Exercise: Strengthening and protecting your core

AllisonMS, RDN, CDN

Strengthening the core does not need to involve fancy equipment, expensive coaching, or even a fitness club membership. You likely already know some classic exercises to protect and strengthen your core (Scroll down to the What to Do section for examples – the hard part is committing yourself to doing them!

And you should definitely do your core exercises, as the resulting stability, strength, and balance will come in handy throughout the entire perinatal period and beyond. Start exercising these important muscle groups pre-conception so you’re off to a great start (supporting the weight of a growing baby before and after delivery is much harder on a body with weak core muscles). During pregnancy, you should continue your core exercise regimen with modifications to accommodate your pregnant belly.

Postpartum, you can start getting your core back in shape as soon as your healthcare provider gives you the thumbs up. In addition to helping you be a toner mom to better lift up your new baby, a strong core may help prevent or resolve postpartum back pain, sciatica, urinary incontinence, and diastasis recti (a significant separation between the rectus muscles of the abdomen, sometimes occurring as a result of pregnancy, that could ultimately lead to the development of a hernia).

What to Do

Fit in core strengthening exercises however you can – on your own or in group exercise classes

If you prefer to work out in a group setting, yoga and pilates classes may be a great fit, as they will help you gain a strong core, and they are both offered as prenatal versions in which the exercises and positions are modified for pregnant participants. If you prefer to do yoga or pilates alone you can take a private class or follow along with an online video to do the exercises at home. If the videos are not pre-natal focused, do be sure to modify the exercises to protect yourself and your baby.

Practice these tried and true core strengthening exercises for your abdomen and lower back

During pregnancy, these exercises do not require you to lie on your belly:

  • Isometric exercises: Engage/tighten the pelvic floor, abdominal, lower back, and gluteus muscles periodically while sitting, and always when lifting, to help strengthen your core and prevent injury to the lower back.
  • Arm and Leg Extensions: Start in an all-fours hands and knees position, then extend your right arm towards the front and left leg towards the back as you inhale. Return to the starting position as you exhale and repeat with your left arm and right leg. Complete 6 sets on each side.
  • Bridge Pose: Start by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, hip width apart, arms down by your side. Take a deep breath in, and then lift your hips up while squeezing your core and gluteal muscles as you exhale. Lower your hips to return to the starting position on the inhale. Continue for a total of 8 up and down repetitions as you breath.
  • Pelvic Tilts: Practicing pelvic tilts will help stretch the lower back muscles that may have tightened after performing the above strengthening exercises. To do this, you can either stand straight with your back against the wall or lie on the floor in the same position as you began in bridge pose. Then draw your belly button towards your spine and gently rock your hips towards your face so that your tailbone lifts – you will feel your lower back will press into the floor or wall.

For postpartum, you can do all of the exercises listed above and also incorporate the following:

  • Plank and Side-Plank: Lie down on your belly then lift up on your bent elbows and toes. Squeeze your core as you keep your shoulders and hips in line. Try to avoid sagging your hips down or tenting them up. Work up to holding for 30 – 60 seconds.
  • Superman: Lie down on your belly and lift your arms and legs off the floor while looking forward to a spot a few feet in front of you. Hold this position for 30 – 60 seconds, or as long as you are able, before returning your arms and legs to the floor. Repeat as many times as you can.
  • Leg Lifts: Lie down on your back with legs extended. Lift both of your legs about 4 inches off the floor. Hold them up for 30 – 60 seconds before returning them to the floor. Repeat as many times as you can.

Practice 30 perineal muscle squeezes (oftentimes referred to as Kegel exercises) per day to strengthen the pelvic floor

Perform your Kegel exercises by squeezing and releasing your pelvic floor muscles in a repetitive, rhythmic pulse, such as with your breath. For example, squeeze for 1-2 seconds as you exhale then release for 1-2 seconds as you inhale. For a deeper squeeze, hold for 10 seconds and then release for 10 seconds before engaging the pelvic floor muscles again. A combination of the two types – shorter squeezes and longer ones – may be most beneficial. To learn how to do Kegel exercises appropriately, please read “Everything You Need to Know about Pelvic Floor Muscles and How to Strengthen them”.

Practice 30 perineal muscle squeezes per day. You can split them up into 3 sessions of 10 squeezes each day, half of them at a rhythmic pulse and the other half with a longer squeeze and release (or 5 faster squeezes and 5 slower ones during each session). Breaking up the exercises throughout the day makes the idea of doing the exercises less overwhelming and may be more effective than just one long session of exercising.

Kegels are fairly easy to do but remembering to do them is a different story. Find creative ways to remind yourself – perhaps commit to doing your 10 squeezes with each meal or at certain landmarks during your commute to work and back or simply while looking out a window or at a favorite piece of art on the wall. One of the great things about Kegels is that you can perform them discreetly (even in public or while at the office), so if it’s easier for you to do 10 of them at spontaneous moments then go for it!

While at home, perform your pelvic floor exercises in a variety of positions such as on your hands and knees, sitting in a butterfly pose, standing, or lying on your side.

See Everything you need to know about pelvic floor muscles and how to strengthen them for even more info.