I was one of those women who entered pregnancy just a smidge over-confident. “I take great care of my body,” I thought secretly to myself, “I doubt I’ll have the nausea or the exhaustion.” Oh man, I could not have been more wrong. Though my first trimester knocked me right off my feet into a much more humble state of mind, my second trimester brought both my energy and appetite back to me. What a relief! Because my body forced me to replace my typically-arduous exercise routine with a cozy couch-nap first trimester, I was eager to begin exercising again.
Whether you were an avid exerciser before pregnancy or your newly-appropriated free-loader is motivating you to adopt more healthy habits, exercise is absolutely one of the most important elements to a healthy pregnancy and an effective labor. The stronger your muscles are, the most efficient your contractions will be, and the greater your endurance during your marathon. Many unwanted interventions come as a result of maternal exhaustion.
Let’s start with a quick biology lesson. The uterus, the strongest muscle in the woman’s body, is amazing. When we exercise our muscles, we are literally “contracting” them to strengthen them. It is essential that you strengthen your abdominal muscles, pelvic floor, back and the other “helper muscles” to ensure each uterine contraction is as effective and efficient as possible.
A few tips before we begin:
1. Listen to your body. If exercise exhausts rather than invigorates you, that may be your body telling you that the exercise is too strenuous. Our bodies are wise – they know what they need. We must learn to listen to them.
2. Start slowly. If you’re not accustomed to exercising, don’t get overzealous and push yourself too hard.
3. [For most moms], pregnancy is not the time to finally start “dieting” to lose weight. Exercise and nutrition are vital to healthy pregnancies and effective labors, but this is not the time to try to “lose the pudge.” Exercise for strength. Exercise for health. Don’t exercise to try to fit into those skinny jeans before your belly makes its claim on your wardrobe.
4. Keep your doc or midwife in the loop. Everyone, but especially pregnant moms, should discuss any new exercise routines with their doctors or midwives. If you experience inordinate discomfort, spotting, breathing difficulty, etc., or you’re just not sure if how your body is reacting is “normal,” ask them.
5. Relaxin. This powerful hormone helps relax the muscles and ligaments in a pregnant woman’s body to stretch to accommodate a growing baby and allow this chunky miracle to pass through the birth canal. As such, muscles are more susceptible to injury during the second and third trimester. Keep this in mind during stretching and weight-bearing exercises.
Now, to the magical “pushing prep” exercises:
1. Plié Squats: Stand with feet a bit wider than hip width apart, toes pointed out, palms pressed together in front of your chest. Slowly bend your knees 90 degrees – hold in this position three seconds, and return to standing position. Do 3 sets of 15 reps. Feel free to hold on to the back of a chair or a wall for balance.
2. Squat and hold: do a plié squat, but instead of only holding 3 seconds, hold 30 seconds, eventually building up to one minute. Repeat 3 times. Feel free to hold on to the back of a chair or a wall for balance.
3. Cat-Cow: Begin in hands and knees position, wrists under your shoulders and knees hip-width apart. As you inhale, press your hands into the floor, draw your chin into your chest, pull your abdominals in, rounding your back, pretending that someone has a string attached to your navel and is pulling it up to the ceiling. Hold for three seconds, breathing deep, cleansing breaths. On an exhale, release your abdominals, stick your booty in the air, roll your shoulders back and shift your gaze straight ahead. Slowly move between the first phase (rounded back, abdominals engaged), and the second phase (back arched, abdominals released) 15 times, holding 3 seconds in each engaged position. Repeat 3 sets of 15.
4. Plank: Get into “push up” position; arms straightened, hands flat on the floor directly below shoulders, feet hip-width apart, fully extended with toes on the floor. Contract your abdominals, keeping your back as straight as possible, resisting the urge to either let your hips rise or your belly sag. Hold for 30 seconds, working up to one minute. Repeat three times.
5. Bound Angel Pose (“butterfly pose”): Sit on the floor with your with your knees bent, bracing your back against a wall if you need the extra balance. Pull your heels towards your pelvis, touching the bottoms of your feet together in front of your pelvis. Allow your knees to slowly descend towards the floor as far as possible. (Like “criss cross apple sauce,” but with the bottoms of your feet together in front of your pelvis). Remain in this position between 1-10 minutes, or as long as is comfortable. I liked to utilize this pose any time we watched a movie or while reading on the couch. Not only does it open up your hips, it also allows you to keep your back arched and strong, relieving pregnancy aches and providing optimal fetal positioning for a head-down, anterior baby position.
Find what works for you! Try to toss these positions and exercises in with a mix of cardio (brisk walking, stair climber, etc.), utilizing light weights when you feel your muscles are ready for it. As I mentioned before, listen to your body. It will tell you if you’re overdoing it, and when you’re ready to amp up the intensity. Use the “talk test” or “whistle test” to ensure you’re not breathing too hard – if you can’t keep up winded conversation or can’t whistle while you’re exercising, you may be pushing it too hard.
Were there any exercises you found helpful in preparing your pelvic floor, hips, abdominals and back for labor? Let us know!