Core training during pregnancy is one of the topics that comes up most frequently when we are first beginning to discuss exercise with new members. Many women have questions about what they can or can't do to work their middles, how or when they should modify the exercises they've previously done, and what the goal is when training the core during pregnancy. A quick google search will show you everything from "avoid all core exercise!" to Instagram pages of women at 9 months pregnant during planks and crunches. How are you supposed to know what's appropriate for your body and your pregnancy?!
First...a note on what we're talking about when we say "core":
In most fitness spheres, the word "core" is used synonymously with "abs". Generally, when most people think of core training, they think of training the rectus abdominis (our "six pack" muscle), the obliques, maybe even the transversus abdominis, by doing exercises like crunches, planks, side planks, mountain climbers, or exercises believed to specifically "target" the "core".
We'd like to change that discussion and specify what, exactly, we're referring to when we talk about "core" training.
Picture an apple that you've eaten down to the seeds. What remains is the inner structure that helps to support the parts you aren't able to get through (the stem, the seeds, etc.). The more superficial apple bits you ate to get to the core were the rectus abdominis and the obliques and what's left is the "core". When we discuss your core, we're talking about these four muscles: the diaphragm, the transversus abdominis, the multifidus, and the pelvic floor muscles (there are actually several PF muscles, but for the purpose of this, we'll lump them together). If you picture a can of soda, the diaphragm is the top of the can, the transversus abdominis wraps around the middle, the multifidus is the back of the can, and the pelvic floor muscles make of the bottom. These four muscles work together to create dynamic stability and anticipate movement throughout the rest of the body. They are directly involved in respiration and the stability and mobility of our trunk.
The other thing to know about the core is that, obviously, our babies end up taking space within them. This means that just the presence of pregnancy will shift the balance of the muscles in the core. No fear, though! We can still make efforts to ensure these muscles work as effectively and efficiently as possible throughout the duration of pregnancy.
So, now that we understand what it is we're talking about when we say "core", let's talk about what you need to know about core training during pregnancy:
1.) Yes, We Absolutely Need to be Training Our Core During Pregnancy!
Now that we have a better understanding of what it is we're talking about when we say "core", it should be clear that it would actually be impossible not to train our cores! We need to train our cores to help our entire body function well and stay strong and adaptable to the demands of pregnancy and motherhood.
2.) Use Your Breath and Alignment to Facilitate Optimal Core Function
A rib-over-hip alignment will place the elements of your core stacked on top of each other. Imagine a straw: the straw that is straight up and down is going to move a thick milkshake more than the bent straw. Imagine your trunk alignment in a similar way. Keeping your ribcage (where you diaphragm lives) over your pelvis (where your pelvic floor lives) allows these two to interact more effectively. In addition, the way you breathe will influence the function of the core. When you inhale, think about expanding through the ribcage, relaxing your pelvic floor, and softening your belly. When you exhale, the pelvic floor recoils, there's a gentle engagement from the transversus abdominis, and the ribcage will move back in. When you're lifting something heavy, you made need more awareness of the lifting of your pelvic floor (meaning, you would more actively try to "lift" up an object using the muscles of your vagina/anus). You'll want your exhale to begin your movement and continue throughout the entire concentric motion (usually described as the "challenging" part of an exercise. For instance, coming up from the bottom of a squat would be the concentric portion of the exercise. The eccentric portion is the lowering into the bottom of the squat, which is when (in most cases), you'd focus on inhaling. You would also want to prioritize keeping your rib cage over your pelvis during the entire range of motion of the squat. Using this strategy will help you keep your core doing its job as effectively as possible.
3.) But what about my abs?!?!?!
Yes, your rectus abdominis and your obliques are important too! During pregnancy, they also stretch to accommodate your baby. Many exercises that attempt to focus specifically on these muscles (crunches, sit-ups, Russian twists, planks and plank variations) aren't the ideal choice for pregnancy. As a woman progresses through the weeks of pregnancy, crunches/sit ups (and all the variations!) will likely start to feel weird. One reason is that the action of a crunch is condensing the space available to your baby. Another reason could be that the motion increases the potential for excessive pressure on the pelvic floor. In addition, there's potential for putting excessive strain on the linea alba, the connective tissue that lines the center of our abdominal muscles, which may increase the potential for exacerbating a diastasis recti. We recommend holding off on crunches, sit-ups, twists with flexion (like a Russian twist) during pregnancy. Exercises where the trunk stays stable (like a plank/push up/hanging knee raise) may or may be appropriate, depending on your stage of pregnancy and how your core is functioning. How do you know what to modify? Look for doming of the abdomen, pain or pressure through the trunk/pelvis, or anything that feels "weird" or "off".
4.) Think About the Big Picture
Instead of thinking about how the abs will get trained during pregnancy, realize that all the muscles of our bodies work together as a team. Instead of focusing on what specific muscles are doing and training each of them individually, think about the tasks you're asking your body to achieve and the movements your body makes. When we think about movement this way, we realize that all the muscles of the trunk are involved in a squat, in a deadlift, in a push up, etc. There may be times when we want to specifically think about the muscles we're using, but the majority of our training can revolve around bigger, compound movements, instead of isolated exercises. Your (inner and outer!) core is functioning during everything you do. We don't need a 30-minute "abs" class to "blast our cores". We need to move efficiently and functionally, before, during, and after pregnancy! This might feel like a big shift in thinking, but we promise it will make your training more effective and keep your training time down so that you can achieve the results you want in less time.
So, what does core training look like at The Lotus Method?
Here's a sample circuit:
With these four example exercises and by using a breathing and alignment strategy that prioritizes our core function, we're able to get a total body, including our core!!, training session. Your personal training program will look different (based on your needs), but remember to think big picture, modify moves that no longer serve you, prioritize the function of your inner core unit, and have fun! Your pregnancy training will help set up the foundation for postpartum healing and an eventual return to full function and fitness.
For more information, check out these blog posts: