At her online pilates studio called BodyLove Pilates, Ali Handley helps mamas and soon-to-be mamas gain strength, endurance and stamina as they gear up for – and then recover from – the great (but arduous) gift of childbirth. This month, she's serving as our Guest Editor, and we're excited to dig a little deeper into her expertise and refresh our own exercise routines for summer. Whether or not you've experienced pregnancy, we think you'll dig her workout tips – but today in particular, pregnant readers might want to take notes, as Ali shares a Pilates-inspired regimen for childbirth preparation.
As you enter your third trimester, it's completely normal to feel anxious (or even scared) about the challenges of childbirth that lie ahead. Certain exercises can help prepare the body for labor during the final weeks, easing those nerves and ultimately easing the birth process, too. Think of pregnancy and delivery as a marathon race, demanding muscle endurance, physical stamina and a strong mind-body connection for optimum comfort. With that in mind, here's how to "train," with multiple exercises for both the deep core and the lower body.
PART 1: LOWER BODY STRENGTHENING
If you plan on natural childbirth, strong legs will be crucial to ensure you can hold some of the recommended birthing positions, allowing gravity to assist you in getting your baby out. Here are some of the best lower body strengthening exercises that mimic possible childbirth positions.
Squatting targets the glutes, hamstrings and quads, making it the perfect lower body move for labor prep! Squatting can also help the baby get into the right head-down position in the lead-up.
Inhale through your nose and sit back into the squat. Exhale out your mouth, and feel your belly button pull into your spine. Keep this connection as you push through your feet and stand back up. Complete 3 sets of 8.
For an extra challenge, hold a low squat between each set for 8 breaths or 30 seconds. This is great practice for mind control, which you will need for labor. Focus on keeping your breaths long and even – this skill can be used during a contraction.
2. Pliés with the reverse breathing technique
During your third trimester, you'll want to begin learning a technique called Reverse Breathing, which is the breath pattern you will use in the pushing phase of labor. It's important to be able to harness the power of your exhale to fully release the pelvic floor, so the baby can come out. You can practice Reverse Breathing while doing pliés, which not only strengthen your lower body, providing support for your pelvis and growing baby, but also give you an opportunity to connect to the activation and release of your pelvic floor.
To set up, stand with legs wide apart and your feet externally rotated – think "second position" in ballet, with your knees tracking over the second toes.
Inhale through your nose and grow tall through your spine. Exhale a long, slow and even breath out your mouth, and bend your knees, lowering straight down into a plié. Focus on a full release of your pelvic floor as you lower down
Inhale again through your nose and lift the pelvic floor. Hug your baby to your spine, push through your feet and stand back up to the start position. Complete 3 sets of 8.
For an extra challenge, hold the plié in between each set, and practice the reverse breathing technique while your pelvic floor is stretched out. Take 8 Breaths during each hold.
The clamshell is an oldie but goodie to strengthen the deep muscles of the butt called the external rotators. In fact, it mimics the Side Pushing Position from the Bradley Method, a well-known natural birthing guide.
To set up, lie on your side with your knees bent, pelvis and spine in neutral and hips and knees stacked.
Inhale through your nose to prepare. Exhale a long, slow and even breath out your mouth, first hugging your baby into your spine to engage your deep core and stabilize your spine and pelvis. Then, begin to open the top leg up, but keep the heels of the feet squeezing together. Complete 20 reps on each side.
PART 2: DEEP CORE TRAINING
Hopefully, throughout your pregnancy, you have been working to strengthen two important core muscles called the Transverse Abdominis (TVA) and your Pelvic Floor Muscles (PFM). These muscles support your growing belly and stabilize the body. Now, as you approach childbirth, you will need to activate and release them to get your beautiful baby out.
1. Pelvic Floor Stretching
Your PFM have been working over time throughout your pregnancy to help support your growing baby from underneath and stop any organ prolapse. As you approach childbirth, it's important that you now learn how to fully release your pelvic floor for the crowning stage. There are a lot of ways to gently stretch out the pelvic floor, like in a plié, child's pose or just sitting with your feet together and knees apart in a butterfly stretch. This wall slide is an especially nice way to incorporate breath into it as well.
To set up, 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.
Inhale through your nose as you begin to slowly slide down the wall. Exhale a long, slow and even breath out your mouth as you continue down the wall, allowing your pelvic floor to fully release.
Keep going down and keep feeling the pelvic floor stretch until you reach the yoga block or pillows. Once you are 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.
Complete 3 times a day. Never hold a stretch for too long – around 30-40 seconds is enough. You can always repeat the stretch at a different time. The pregnancy hormone Relaxin has been working on your pelvis for nearly 40 weeks now, loosening the ligaments and relaxing the muscles, so you want to be careful that you don’t go too far in a stretch and damage the joints.
2. TVA Counting
Your TVA is a deep core muscle that wraps around the midsection of the body like a pair of Spanx, hugging your baby into your spine. When activated correctly, it cinches, lengthens and compresses, which is crucial during childbirth. During the pushing phase of labor, "TVA Counting" engages the TVA, helping the uterus in the final contractions to get your baby out. This is a test of muscle endurance, which is exactly what this exercise is working on.
To set up, sit on a physioball, yoga block or household chair with a neutral spine and pelvis. Inhale through your nose and allow your belly to fill up with air and your muscles to relax. Exhale a long, slow and even breath out your mouth, and imagine pulling your belly button all the way to your spine with the TVA cinching and lengthening around your midsection. Hold that connection, and begin to count out loud. Make sure to take small sips of air as you count.
Try making a sssss sound as you exhale. This is a great breathing pattern to use when you are in the pushing phase – much better than holding your breath and bearing down. The goal is to be able to maintain the connection while breathing.
Start out by counting to 10, and build to 25. Complete 10 sets of 10 or 4 sets of 25.
p.s. Did you catch our initial intro to Ali, where she told us how she got into Pilates in the first place?