective tissue in our bodies is composed primarily of collagen. Adding collagen can help reduce the severity of stretching of the fascia that connects the two hemispheres of your abdominal muscles.
Not only can collagen help with abdominal separation, it can also help reduce stretch marks and reduce aches and pains caused by the loosening of your joints during pregnancy.
What ab exercises are safe during pregnancy?
First thing first.
These exercises are safe during pregnancy however each pregnancy is different and if you have any questions or apprehension about exercising during pregnancy, please consult with you healthcare provider.
Here are 6 of my favorite safe ab exercises during pregnancy
1. Bird Dogs
- Start on all fours in a table top position with a flat back. Shoulders directly over wrists and hips over knees
- Extend opposite arm and leg, engaging the core muscles (belly button to spine) to help keep your balance
- Keeping core engaged, pull your elbow and your knee under your torso and then slowly extend again.
- Repeat for 20-30 seconds or as many times possible while maintaining good form.
- Repeat on opposite side
- Begin on all fours in a table top position with a flat back. Shoulders directly over wrists and hips over knees
- Inhale to arch your back, reaching your tailbone to the sky and chest forward (cow)
- Exhale to round your spine with your head and tailbone reaching for the ground while the middle of the back reaches for the spine. (cat)
- Remember to draw your belly button to spine and hug your baby during the “cat” phase.
- Repeat for 20-30 seconds or as many times possible while maintaining good form.
- Repeat on opposite side
3. Pelvic Tilts/Vacuum’s
This exercise can be done by “zipping-up your naval” . Imagine you are literally hugging your baby with your core muscles. When activating your pelvic floor to do kegals, imagine you are sipping a milkshake through your vagina.
Try not to blush!
- Place feet shoulder width apart and keep spine straight
- Take a deep breath in and while you exhale, slowly “zip up” your belly by lifting up from your pelvis and imagine drawing your pelvis slightly up toward your ribs
- Hold for 5-10 seconds or as long as you can maintain proper form
- Repeat 10 reps
Bringing awareness to our core by, “hugging our baby” will help maintain better posture, alleviate back pain and help support the pelvis during pregnancy.
In the video above, I am doing pelvic tilts/vacuums while brushing my teeth. I did this exercise almost every single time I brushed my teeth, morning and night. It was a great time to remember to get them done!
- Image 1 below
- Start on your back (only if you are able to get up and down comfortably)
- TIP-Start on your side, then roll to your back. When standing up, do the opposite. Roll to your side and then stand up. This will help reduce stress on that thin fascia connecting your abdominal muscles which is important in preventing Diastasis Recti.
- Engage your pelvic floor (think kegals) and draw your core up(think zipping up from your pelvic floor)
- Push through your heels and squeeze your bottom to push your hips off the ground.
- Focus on keeping the core engaged during the entire movement. DO NOT over arch your back.
- Hold 5-10 seconds
- Relax and repeat 10 times
- *squeezing a pillow or small ball between your knees while performing this exercise may help you keep your pelvic floor engaged.
5. Reverse Plank
- Image 2 above
- Start in a seated position with your arms straight behind your legs extended in front.
- Slowly begin to “zip up your belly” and while hugging your baby tight with your core, slowly squeeze your glutes to lift your bottom off of the ground.
- Push through the palms of your hands and squeeze the back of your upper arms.
- Press up and out of the shoulders. Do not allow shoulders to creep up toward your neck.
- Imagine drawing your belly button up toward your ribs. Again, think “zipping up” from your pelvic floor, not sucking in.
- Engage your legs and reach through your toes
- Hold for 15-20 Seconds
- Repeat 10 times
6. Vacuum Twists
These are very similar to the Pelvic tilt/vacuum exercise above except you are going to add a slight twist.
- Hold the vacuum/pelvic tilt and add 10-20 small twists.
- Focus on not allowing your hips to move with the twisting motion. All the movement should come from your core, not your hips.
- Repeat for 3 sets of 10-20
There you have it! These are a few of my favorite ab exercises during pregnancy.
I’m only one email away from helping you reach your goals or answer any questions. Never hesitate to reach out!
***As always, it is best to consult with your healthcare provider to discuss the most appropriate avenue of exercise for each individual persons and pregnancies.
Brooke is a certified Prenatal and Postnatal Exercise Specialist with a Bachelors of Science degree in Kinesiology-Exercise Science. She is also a mom of 3 girls with more than 15 years of experience in health and fitness. Brooke’s goal at Struggles of a Fit Mom is to help motivate, educate and inspire other busy mamas who struggle with finding time, energy and motivation to take care of themselves in the chaos of motherhood.