The reality is, so often, pregnant people are vaguely told to “stay active” or to “book a prenatal yoga class,” with little further instruction on how to actually move their bodies during this new phase of life. What kinds of exercises can actually help with labor preparation? We tapped a couple of prenatal fitness experts as well as an OB/GYN and a pelvic health physical therapist to learn why staying active during pregnancy can be beneficial, and all the ways you can keep it moving to reap those rewards.
The importance of movement during pregnancy
Make no mistake, giving birth is no walk in the park. Prenatal and postnatal exercise specialist Brooke Cates, who is the CEO and founder of The Bloom Method, says she was once told by one of her exercise science professors in college that the average person in labor can expel three times the amount of oxygen that a runner expels during a marathon. “I’m pretty sure most people wouldn’t show up to a marathon untrained, so why are we leading pregnant women to birth untrained and unprepared?” she asks.
Cates, who is also a core rehabilitation specialist, suggests focusing on a well-rounded training protocol that includes both strength and mobility exercises for labor preparation. Specifically, she says some of the most important muscle groups to train throughout pregnancy are the glutes, core (including the pelvic floor), quads, hamstrings, adductors, biceps, shoulders, and upper back muscles.
“Labor is truly an athletic event,” says The Sculpt Society founder Megan Roup, who created a TSS MAMA prenatal program. “So as long as you're cleared by your doctor to work out, we want to find a way of moving that helps build strength and endurance.”
Suffice it to say, Charlotte may have been scared to pick up her pace (heck, you may be, too), but with the right movements—and your doctor’s approval—it can do a world of good for your pregnancy, as well as your birthing journey.
Six exercises for labor preparation
1. Pelvic floor exercises paired with 360 breathing
The muscles in the pelvic floor are often hit the hardest during pregnancy and labor. Because of this, board-certified OB/GYN physician and Poise® partner Staci Tanouye, MD, recommends pelvic floor exercises, such as kegels, first and foremost. “While general exercise helps maintain a healthy body weight and overall health, pelvic floor exercises strengthen muscle control and urination,” she explains. “Incorporating pelvic floor strengthening exercises into your weekly fitness routine is very beneficial to your pelvic health and can even help reduce your chances of experiencing bladder leaks later in life.” Pelvic health physical therapist and Poise® partner Heather Jeffcoat, DPT, says different kegel exercises can be useful for different scenarios, depending on your goals.
Instead of stopping at the exercises alone, Roup also suggests incorporating 360 breathing into the practice to really prepare for contractions during labor. (Fortunately, she has six videos dedicated to this very strategy.)
What is 360 breathing? “Diaphragmatic breathing or 360 breathing places the body into a parasympathetic state, aiding in the body's natural form of pain relief,” explains Cates, who also recommends the method. “This breath also prepares the pelvic floor for the pushing phase of birth and with regular practice it can even prevent severe tearing.”
2. Squat variations
While many people think of kegels when imagining pelvic floor strength, Cates points out that the glutes play a major role, too. “Glute strength is vital for pelvic stability, the prevention of common pregnancy-related discomforts, labor prep, and core and pelvic floor strength,” she says.
And what better way to target the glutes than with squats? “Squats are functional in both pre-mom life and especially in post-mom life,” Cates says. “Anytime we can improve the way we perform a movement we do multiple times a day, we should.”
As for how to perform squats while pregnant, it depends on your strength and your doctor’s orders. Where some people who are expecting might be approved for added weights, others will be prescribed bodyweight movements. Talk to your doctor to find out what will work best for you.
Check out Roup's demo of proper form:
While pregnant, it’s not uncommon to experience discomfort due to postural misalignment thanks to a growing belly, which puts tension on the back. According to Cates, a great way to mitigate this is to incorporate rows into your prenatal and postnatal fitness routines (after all, once you give birth, you’ll likely be carrying your baby much of the day, which can also put pressure on your posture). “With the changes that happen during pregnancy, training the posterior chain is vital to decreasing discomforts and especially postural alignment,” Cates says.
Keep your back safe by doing rows the right way:
To further target the glutes, Cates recommends deadlifts, which have the added bonus of targeting the hamstrings, too—creating more stability for the pelvis and improving posture. Deadlifts also “open and close the pelvis, providing optimum training of both the lengthening and contracting phases of the pelvic floor muscles,” she adds.
If you need a primer:
5. Shoulder presses and bicep curls
Prenatal exercise doesn’t only have to focus on the muscles that you’ll use directly in labor. Cates says it’s important to think about which muscles you’ll need to be strong after birth, too—like those you'll be using to hold your baby and possibly maintain your posture during breastfeeding. “Upper body strength is a must,” she says. Her recommendations? Shoulder presses and bicep curls. Both can be tailored to your fitness level by changing the amount of weight you use, and can be done freestanding, seated, or with a machine, which makes them accessible movements for all trimesters.
You can also try this variation with a resistance band:
6. Mobility work
Cates reminds us that mobility and flexibility go a long way in both labor and in postnatal life. With that in mind, she recommends incorporating chest openers (to help with proper breathing from the diaphragm), 90/90 stretches (which target the hips), figure-4 stretches (for both the hips and glutes, which get heavily used to support your growing belly), and isometric deep birth squats to really lean into the muscles and joints that will play the most pivotal roles during labor.
Exercises to steer clear of while pregnant
While experts almost always recommend staying active during pregnancy, there are some workouts that aren’t typically advisable while carrying.
Dr. Jeffcoat says that high risk contact sports, like soccer or basketball, should be discontinued immediately, as unintended contact could cause complications for your pregnancy. “In the second trimester, patients should stop activities with a risk of falling,” she adds.
Although most OBs will clear regular runners like Charlotte to continue their easy runs as long as they can keep breathing comfortably, Dr. Jeffcoat takes a conservative approach. Throughout pregnancy, she recommends modifying running or jumping activities to lower impact and reduce strain, she says. “For example, I’ll have patients scale down runs to forward lunges or quick single-leg mini squats.”
When to refrain from exercise entirely
While most patients can (and should) engage in exercise while pregnant, there are some instances when doctors will advise against it. Generally speaking, Cates says that bleeding or spotting, hyperemesis gravidarum (aka persistent nausea and vomiting during pregnancy), polyhydramnios (an occurrence where there’s too much amniotic fluid around the baby), and placenta previa (when a baby’s placenta covers the mother’s cervix) are some of the reasons patients are told to limit or omit exercise during pregnancy. Roup adds that preeclampsia, high blood pressure, and cervical issues are other causes for concern. “So it's important to check with your doctor before you decide to exercise,” she says.
One more thing…
Thinking back to Charlotte, Roup says not to fear cardio while pregnant. “As long as you are cleared by your doctor and you were doing cardio before you got pregnant (and it feels okay) you are welcome to do cardio,” she says. “It's important in any pregnancy to listen to your body, modify as needed, and find a way of moving that feels good.”
While a pre- or postnatal certified instructor may not seem necessary, Cates says that they can greatly benefit your journey. “When we are provided with an opportunity to show up for birth better prepared, we are offered the empowered birth experience that we all deserve,” she says.
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