Your core stomach muscles will play a big role during labour. How can you exercise this area safely?
Pushing out your baby will be one of the most strenuous activities you will ever undertake. It requires strength and knowledge of your body, and it helps to strengthen the necessary muscles in order to use them most efficiently.
The benefits of working your abdominal muscles
Working your abdominal muscles safely during pregnancy will help you regain your lean look sooner after birth, and also ensure a more comfortable pregnancy as backache and poor breathing are less likely.
Many pregnancy-related symptoms have a lot to do with posture and well toned, strong abdominal muscles will enhance correct posture and assist the back in carrying the load of pregnancy.
The role of the abdominals during labour
The benefits don’t stop there. During the second, expulsive stage of labour, having strong abdominal muscles may alleviate the need for forceps or a vacuum when you know how to push properly. Being able to control your pushing and work with your body will also minimise the need for an episiotomy.
The muscles of the abdomen are layered longitudinally, horizontally, and diagonally and they stretch in pregnancy to accommodate the growing uterus. Weak abdominals allow the pelvis to rotate forward, aggravating the curve in the lumbar portion of the spine. Exercise the muscles to strengthen them, not to strain them.
The rectus abdominusis long, broad and runs longitudinally from the front of the pubic bone up to the ribs. This is the muscle that helps you curl your trunk when doing crunches or sitting up.
Modified sit-ups are excellent for strengthening these muscles.
Internal and external obliques
The internal and external obliques are the muscles that make up the waist. They run diagonally from the ribs to the top part of the pelvis crest. The internal obliques lie under the external obliques. They help you twist and bend sideways and can work independently or with the rectus abdominus.
The fourth and deepest muscle, the transverse abdominus, runs horizontally around the body. It supports and compresses the internal organs, and helps to hold your stomach flat. It works best when you are on all fours pulling your stomach up.
Together your obliques and transverse muscles balance and stabilise your torso by holding the spine up in place.
Remember, you cannot harm your baby by strengthening the transverse muscle. In fact your baby will be getting a massage and a little squeeze every time you work out. A strong transverse will be your greatest ally during labour as it does most of the work of pushing.
Modification of exercises during the second and third trimesters
Your abdominal exercises have to be modified during the second and third trimesters and checks for separation of the recti muscles should be done. This separation is known as diastasis recti. This occurs when the recti muscle separates painlessly to accommodate the expanding uterus. There is no cause for concern. It is just the body protecting itself from over stretching. It is important that you do no crunch type (sit-ups) abdominal exercises if this has happened to you. You will regain your tone after birth especially if you get back to post- natal exercise classes.
Go to page 2 to see instructions on how to work your various abdominal muscles
Seated abdominal crunch
- Place a small ball in the curve of your back between you and the wall.
- Place your hands on your lower belly and contract the abdominals from the ribcage down to the pelvis.
- Exhale as you crunch, and inhale as you release.
- Be sure to maintain a good posture and not to “collapse” on top of your uterus. Repeat for two sets of ten repetitions.
This exercise will work your rectus and transverse abdominus. Can be done sitting on a chair, bench or even on your bed without the ball.
Standing pelvic tilt with ball
- Stand with your back against the ball which is against the wall, feet hip-width apart and knees bent at a comfortable level.
- Place one or both hands on your belly and slowly, while exhaling, use your abdominal muscles to press your back into the ball.
- As you do this tilt your pelvis up towards the belly button and exhale. Hold the position for 5 seconds, release and then repeat 10 times.
- Can be done against a wall with or without a ball.
This exercise will engage the rectus abdominus muscle.
Side to side reach
- Sit on the chair, with your feet hip-width apart and flat on the floor.
- Place your arms alongside your body and your palms and fingertips touching the chair.
- Slide your fingers down the side of the chair as you bend from the waist towards your right side. Keep your hips square to the front and only bend the upper part of your torso.
- Inhale on release. Repeat 10 times on each side.
This exercise is simple and effective. If you have ever seen a cat stretch you will understand how this exercise got its name. It will make you feel as good as they do after doing it.
- Position yourself on all fours, with your back straight out but relaxed. Do not let your back sag.
- Inhale and then exhale as you pull in the abdominals, round the spine, and tuck the hips and pelvis in and under.
- Release and inhale. Repeat gently for 2 sets of 10 repetitions.
Side-lying abdominal contraction
- Lie on your side with your knees bent and your hands or ball supporting your head.
- Contract and pull in your abdominals while you exhale (Important otherwise you will feel dizzy).
- Release and inhale.
This exercise is more challenging as your abdomen expands but perservere and repeat 10 times for 2 sets.