ARTICLE – 5 REASONS TO AVOID TRADITIONAL ABDOMINAL EXERCISES DURING PREGNANCY
'Abdominals' refers to your rectus abdominis often called the '6 pack', your obliques which are the muscles on the sides of your torso, and your transversus abdominis also known as 'the core'.
During pregnancy it is important to choose abdominal exercises that focus on gentle activation of the core or deep abdominal muscles only. Traditional abdominal exercises where the aim is to 'feel the burn' in the rectus abdominis and obliques, as well as high intensity core work, could do more harm than good whilst baby is on board.
During mid to late pregnancy the rectus abdominis 'move apart' down the linea alba, or centre line of the tummy. This abdominal separation or diastasis recti is not only normal and happens to most pregnant women, but is actually a clever little trick by Mother Nature to make space for your growing baby. Whilst it can be healed with a combination of time and appropriate exercises post birth, there is no need to risk unnecessary damage to the linea alba, or cause further separation during pregnancy.
Exercises such as sit ups exert a lot of pressure forwards against the linea alba and the separated abdominals – as well as downwards onto the pelvic floor, but I'll come to that next.
How do you know if you are putting undue pressure on your linea alba?
You'll see a bulge down the centre of your belly, especially around the belly button, that looks like a sausage roll or Toblerone.
Pelvic floor pressure
The pelvic floor is a hammock type muscle in the pelvis that supports your bladder, bowel and uterus. The weight of a growing baby in the uterus and the laxity caused by the hormone relaxin means the pelvic floor is already stretched and under increasing pressure during pregnancy.
Many traditional abdominal exercises such as sit ups and crunches involve a downward force on the pelvic floor during the 'up' part of the movement, especially when you get tired and are trying to push out – not to pun, a few more. Even holding a plank for extended periods as you may see in any group fitness session unintentionally encourages you to hold your breath and put excessive pressure on your pelvic floor.
Why should you care about your pelvic floor?
A healthy pelvic floor muscle is imperative to avoiding incontinence – that's unintentional peeing, and sexual dysfunction, after pregnancy.
Lower back and pelvic pain
During pregnancy the relaxin hormone causes all the ligaments in the body to become more lax and stretchy in preparation for birth, and this includes the ligaments in the spine and pelvis. When joints are more mobile and less stable, they are more susceptible to injury.
An exercise like leg lowers involves the weight of the legs hanging off your lower back and pelvis. Your abdominals are stretched and weaker, your spine and pelvis move more easily, resulting in loss of technique, hyperextention, sprains and strains.
Why is your pelvis and lower back important?
The pelvis opens during birth and lower back pain is not something you want to start motherhood with.
Competition for space
As your baby grows it needs more space. Your internal organs get pushed aside and even squished to make way for bub – that's why heavily pregnant women tend to eat smaller amounts of food in one sitting or run to the bathroom to find only a trickle. Your diaphragm also has trouble fully extending down as you take a breath – because bub is in the way, hence the faster, shallower breaths of a mum to be in the final trimester.
Movements that involve lifting the shoulders such as fitball crunches, further compress this already busy space and will just cause discomfort – and possibly reflux.
Why should I worry about a bit of discomfort and reflux?
Because there are so other many abdominal exercises, that have so many more benefits.
Low blood flow
The increased size and weight of your uterus – and of course bub, as well as the position bub likes to lie in, means blood flow through the vena cava back to your heart may be compromised if you lay on your back too long. Pregnant women report feeling dizzy or 'just not right', when blood flow is compressed in this way. Guidelines advise against lying on your back during exercise after 18 weeks, but many women find they need to avoid this position earlier.
As many traditional abdominal exercises involve lying on your back, it's a good idea to source alternative exercises as soon as you know you are pregnant.
What should you do if you feel dizzy during a lying exercise?
Roll onto your left side and find an alternative position or exercise in future.
To learn more about suitable and beneficial exercises for pregnancy and recovery after birth, check out Glowing Expectations Pregnancy and Postnatal Recovery Programs.