Practicing Pilates is the Perfect Preparation for Labor and Delivery
Keeping up with an exercise program can be difficult when you’re pregnant, and you may find yourself avoiding it altogether, especially during the first trimester when you may be feeling nauseated and tired. One easy way to stay active is with Pilates, a mind/body method of exercise that strengthens the most important muscles you’ll use during pregnancy and labor: your abdominals, pelvic muscles and back. It’s also a great choice for those days when you want to exercise but don’t feel like pushing yourself too hard.
You probably know that Pilates is the latest craze to hit gyms everywhere, but what you may not know is that Pilates is a great exercise for pregnant women. The dynamic moves challenge you by helping build muscular endurance (you’ll need lots of that for labor and delivery!), flexibility and, most importantly, good balance, something you’ll need as pregnancy progresses. So is Pilates for you? Let’s find out!
What Is Pilates?
Pilates, created by Joseph Pilates back in the 1900s, has traditionally been used by professional dancers to keep their muscles supple, strong and flexible. Joseph Pilates created a routine of body-sculpting movements to improve posture, strengthen muscles and firm the abs and back, all without using weights. Though the original version uses all kinds of wild looking machines, modern Pilates has been adapted for us regular folks and can be done with nothing more than a mat.
Pilates may remind you of yoga with its intense concentration on body position, breathing and balance, but it’s more dynamic in that you move through poses and movements rather than hold static poses as in some forms of yoga. Pilates exercises are generally performed with very few repetitions, but each one is precise, controlled and moves through several planes of motion.
Because the moves are so controlled, Pilates can be a great choice during pregnancy since you have time to adjust your posture and alignment for maximum support and challenge. You don’t need special equipment, other than a mat, to get a great workout, and though it’s always better to take a class taught by an expert, there are books and videos available so you can do it at home on your own time.
Pilates can be a great add-on to a cardio and strength training program and something you can incorporate a few times a week to target the strength and endurance that these activities don’t always cover.
One bonus of Pilates is that it really targets the core: the abs and back. You may already be feeling back strain as you get further along in pregnancy, and Pilates works those postural muscles and helps you improve body alignment so you experience less pain. One thing to note: Many traditional Pilates exercises are performed either lying on your back or stomach, so seek out instruction that is specifically geared toward pregnancy so you can avoid these positions.
Below are some basic moves you can try on your own. Your focus should be on regular breathing and keeping your abs contracted and your pelvis neutral as you gently take your body through the motions. Perform each movement three to four times.
The Saw. Sit on the floor with legs extended and spread slightly wider than hips, feet flexed. Stretch arms out to the sides, parallel to the floor and twist torso to the left, bringing your right fingers toward your left toes. Exhale and stretch gently through your chest. Inhale, pull your abs in, sit up, and repeat the move to the other side.
Modified Leg Front Pull. Get on your hands and knees with hands shoulder-width apart and knees under hips. Inhale and contract the abs as you extend your right leg out, lifting it until it’s even with the hips. Exhale and return to start, repeating on the left side.
Spine Twist. Sit on an exercise ball or a chair and extend arms out to the side at shoulder height. Exhale as you gently turn torso to the right, drawing the ribcage to the opposite hip and look at your right hand. Exhale and repeat on the other side.
Side Kick. Lie on your side with head resting on your arm, bottom leg slightly bent. Keeping abs tight to hold your torso steady, exhale and extend the top leg forward until your knee and foot are in line with your hip (or as far as comfortable). Go back to starting position and repeat three to four times before switching sides. Make sure you maintain neutral posture as the leg moves forward.
Back Strength. On hands and knees with abs tight, lift and straighten one leg and the opposite arm, forming a half-X and keeping both limbs in line with the torso. Switch sides and pay close attention to your balance.
The Dos and Don’ts of Pilates
As mentioned above, Pilates focuses on core strength, so it’s possible for you to overstress your abdominal muscles. In addition, separation of the abs (diastasis) can occur later in pregnancy. If your abs have separated, you may want to avoid Pilates workouts or modify the exercises to keep the separation from growing larger.
To check for ab separation, lie on your back with knees bent and place your fingertips about 1 or 2 inches below your belly button, fingers pointing toward your feet. Lift your head as high as you can and, if you feel a ridge protruding from the middle of your belly, that’s a diastasis. Pay attention to how you feel, and if you experience any discomfort in your abdominals or back, stop! In addition, take care to:
- Avoid moves performed in the supine position during your second and third trimester. Lying on your back can cut off the oxygen supply to the baby.
- Move within a comfortable range of motion. Your ligaments will loosen during pregnancy, so it’s a good idea not to flail around too wildly.
- Stay controlled. Pilates moves often involve holding your torso in place while moving your arms and legs in different directions. Make sure you go slowly so you don’t lose your balance or hyperextend your joints.
- Don’t hold your breath!
- Don’t do any exercise that causes dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath or pain.
- If you’re a beginner, stick with workouts geared specifically toward pregnancy, which will provide adaptations for some moves that may not be safe.
As with any exercise, talk to your doctor before you begin Pilates or continue with it. For beginners, start with an entry-level class or video (see below) and make sure the instructor knows you’re pregnant so he or she can offer modifications.
Like any exercise, Pilates isn’t for everyone, and if you’re not comfortable with the moves, back off. Now isn’t the time to try anything too complicated, so stick with the basics and make sure you feel good, which should be the point of any exercise you do.