So now that you’re pregnant, you’re thinking this is the perfect excuse to kick up your feet and relax for the next nine months, right? Wrong! More than ever, you should take advantage of the weeks before baby’s arrival to train your body as much as possible for the marathon that may lie ahead in labor, and for the “after party.”
Whoa there, put that barbell down!
Careful, ladies, don’t dive in too vigorously! If you haven’t been keeping yourself fit up to now, this certainly isn’t the time to decide to take up running or hard-core weight training. Even if you have been doing those activities, you will have to tone down on them to adapt to your changing body and to keep your growing baby safe.
But one thing is certain; all Mamas-to-be should attempt to do a little light exercise throughout pregnancy, in order to keep her body fighting fit for the baby growing inside, for the labor ahead, and for a quicker recovery after birth. It’s never too late to start, as even the slightest bit of activity will lead to a healthier pregnancy, as well as a healthier you!
Perfect pregnancy exercises are those that don’t put too much strain on your joints, and don’t put you and your baby at risk. This means taking part in low-intensity exercises, such as:
Just remember that before you start any kind of exercise, you should check with your doctor to make sure your activity choices are suitable and safe for you and your baby; each pregnancy is individual, and exercise programs may have to be adapted accordingly. Early on in pregnancy and throughout, your hormones cause your ligaments to loosen in preparation for the birth.
To get you started out by at least thinking about it, here are the 7 muscles every pregnant Mama should focus on to make sure everything goes smoothly during pregnancy, birth, and beyond!
No, this isn’t the name of some famous Roman Gladiator of old; it’s the official name of your biggest butt muscle.
Who would have thought you’d need to worry about your bum in pregnancy, beyond wondering how much it might expand in the coming weeks? But believe it or not, this big muscle can play a very important role in pregnancy!
With one of these big muscles per bum cheek, your glutes are responsible for all kinds of movements, from assisting you when you walk, to helping you stand up from a seated position. These big muscles also play a huge role in supporting your hips and, in conjunction with another important set of muscles--your hip flexors--they help to keep your lower back safe.
If your butt muscles are weak, as they tend to be in so many people and especially in pregnancy, some of your other poor muscles will have to work overtime to compensate for that weakness; that means possibly developing some of the lower back pain so commonly associated with pregnancy.
Buns of Steel
Luckily, there are great exercises you can perform in pregnancy to help you get buns of steel, and ward away lower back muscle problems all at once!
One of the best exercises you can do to improve the strength of those lazy “glutes” is the Wall Ball Squat:
In this simple exercise, you place an exercise ball between the small of your back and a wall, and then slowly move down to a squat position, such that you thighs are parallel to the ground (pretty much the same position you’d squat into to take a pee in the woods—come on, ladies, we’ve all done it!) Then slowly move back up again, keeping the ball engaged between your back and the wall.
Try to do 3 sets of these, with 15-20 squats per set if possible. If that is too much, work your way up as your pregnancy progresses.
Located across your lower back and hips, your hip flexors work together with your gluteus maximus in so many movements, from sitting down steadily, to standing up again from that comfy spot on the couch.
In pregnancy, this muscle becomes shortened as your lower back becomes increasingly arched from your growing baby bump. If these muscles become too tight, as they often do in pregnancy in their attempt to “hold it together” at your arching lower back, the butt muscles can respond by getting lazy. It’s really just a cause and effect situation from the opposing muscles, exactly the same as tensing a bicep will result in a relaxed tricep.
The problem is that this ever shortening and overly tightened muscle can become seriously strained, while at the same time pulling the joints in the spine closer together; all of this can lead to the notorious lower back and hip pain so many poor pregnant Mamas are forced to endure.
Stretch It Out
You can break this cycle by working your butt muscles, as described above, at the same time as trying to keep your hip flexors as lengthened as possible, thus engaging those lazy glutes more often; this is your best bet for avoiding lower back and hip pain during, and even after, pregnancy.
Start by taking a lunge forward with one leg, and then stretching the arm of the backward leg up and over your head; next, tilt your arm and body slightly to the opposite side such that you feel a gentle stretch over your hip and backward leg. This gentle stretching exercise will help to keep your hip flexors as lengthened as possible throughout pregnancy and beyond. Do these a few times per side per day.
Like the uterus, the pelvic floor muscles are a part of your body you really don’t think about much less discuss, before you’re pregnant. But once a baby’s on the way, it’s really all about the pelvic floor, Mama! That’s because these muscles are literally the floor of your “baby house,” sitting underneath your growing baby bump and holding it all in place; these muscles are also key in labor, delivery and recovery.
If you want the biology class version, the pubococyggeus is the main muscle group of the pelvic floor, wrapped around the openings of the urethra, vagina and rectum like a figure eight.
This is the muscle associated with failing women after birth, causing horrendous pee leaks sometimes with a little as a sneeze, jump, or even a good laugh!
You Can Work These Muscles Anywhere
If these muscles get too loose and flabby, as they naturally become more relaxed and flexible through hormonal signals, you might just find yourself losing control of your bladder in all the wrong places, during and after pregnancy!
Luckily, there’s a simple exercise you can perform to hopefully keep you out of Depends after birth.
-Kegels: These are legendary for annoying most women, but damn it, they work! The idea here is that you squeeze your nether regions as you would if you were trying to stop your flow of urine. It sounds funny but really focus on clenching your vagina and rectum as tightly as you can all at once. You’re supposed to squeeze like this, and hold for ten seconds, with instructors recommending 20 reps, five times a day.
But really, just do this as often as you can stand it throughout the day; you can try it anytime, while standing over the sink doing dishes, standing at the bus stop, or even while lying in bed. Who says you can’t also have pelvic floor muscles of steel?!
While the outer abdominals tend to be the ones everyone wants to sculpt and show off by way of the much-desired “six pack,” in reality these muscles don’t serve much of a useful purpose other than helping you to bend forward and back-- and to look sexy, of course!
But in pregnancy, the tummy muscles every woman should desire are the ones you can’t even see, found way deep inside.
It might sound like something you’d find under the hood of your car, but the transverse (or transversus abdominis) is in fact the innermost muscle that wraps around your abdominal region just like a corset, and the one that’s going to be your best friend during labor. The transverse contracts involuntarily with a sneeze, but it is also key in all that pushing and straining you’ll be doing during birth.
Your Abs Will Need the Love Later On
It’s this simple; if you have a strong abdominal core, you are much less likely to suffer back pain during pregnancy, as well as increasing your chances of having an easier delivery and recovery.
Unfortunately there’s not much you can do to work your core once you become pregnant, as there are too many risks associated with working the abdominal region at this time.
But don’t despair if you didn’t have time to nurture your core into rocking shape before you got pregnant; your transverse will still do what it needs to do when it’s time to deliver. Your job now is to protect your core and that growing little baby inside by strengthening other muscles, like your back.
The image of a heavily pregnant woman placing her hand on her lower back, with a pained expression is as clichéd as they come; but the clichéd image comes from somewhere real—the fact is, the back muscles can take an honest battering in pregnancy as your bump gets larger and heavier with each passing day; and unless you look after those muscles, you definitely might start looking like one of those aforementioned gals.
Many pregnant ladies begin to slump forward as pregnancy progresses, due to the pull of the ever-increasing weight at her front from a growing baby, as well as ever expanding breasts. It’s like a pipe cleaner with a sack of ball bearings tied to its top; eventually that pipe cleaner is going to bend forward, and stay in that position.
By resorting to this position, a pregnant woman is using her upper trapezius (the muscle extending along the shoulder blades); but she consequently ends up under-using her mid to low trapezius muscles (found further down the back), which can lead to weakening. In this way, these muscles can more easily be strained as the baby grows, causing that clichéd yet also very real lower back pain.
Your Back Will Thank You Later
Luckily there are great exercises you can do to keep these low-to-mid muscles of your trapezius strong and in balance with the upper traps. This will help to reduce the likelihood of low back pain, as well as pain between your shoulder blades with all that hefting of a young child you’ll be doing for many years to come!
This exercise helps you to learn to engage your lower traps more often, ensuring your upper traps will get a break during your child-lifting future.
Sit back on top of your heels, then slide your upper body towards the floor, stabilizing yourself on one arm. As your body gets close to the floor, and the exercise gets more difficult, slide your arm out as far as you can, and then roll your thumb up the way. With a straight elbow, lift your arm and hold for 3 seconds. You should feel the muscles of your shoulder blade working here. Do 2-3 sets of 15 holds.
If your baby bump is in the way here, widen your knees apart to allow more space for baby during the exercise.
Stop worrying about that double chin, Mamas! This next exercise actually has you improving the mobility of your neck muscles, in a move also sometimes recommended to combat double chins; awesome!
When you’re doing an activity like you might be doing right now--sticking your chin out as you read something on the computer--you actually put a lot of undue stress and strain on your upper back and the muscles at the back of your neck; that’s because those muscles are forced to pull and fight gravity, as your head tilts forward, rather than keeping to its most natural position for relaxation, standing aligned on top of your shoulders.
In order to keep that kind of strain to a minimum, it’s important to try to improve the strength of some muscles we tend to once again think less about; the muscles at the FRONT of our necks, or the deep neck flexors. Strengthening these muscles will help to combat strain on your upper back and neck muscles.
Protect Your Neck
The exercise is called the “double chin” exercise (woohoo!), used to strengthen the muscles at the front of your neck known as the deep neck flexors.
Sitting or standing upright, lift your chin slightly as you draw the sides of your throat back. This is the same movement you would achieve by lying on your back and flattening the back of your neck to the ground (in fact, you can do the exercise like this as well).
Once you’ve got the position, hold for 3 seconds at the time, doing as many as you can stand. Strengthening these muscles will help to combat that strain on your upper back, and neck-back muscles.
Prepare to get the best arms of your life, ladies! Holding and lifting a baby day in and day out gives a Mama an arm workout without even thinking about it.
Sure, the little pipsqueak will be a featherweight to begin with, but it won’t take long for that little munchkin to start putting on some serious weight; before you know it, you’ll be heaving a 20 lb-er in your arms for a good part of the day!
Along with the car seat you’ll be carrying around with you (usually with the hefty little emperor sitting in it), and the giant stroller you’ll be folding and lifting in and out of cars, you’re going to actually develop some serious pipes before you know it!
Prepare for How Heavy Your Baby Can Be
But it sure will help to get your arms a little prepared for the work ahead. By toning and strengthening your biceps, triceps, and deltoids (shoulders) now, your arms will be fighting fit to carry that baby with ease when the time comes.
Bicep curl: This exercise works your biceps, of course!
Hold a light dumb bell in each hand--maybe 3-5lbs to start with, working your way up to 8lb—then, keeping your elbows at your sides, gently curl the dumb bell up towards your shoulders, then back down again so that your arms are fully extended down at your sides again. Concentrate on the resistance, trying not to swing the dumb bells, but rather controlling them with a steady, smooth movement. Do 3 sets of 12-15 reps.
Shoulder press: This exercise targets your deltoids and triceps all at once.
Holding the same dumb bells, lift your arms so that your palms are facing forward at shoulder height, with your elbows extended out the way at a 90 degree angle.
Next, raise your arms with the weights above your head, touching them gently at the top, and then returning to the original position. Remember to keep a steady, smooth movement for the exercise to get optimal results and to avoid injury. Try to keep your neck still during the exercise, avoiding hunching with the movements. Do 3 sets of 12-15 reps.
*Women in the third trimester might prefer to do this one while seated in a chair.
Upper Body Combo (Bicep Curl Shoulder Press):
To get your heart pumping a little more, and to get a good sweat on, you can even combine the above two exercises as time goes on.
To do the upper body combo, start with your bicep curl, then continue lifting your arms straight into a shoulder press. Do 3 sets of 12-15 reps.
Doing a combination of the above three exercises throughout pregnancy will ensure that you have sculpted, strong arms, just waiting to cradle and carry that new baby around with you everywhere with ease.
Hopefully this has helped you to understand which muscles you’ll need to concentrate on strengthening and looking after as best you can throughout your pregnancy. If you work on all of these guys a little now, you will have a much better chance at a smoother pregnancy, an easier delivery, a quicker recovery, as well as a more pain-free future with all of the bending and lifting that comes with raising a growing young child!
Just remember, once again, to please consult a doctor before you choose to do any of the above-described exercises to make sure that they are safe movements for you and your baby. Anything you try above should be pain-free and comfortable to do if performed correctly.
Remember also, you should really consult with a pre-natal fitness instructor who can better walk-you through the exercises, and probably other ones too. Talk to your preggers friends, healthcare provider, or pre-natal group-- or look online--to find an experienced pre-natal certified instructor in your area.
Here’s wishing you and your baby a happy, healthy, and fit pregnancy!