Why Do Core Training during Pregnancy?
As your belly expands, it may seem counterintuitive to work on strengthening the muscles around the area that increases in size as a natural part of pregnancy. Before I explain why ab exercises during pregnancy is not counterintuitive, let me tell you what the core is. As simply as possible, your core is defined as all the parts of the body except for your limbs and head. Think of your core as your abs, chest, back and hips. Post pregnancy, your healthy muscles will bounce back more quickly from labor.
Now we are going to go a little deeper into the core, specifically the transverse abdominis.
The transverse abdominis supports your baby during pregnancy. The fibers act just like a corset, pulling the core in from all angles (front and back). They are the most important of the muscle groups of the abdomen. The pelvic floor and TA keep your belly from dropping to your toes. The TA and PF, together with the uterus, work to push your baby out during delivery. Having those muscles be as strong and flexible as possible during labor while greatly ease your baby’s entry into the world and you’ll be grateful for that.
Not only do the TA and PF help during delivery, they are affected by just being pregnant. So doesn’t it make sense to focus a few ab exercises to strengthen them?
The transverse is activated throughout the day, sometimes without our noticing. Anytime we step off a curb or trip, the TA is activated unintentionally. As you are holding you’re your toddler or sitting at your desk, you should focus on contracting the transverse abdominis.
Just how do we contract the transverse abdominis?
Engaging your TA (transverse abdominis)
Try this transverse abdominis exercise from a lying position. It is easier to teach these deep core muscles to work better if you do it lying on the floor. During pregnancy – it is ok to lie on your back for a short period of time.
Note: you can also do it from a seated position since you might be seated while reading this!
Take a deep breathe.
Now place your hand on your belly button.
Take a deep inhale while letting your belly button and lower rib cage expand. Don’t let the shoulders rise (as they probably did in your first breath).
As you exhale pull your belly button towards your baby. That is action of the deep core muscle – the TA – as you exhale, it is working. If you felt your legs or your buttocks tense you were not using the TA, but your lower body muscles. If you truly engaged the TA, your hips did not tilt, and the only movement came from the belly. As you pull your belly button towards your baby – your spine might move towards the floor. This is fine as long as your hips did not tilt.
Perform this lying TA breath for 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off, or 5-10 repetitions. Move into a seated position and try 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off, or 5-10 repetitions.
This exercise is completely safe for diastasis recti.
This is easier said than done. It takes practice. It takes teaching your brain to not always take the easy route. Sure it sounds like a lot of hard work, but really this one move is game changes for your core!
Engaging the Pelvic Floor
The stronger you can get your pelvic floor muscles the more comfortable you will be pre-delivery, during delivery, and post delivery.
Engage the TA by performing the TA breath we practiced above. This time add a Kegel as you exhale. The Kegel is a simple exercise you can do while sitting, standing or getting ready for bed. And nobody will even notice you’re “exercising” the pelvic floor. Act as though you are stopping the flow of urine, or contracting your anus.
Perform this lying TA breath with a Kegel for 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off, or 5-10 repetitions. Move into a seated position and try 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off, or 5-10 repetitions.
Engaging the Diaphragm
But it’s hard to breathe during pregnancy! I know, I feel you, and I was surprised to learn that lung capacity does not change during pregnancy. What changes is the way that your body processes oxygen and carbon dioxide to accommodate your child’s needs. You may be complaining of shortness of breath. Funny enough, you are most likely inhaling 10-30% more oxygen in any one breath while at rest than you did before you were pregnant; maximum breathing capacity actually hovers at or above pre-pregnancy levels.
In addition, as you may guess, the way your body is shifting and stretching, both inside and out, also affects your respiratory system. It is fascinating to think that your chest alters its own shape to make room for your expanding uterus. The height of the chest decreases four centimeters, and in reaction, the diameter of the chest increases. In addition, the diaphragm widens when the uterus overtakes its domain. This adjustment, combined with the chest’s adjustment, allows more air to flow into and out of the lungs.
It is important you cue the diaphragm during your TA breath. Using proper breathing technique is important for any activity or just daily living, but it is especially important that you breathe properly when working out. Consciously using your diaphragm is the most efficient way to breathe. The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle located at the base of your lungs. Your abdominal muscles help move the diaphragm and give you more power to empty your lungs.
So back to that TA breath. We are going to add another layer! This time, I want you to place one hand on your chest and one on your baby. As you inhale I want you to feel your belly pushing out, as well as your lower rib cage. Be careful not to open your ribs – if the hand on your chest moves you will know you opened the ribs! Keep your ribs closed, just move the belly and lower rib cage. Your diaphragm is contracting as you do this. Then as you exhale, fully empty your breath and contract the TA and Pelvic Floor (as we discussed above).
Perform this TA breath with a Kegel, fully engaging your breath. Do 5-10 repetitions from a seated position.
The Core exercises I have you do in our pregnancy workouts will focus on the pelvic floor and the transverse abdominis but will also help strengthen your back—a frequent sore spot during pregnancy. Strong abs and back muscles will help ease the strain on your spine as well as on other parts of your body. Every part of you is connected, so getting the essential parts of you in good shape will have overall benefits as well.
What about after my baby is born?
Just as a woman’s body knows intuitively what to do to accommodate a growing fetus, it also understands pretty darn well how to settle back into its pre-pregnancy state. Within the first six weeks your body is “normal” again. But you have loose muscles, loose skin, extra weight, etc. So it is extremely important you exercise your muscles. I recommend starting with the TA breath and pelvic floor exercises…read more about Postpartum Exercise.
 Artal et al. (1995); De Swiet (1991); Lotgering et al. (1991), qtd. in Hyatt and Cram, p. 18.
 Paisley and Mellon (1988), qtd. in Hyatt and Cram, p. 19.