In a former life, I was the fitness editor at a pregnancy magazine (a fun job and actually pretty decent birth control!). Each month, I edited stories about what to do at the gym when you’re pregnant, oversaw prenatal workout photoshoots, and generally immersed myself in the world of pregnant and postpartum fitness. So you’d think that when I actually got knocked up, I’d be, like, the world’s foremost expert on how to work out. But while I had a pretty good basic understanding of the kind of exercise that would be beneficial to a pregnant person — and the modifications I’d need to do to stay safe — there was one area I found myself really unsure about: my core.
On the one hand, I knew that certain ab moves could increase my risk for the dreaded diastasis recti (aka the separation of the superficial abdominal muscles that happens to many pregnant women and can be challenging to repair). On the other hand, I knew that just ignoring my growing midsection completely wasn’t wise, either: After all, your core is literally your core! It’s what provides crucial support and stability for every moving part of your body, which is especially important when things are shifting and your center of gravity is changing so rapidly.
So when I met Ali Handley, founder of online prenatal and postnatal studio BodyLove Pilates, during my first trimester, it felt like the solution to my core conundrum. Among other things, Handley got me intimately familiar with my transverse abdominis (TVA) muscle, which is about to become your best friend, too. Need help finding it? Take a deep breath in, then exhale all the air out while pulling your belly button towards your spine. That corset-like sensation hugging in your abdominal organs is your TVA at work.
Ahead, you’ll read a bit of my recent conversation with Handley about what you need to know about working out your core while pregnant — and find a few safe moves to try at home. (As with any prenatal exercise plan, it’s best to check with your doctor or midwife to make sure these moves are cool for you.) Heads up: The kind of core work that’s most helpful during pregnancy won’t leave you “feeling the burn” (it’s much more gentle and subtle than doing a million crunches), but trust that you’re still reaping a ton of benefits.
Why is the core so important during pregnancy?
“Most women shy away from doing any core work because they think it’s not safe. But the pelvic floor and deep core need to be super strong to support the baby from underneath. [Strengthening them] provides a feeling of ease and support to the pelvis and spine. And it’s good to go into labor with a knowledge of what it feels like to engage and release your pelvic floor and deep core.
“These are also the first key muscles you need to rehab when you’re postpartum, so understanding how to activate them means you’re so far ahead of the curve. I bang on about core work all the time. Before any move, I’ll instruct you to hug your baby to your spine, and activate and lift your pelvic floor. And pregnancy actually gives you a good opportunity to retrain your body to find deep core activation before any other muscles move. It can be a total reset: shifting your focus from getting a six pack to strengthening the muscles that support your pregnancy, and retraining your body to fire from the center first, always. It’s an opportunity rather than having pregnancy slow you down.”
What do you need to be careful about, core-wise?
“Understand that the superficial muscles — the six pack or rectus abdominus muscles and the obliques — are designed to flex the spine forward, like in an ab curl or a side-bend. And when they activate, they shorten and pull away from the center of your body. There’s a tissue down the center of your belly, the linea alba, and all the ab muscles connect to that line. As your belly grows, that linea alba stretches to make room. The six pack will start to divide and move away from the center. If you activate those muscles, they’re going to create an even bigger separation. Even when you get up off the couch or out of bed, that’s using your six pack: They shorten and pull away from the center, tugging on that already-stretched, delicate tissue. Postpartum, almost every woman will have some degree of diastasis recti [ab separation], but the bigger it is, the slower and harder the recovery is.
“When you find out you’re pregnant, or even if you’re still trying to conceive, my advice is to get rid of any heavy flexion — ab curls, crunches, anything where you’re really targeting the six-pack muscle. You don’t need that muscle during pregnancy. Start shifting your focus from ab curls and roll-ups to planking and ab work done in tabletop position, which will work your TVA. And then starting in the second trimester, once your belly starts getting bigger, I would also stop planking. It’s possible to mostly use your TVA during a plank, but most people don’t have enough strength there to avoid engaging the rectus. In your second and third trimester, take out the tabletop work as well — it’s not recommended to be on your back — and do TVA work on all fours or in a seated position.”
What should you be aware of outside of the gym?
“It’s the pedestrian movements — getting out of bed, getting up off the couch, out of the bath, out of a taxi, lying down to play with your toddler on the mat and then getting back up — when you’re not being mindful, you are in fact doing an abdominal curl or crunch-type move. You can do all the great TVA and pelvic floor exercises but if you don’t take that mindfulness and care into your everyday life, you will be doing it all for nothing.
“And we can also talk about stacking: Because of the weight of the belly, pregnant women tend to have an exaggerated lumbar curve, an anterior tilt of the pelvis. TVA strengthening is key in countering this, but so is an awareness of your body alignment, which I call stacking. Start by placing your hands on your hips and notice where your pubic bone is in relation to your front hip points. In an anterior pelvis, the hip points are forward and slightly down, and the pubic bone is back and tilting up. Try to bring your pubic bone down between your legs — you will immediately feel your pelvic floor kick on. Then stack your ribcage right on top of your pelvis, and so on up the spine.”