Strength and Core Conditioning During Pregnancy

Strength Training and Core Conditioning during Pregnancy

In the not-too-distant past, it was presumed that weight lifting and other resistance exercises might be too stressful and cause injury during pregnancy. However, it is now widely recognized in both the fitness and medical communities that strength training, with appropriate modifications, provides many outstanding benefits to a woman's overall prenatal and postpartum physical and mental well-being.

Benefits of Strength Training during Pregnancy:

  • Controls excessive weight gain.
  • Reduces or avoids common pregnancy and postpartum discomforts.
  • Builds adequate strength for lifting and carrying your baby and heavy baby-equipment.
  • Improves your overall state of mind during and after pregnancy.
  • Helps you cope better with the stressors of pregnancy and new motherhood.

Pregnancy Exercise: Strength Training During Pregnancy, A Functional Approach

Prenatal strength training programs should always seek to counterbalance the alignment changes and system-wide functional muscular imbalances that occur in specific muscle groups during pregnancy. To maintain safety and achieve the best exercise-results, you will want to become familiar with the muscles most affected during this time.

Muscles that Weaken during Pregnancy:

  • Hamstring; back of the thigh
  • Gluteals; buttocks
  • Abdominals: more details given below
  • Upper back extensors
  • Low and mid fibers of the trapezius
  • External rotators of the shoulder girdle
  • Serratus anterior; scapular depression

For more background on muscular imbalances during pregnancy, please consult the Physiological Adaptations of Pregnancy page of this web site.

Importance of Neutral Spine while Exercising during Pregnancy

When strength-training during pregnancy, select exercises that require you to support and stabilize your spine in the neutral position. These types of exercises, also called core conditioning or functional exercises, train the torso and limbs to work synergistically and improve body mechanics.

Benefits of the Neutral Spine Position during Exercise

  • Supports and protects the spine; strengthens deep core muscles
  • Maintains good posture
  • Prevents or lessens muscular imbalances
  • Avoids many pregnancy related problems such as back pain
  • Distributes the load evenly through vertebral discs
  • Promotes efficient movement
  • Avoids injuries that can occur from weak core-muscles
  • Avoids injuries due to ligament laxity

Pregnancy Exercise: Integrate Strength Training and Core Conditioning for Best Results

Resistance training exercises that require neutral spine stabilization simultaneously build core control together with strong, powerful limbs, and are far superior to other exercise modalities that either isolate one muscle group or rely on external support to stabilize the spine.

Most traditional resistance machines have back rests or other features that support your spine and torso while your legs or arms perform repetitions. Over time, these types of exercises can do more harm than good. Because the spine is passive in these exercises, it does not need do any work to support itself. Strength and power is developed in the limbs without the necessary corresponding functional strength and control in the torso. What results is a weak, non-integrated core with strong powerful limbs. This sets the stage for injury, and is especially problematic during pregnancy.

Some Exercises that Integrate Resistance Training and Core Conditioning:

  • Squats and lunges, using either your body weight or free weights.
  • Both upper- and lower-body cable-pull exercises performed either standing or seated.
  • Standing heel rises, employing either your body-weight or free-weights.
  • Standing or side-lying leg extensions, using your body weight, resistance bands or tubing, ankle weights, a weighted bar, or similar devices.
  • Front, side, and back flies, performed with free weights, resistance bands or tubing.
  • Compound rows, done with resistance bands, tubing, or cables.
  • Most of the seated Pilates reformer exercises.
  • Certain yoga postures, such as the plank pose.
  • Easy Ballet barre exercises.

Many of the above exercises can be performed seated on a large exercise ball to enhance core muscle activation.

When performing core exercises, always remember to engage the deep abdominal muscles (i.e. tighten your internal girdle) at the start of each exercise, and then maintain the compression of the abdominal wall throughout the entire sequence.

Pregnancy Exercise: Emphasize Form Over Resistance Level

Remember, resistance training augments everything—both the good and the bad. While always essential, maintaining good form is never more crucial than during pregnancy. As pregnancy advances and the weight of your baby grows, it will become more difficult for you to maintain a neutral spine. Always lower the resistance or weight load to where you can maintain proper positioning without undo effort.

Crucial Tips for Maintaining Proper Exercise Form:

  • For safety and efficacy, assume only positions that encourage your spine to support itself in the neutral position during exercise.
  • At the start of each exercise, contract your deep abdominal muscles, i.e. tighten your internal girdle
  • Maintain the compression of the abdominal wall throughout your repetitions.
  • Maintain neutral spine: don't flatten your lower back or arch your spine, or allow the spine to wobble or twist.
  • Lower the your resistance or weight-lifting levels as pregnancy progresses. Never sacrifice good form.
  • Avoid exercise machines or devices that build power in the limbs with a passive or non-supported spine.
  • Sit a yoga block or large exercise ball to help maintain a neutral spine position if sitting on the floor becomes too cumbersome.
  • Never use momentum when using free weights.

Consider Consulting with a Certified Personal Trainer

Consulting with a certified personal trainer who specializes in pre-and-post natal exercise is highly advisable, especially if you are relatively new to strength training, have a history of injury, or want to have a core strength-training program customized for your pregnancy. She can help you develop basic, necessary skills so that your workouts are safe, well balanced, and effective, monitor your progress as your pregnancy progresses, and adapt your program as needed. Most importantly, a certified trainer can help you to recognize and overcome any poor physical habits that may compromise a strength-training program.

Abdominal Exercises to Avoid during Pregnancy

The abdominal wall is stretched taut by the last half of pregnancy and therefore cannot function efficiently during exercises that flex the upper spine, (exercises like crunches) against the force of gravity. Most traditional abdominal exercises such as crunches and oblique twists, either on the floor or on an apparatus, such as a large exercise ball, as well as Pilates mat exercises that flex the upper spine, should not be performed once the belly has expanded to the point where functioning is reduced. For some women, this could occur as early as the fourth month, particularly if they have had previous pregnancies.

Pregnancy Exercise: Safe Abdominal Exercises during Pregnancy

Some abdominal exercises can be performed safely throughout pregnancy. Most transverse abdominis isolation exercises (either side-lying, standing, or seated) are extremely beneficial and should be included in every workout session. Pelvic Tilt exercises that isolate and flex the lower spine (either standing, against a wall or seated on a large exercise ball) are also valuable to perform on a regular basis throughout your pregnancy. Below are two of my favorite abdominal exercises for pregnant women. Both use a wall to enhance postural awareness.

Two Safe and Effective Abdominal Exercises for Pregnancy

  • transverse abdominis Isolations against a Wall
  • Pelvic Tilts against a Wall

Transverse Abdominis Isolations on a Wall

  1. Stand about one foot away from the wall, with your feet positioned hip distance apart, toes facing forward and your knees slightly bent.
  2. Using your hands for support, lean your torso back onto the wall.
  3. Align your spine in the neutral position, vertical pelvis, sacrum, ribcage and the back of your head touching the wall. Make sure to have a small gap between your waist and the wall.
  4. Inhale deeply through your nose, expanding your ribcage three dimensionally.
  5. Exhale slowly, hissing through your teeth. At the same time, pull your belly inward as much as you can. Maintain neutral spine—don't try to flatten your back, or allow the sternum to move downward.
  6. Hold your belly in as you inhale deeply through the nose, once again expanding your ribcage three dimensionally.
  7. Repeat the exhale/hissing with abdominal compression sequence two more times. Make sure to keep your belly tight during inhalations.
  8. After the third repetition, exhale deeply, release your muscular effort and allow your belly to expand naturally. Take care not to push your belly out at the end.
  9. Perform four repetitions.

This exercise should not be a challenge for your thighs. If your legs get tired, move your heels a little closer to the wall.

Pelvic Tilt Exercise on a Wall

  1. Perform the first six steps (1–5) of the transverse abdominis Isolations on a Wall.
  2. On your second exhalation, flex your lower spine, pulling your pubic bone up toward your sternum as much as you can. Your lower back will lengthen and press into the wall. Make sure not to move your upper spine. Keep the back of the neck long.
  3. Take care that your buttocks stay soft. Use of the buttocks during pelvic tilts dramatically reduces the effectiveness of the exercise. If you are in the habit of tightening your buttocks during pelvic tilts, place your hands on the muscles as you perform the pelvic tilt to help learn the proper muscular coordination.
  4. Inhale deeply, expanding your ribcage while maintaining the tightness of the abdominals.
  5. Exhale; relax your muscular effort, allowing your pelvis to roll back into the neutral position and your belly to expand naturally.
  6. Perform eight repetitions.

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