Women tend to have a lot of justifiable complaints during pregnancy, ranging from nausea to back pain to acute clumsiness. While some of the challenges pregnant women face are unavoidable, fitness and flexibility certainly make being with child — and delivering said child — easier. While many women tend to turn to prenatal yoga, prenatal Pilates also offers women a unique set of tools for helping them adjust to the landslide of physical and emotional changes that constitute the landscape of pregnancy.
Some of the most common changes, says Gina Hughes, a certified Pilates instructor at Boulder Bodyworks in Boulder, Colo., “are the lower back and hips compressing and tightening, the body's blood supply increasing, and the head and shoulders rounding forward.” Add a 30-pound weight gain to the mix and you can see why pregnant women tend to resemble slow-moving vehicles.
“A consistent pregnancy Pilates practice, however, helps open the hips and decompress the low back, promotes better breath and circulation, and lifts the shoulder girdle up off the ribs, allowing more space for the organs and less strain on the head and neck,” says Hughes.
Sound enticing? That’s only the half of it. It’s something of an understatement to say that women also experience heightened emotions and stress during pregnancy (think PMS on steroids). Pilates tames the inner tumult through specific breath work designed to calm and relax the nervous system.
“Deep abdominal breathing, a key principle of Pilates, is probably the single most important thing for a pregnant woman to practice,” says Carolyne Anthony, founder of The Center for Women’s Fitness, a program that specializes in pre- and postnatal Pilates. Not only does working with the breath focus the mind, it keeps the abdominal muscles toned during the late stages of pregnancy and even helps to open up the pelvis and prepare for the pushing stage.
But before you make your way to the nearest reformer, remember this — pregnancy is not the time to decide you finally want to get buff and lean. You are not trying to make fitness gains but rather to maintain core strength and increase body awareness. If you are starting to feel the twinges of bump envy, it’s better to explore Pilates before you are pregnant, so you are familiar with the principles and can modify the poses with more intelligence.
Even if you are already an avid Pilates practitioner, there are cases in which prenatal Pilates may not be a good fit. Women with an incompetent cervix or placenta previa and anyone experiencing bleeding should avoid exercise, for instance. As with any prenatal exercise program, you should consult your healthcare practitioner before beginning. If you are given the all-clear, find a qualified Pilates instructor who specializes in prenatal clients, take a deep breath and learn to respect your body’s wisdom during this fecund time.
Tips for modifying Pilates while pregnant
- Focus on good posture and alignment. “At the root of Pilates is the idea of total body integration, which I think of as moving the entire body as a symphony,” says Anthony. “This is what a woman has to do during labor and delivery.”
- The goal of prenatal Pilates is to strengthen rather than stretch, as joints are prone to instability. Don’t go to the end range of the joints, as your body won’t be able to support that type of movement.
- Avoid the strong use of abdominals, such as crunches, which can cause the abdominal muscles to separate (diastasis recti). Any kind of sit-up or holding in the belly is contraindicated during pregnancy.
- From the second trimester on, many doctors do not advise any supine lying, as it can reduce the supply of blood to a mother’s brain. If you do have approval to lie on your back, don’t do it for very long. You can also modify exercises by doing them from a seated position, standing, kneeling or lying back propped up on your elbows.
- Squats are one of the best ways to open the pelvic outlet. Start working on them in the second trimester when you still have most of your strength — getting up from a squatting position can prove challenging.
Prenatal Pilates guide by trimester
First trimester: Abdominal roll down
Benefits: Strengthens the transverse abdominus and obliques
- Sit on the top of the “sit bones," knees bent and feet on the floor.
- The arms may be extended forward or placed under the thighs for more support.
- Inhale to prepare.
- Exhale and rock the pelvis backwards, pulling the abdominals towards the spine.
- Inhale to recover.
- Exhale to repeat pelvic rock.
- Repeat this exercise between five and eight times.
Second trimester: Squats against the wall
Benefits: Builds leg strength, works the muscles used for the pushing stage (pelvic floor), strengthens inner thighs and stabilizes the pelvis
- Place the ball against the wall and lean the back into it. The ball should be in the lower back.
- Place a small ball between the inner thighs if desired.
- Exhale and lower the hips until thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Inhale and press into the heels and squeeze the glutes to push up.
Third trimester: Piriformis stretch
Benefits: Stretches the piriformis and may help alleviate sciatic pain
- Start on the hands and knees.
- Extend one leg behind the body.
- Place the leg across the body.
- Look over the shoulder toward the extended leg.
- Press the heel into the floor.
Learn how to have a fit and healthy pregnancy with prenatal health and fitness videos on GaiamTV.com.
Images and Pilates guide courtesy of Carolyne Anthony