5 Prenatal Pilates Exercises For A Stronger Pregnancy

Ali Handley, the founder of the online BodyLove Pilates studio for mothers and mothers-to-be, teaches us her favorite exercises to strengthen and prep for childbirth.
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Ali Handley, the founder of the online BodyLove Pilates studio for mothers and mothers-to-be, teaches us her favorite exercises to strengthen and prep for childbirth.

At her online pilates studio called BodyLove Pilates, founder Ali Handley helps mamas and soon-to-be mamas gain strength, endurance and stamina as they gear up for the great (but arduous) gift of childbirth. Today, she's teaching us five of her favorite moves to target the legs, spine and more, complete with step-by-step instructions. Don't miss the breathing exercise at the end and stay tuned for a follow-up, where she'll show us how to get back in shape after the baby is born. 

I like to think of labor like running a marathon – you need to train for it. You’ll need to summon muscle strength and endurance, physical stamina and a lot of mind control. 

As you enter your third trimester and approach your due date, it’s time to start to include exercises and workouts that target the muscles you will need to get through the challenges of childbirth and set you up for a speedy postnatal recovery. But never forget – your body was made for this! Unlike a marathon that you may or may not complete, you absolutely will cross the finish line and at the end, your prize is your beautiful baby! Now, let's start training.

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1. Hug Your Baby

There is nothing more important than core control and strength as you approach labor. The muscles of the deep core – namely, the Transverse Abdominis (TVA) and your pelvic floor muscles – support that big baby that you’re hauling around. Both play an important role in the pushing phase of childbirth. "Hug your baby" is my favorite exercise. Personally, I practiced it in every workout, on the subway, waiting at the traffic lights, and even while standing doing the dishes. The muscle activated by this exercise wraps around the whole mid-section, attaching to the spine at the low back and providing support while hugging your baby into your spine at the front. During labor, your strong TVA will help the uterus as it ramps up its contractions to push and move the baby down and out of the birth canal.

How to: Place one hand just below your sternum on the top of your belly and the other hand just below your belly button. Inhale through your nose and allow your belly to fill up with air and the muscles totally relax. Exhale out your mouth and imagine hugging your baby to your spine as the muscles wrap around your mid-section, cinching and lengthening your waist.

Tip: When you first start doing this exercise, watch yourself in the mirror. I liked to call it my magic trick. See how much you can hug that baby into you and make your tummy smaller. Don’t worry, it won't hurt the baby – your little one is in a fluid sac that protects him or her from any changes in pressure, so this just feels like a hug from mama!

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2. Plié

Pliés are a great exercise to strengthen the legs and glutes. If you plan on natural childbirth, it’s important to have strong legs in order to hold certain birthing positions and support you throughout the challenges of labor. But no matter how you give birth, you will certainly need good lower-body muscle endurance as you reach the final weeks of pregnancy and your baby gets bigger and bigger. Plus, once you're postnatal, strong legs will get you through all the hours ahead spent standing, rocking and stroller-pushing.

How to: Inhale through your nose and bend your knees, lowering straight down into a plié. Exhale out your mouth. Lift the pelvic floor, "hug your baby," push through your feet and stand back up to the start position.

Tip: Holding a low plié and breathing is an awesome way for you to challenge your mind control skills for labor. Test yourself to see how long you can hold the plié, focusing on your inhale and exhale and ignoring the muscle burn of your thighs!

3. Rotator Cuff Exercise

The physical changes your pregnant body endures greatly affect your spine and therefore your posture. Your upper spine rounds as your boobs get heavier. Your pelvis tilts forward and crunches your low back as your baby grows. Your prenatal exercise program should be targeting the muscles of the back, shoulders and core that help support the natural curves of the spine. Externally rotating the shoulders and focusing on stabilizing the shoulder blades can really help relieve any upper back pain and open up the front of your body to help you look and feel your best.

How to: This exercise requires a green or blue Thera-Band. (You can purchase these easily on Amazon, and they're so useful for lots of exercises and stretches you will do as a new mom.) 

Stand or sit but make sure you are starting from a good position, being your tallest self! Turn your palms up and hold the Thera-Band between your thumbs and hands. Inhale through your nose and squeeze your upper arms into your sides. Exhale out your mouth, hug your baby to your spine to stabilize and then externally rotate the shoulders as you pull the Thera-Band apart. Keep your upper arms squeezing your sides – imagine each arm is a door hinge, with your lower arm as the door opening up.

Tip: Make sure you are stretching out your pec muscles as much as possible. These get super tight when you are pregnant and can cause you to round over even more.

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4. Pelvic Floor Stretching

During your first and second trimesters, all we talk about it is strengthening your pelvic floor muscles to keep the baby in. By your third trimester, you also need to stretch and fully release your pelvic floor so the baby can come out! As you approach the final weeks, I recommend including pelvic floor stretching in all your workouts and even daily as you get closer and closer to the birth. Believe me – you’ll thank me later!

How to: Place a yoga block or stack of pillows against the wall. Stand with your back to the wall with your feet out in front of you. Slowly slide down the wall, your pelvic floor fully releasing as you go. Keep going down and begin to feel the pelvic floor stretch until you reach the yoga block or pillows. 

Once you're down, slowly butterfly the knees open and gently apply pressure just above the knees to get an additional stretch. Hold the stretch for 90 seconds. Close the knees and then repeat again.

Tip: Try doing some of your reverse breathing exercises when you are holding the stretch. This is another great way to challenge your mind control skills for labor.

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5. Reverse Breathing

Reverse breathing is an important technique to learn as you approach the birth. This is the breath pattern you will use in the pushing phase of labor. Now, I know this can be a little confusing, which seems unfair as your preggie brain is already foggy – so I’m going to break it down step-by-step.

How to: During regular exercise, your breath pattern when doing pelvic floor moves goes like this: inhale to fully release the pelvic floor muscles and exhale to squeeze, lift and engage the pelvic floor. In labor, as the name of this exercise suggests, you need to do the exact opposite to get the baby out! Inhale to squeeze, lift and engage the pelvic floor. Exhale, and with the power of your breath, fully release the muscles and completely let go.

Tip: If it seems hard to practice this technique in a seated position, try it while doing pliés or squats. Exhale to fully release the muscles as you squat or plié. Inhale to lift and engage the muscles as you stand back up.

p.s. More inspiration for mamas: have you met Amanda Watters of Homesong