Having a strong and functional core during pregnancy is important. It can alleviate pressure on the lower back, help with better postural alignment, provide an increased sense of control during birth as well as set you up for a better postpartum recovery. That being said, core training can be confusing to navigate, especially the more your body changes. The confusion often lies around what most people think as your typical core exercises for the six pack abs (rectus abdominus) such as sit ups, planks, crunches, double leg lifts, which are not suitable during pregnancy. The goal should not be spot training your midline and instead, be more focused towards improving stability, pressure management tendencies (is she bearing down/setting the lift into her pelvic floor) correct alignment, breathing correctly and strength in every plane of motion.
What abdominal exercises are safe to do in pregnancy?
Pregnancy is a time to adapt and be mindful of the changes to your body and how your exercise selection influences the expanding abdominal wall and demands on pelvic floor. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding training your core completely. With a few guidelines you’ll be on your way to a strong, stable core through all three trimesters.
Where you are in your pregnancy will also determine what you should and shouldn’t be doing. During your first trimester, core work will probably not look too different from whatever you had been doing pre-pregnancy. As you move into your second trimester, or as your bump starts growing (again, this varies), you will likely need to start adjusting your exercise selection.
Here are things you will want to avoid:
❌ too much spinal flexion (crunches, sit ups) as this can overtax abdominal muscles that are already quite strained from supporting your growing baby.
❌Advanced back lying core exercises I.e double leg lifts. After 20 weeks or so, you may start to feel much less comfortable your back and want to eliminate supine exercises.
❌Deep back bends and overextension. Especially be careful during any yoga practice where these kind of movements are common.
❌Rotation with disassociations of hips and shoulders (rotation when hips and shoulders align is ok).
❌holding your breath and gripping excessively with your abdominals or pelvic floor (crucial to learn how to balance tension & relaxation)
❌front planking until failure. You’ll want to substitute any exercises that put a lot of load through your abdominal wall. Planks, push up’s, toes to bar. You can regress these types of exercises with an incline or shorter sets (10 secs). Modifying a plank to a bear position (as shown below) is another good alternative. The further you move into your third trimester, the more unsuitable these may become.
❌any core exercise that causes muscles to strain, burn, pull, cramp or cause lightheadedness, nausea, tingling in lower body.
Below are a handful of safe core exercises to do during pregnancy:
The foundation to core work: BREATHING. If you are breathing in a coordinated fashion, your pelvic floor and deep core muscles are getting a workout on every exhale. Combining breath work with functional movement is one of the easiest and most efficient ways you can train your body to allow the abdominals, diaphragm, pelvic floor to work in synergy and should be the main goal with EVERY workout. This is key for preventing/helping with diastasis recti and pelvic floor issues many women encounter. These are not mentioned as specific exercises below, but I will break down the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing and how in a separate post.
1st Trimester: Connection Breath (Supine)
2nd Trimester: Connection Breath (Hands & Knees)
3rd Trimester: Connection Breath (Seated)
Bear Position: This is a great exercise where you can focus on both functional strength as well as on your breathing, especially early on in your pregnancy. Although front loaded, the position of this movement allows for the baby to get out of the pelvis for a brief period time and enhance optimal positioning. When on all fours your sacruum lifts up, and your ribs and pelvis remain stacked. This is suitable for 1st and 2nd trimesters, however may not feel good for some during the 3rd trimester. Regress to an incline or stop completely if you feel any straining/burning/cramping/coning in the belly. Shown before are short sets with 3 second inhale/exhale 1 or 2 times. Rest. Repeat.
Pallof Press: safe for all 3 trimesters. This exercise teaches you to stabilize under load and correct bracing mechanics.
Bird Dog: a great alternative to the plank because it helps create core stability as well as stability in the hips, pelvic floor and shoulders. Safe for all 3 trimesters.
Standing Single Arm Row: a way to target the posterior chain, as well as develop a strong core. The focus is not to rotate the body as you pull your elbow back and reach in the opposite direction. Safe for all 3 trimesters.
ANTI LATERAL FLEXION:
Suitcase carry (shown with a barbell). Other variatoins include: Farmers carry, racked position walk, overhead carry. Safe for all 3 trimesters.
Modified Side Plank: this short lever variation will also have a strong focus on the glute medius. This may feel uncomfortable for some once you hit your third trimester. Know your body, and be prepared to make changes if necessary. A good rule is that the more your baby grows, the shorter your side planks should become.
**there isn’t a ‘one size’ fits all approach as every pregnancy is SO different. For all the pregnant mama’s out there, I would encourage seeking advice from a certified pre/post natal personal trainer who can offer the custom coaching vs just scaling the workout. As well as ensure the most effective and safest individual program for you.
If you are based in the Scottsdale area, I offer 1:1 pre/post natal coaching or virtual coaching for those based in the US.