Pilates expert (and mama-to-be) Andrea Speir breaks down the abs exercises that will help you feel great throughout your pregnancy, push during labor, and bounce back post-baby.
The fact that you can (and should) continue to work out while pregnant is nothing new. In fact, docs say exercise helps with common pregnancy complaints like back pain and sleep troubles. It can even make labor easier! Exercise also triggers the flow of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, to help improve your mood during what can be an emotional roller coaster. (Check out all the viral social media posts of women like this 8-months-pregnant trainer deadlifting 155 pounds for proof that pregnant women are capable of some pretty incredible fitness feats.)
But for the average non-trainer, knowing *exactly* how to safely train with a baby on board—especially when it comes to your core—is still a confusing topic. Enter: Andrea Speir, certified Pilates instructor and founder of the LA-based Speir Pilates, who happens to be expecting a baby. Here, she breaks down moves that will safely strengthen every part of the core for expecting moms, with a focus on "gently stretching and elongating all those tight muscles and ligaments." (We also recommend Speir's Pilates workout to battle bra bulge.)
"The combination of these moves will help mamas feel great throughout pregnancy, push during labor, and bounce back post-baby," she says. Basically, you should start incorporating these moves into your pregnancy workout stat.
How it works: Perform these moves three to four times per week, Speir says. (Or every single day if you like—go you!)
1. Supported Footwork
Reps: 10 per position
A. Round back and prop body up on forearms.
B. Bend knees into chest, keeping heels together and toes apart.
C. Extend legs out to 60-degree angle and bend back in (knees open wider than baby bump).
A. Bring feet and knees together, flex feet.
B. Extend legs out straight and bend back in, just in front of baby bump.
A. Hold legs out at a 60-degree angle, heels together and toes apart.
B. Point and flex feet.
Why: "Simply holding your chest up in this active position for your core will help safely strengthen the transverse abs, which will play a big role in pushing during labor," Speir says. "By omitting the crunching action (which could lead to diastasis recti, or a slightly tearing of the abdominal wall), we instead use the resistance of the legs in different positions to build a really dynamic core strength."
Tip: "Make sure to open your chest up wide and not slouch into the action," Speir says. "Think about gently hugging your baby with your abdominals to engage them vs. scooping your abs deeply in toward your spine."
2. Diamond Raises
A. Still propped up on forearms, lift legs up to a diamond shape (heels together and knees open just wider than shoulders).
B. Lower diamond shape toward floor.
C. Lift diamond shape back up to starting position.
Why: This challenges the core without over-tightening the abdominal muscles by crunching in, Speir says. "The control and the resistance of the leg work will help strengthen the transverse and obliques, a huge part of pushing during labor. Keeping this strong will also help your body bounce back post-baby."
Tip: Only lower as far as you can without arching into your back or straining with your core—this movement could be one inch or all the way to the floor!"
3. Side Plank
Reps: AMRAP for 1 minute (30 seconds/side)
A. Set up on side with legs extended out long, top foot resting in front of bottom foot and bottom hand planted firmly into the mat.
B. Lift hips up toward ceiling with control, reaching opposite hand up toward ceiling.
C. Hold for 30 seconds and then switch sides.
Why: This is one of the safest and most effective ways to strengthen the obliques, or sides of our abdominals. Practicing this once a day will immeasurably help get those muscles strong and ready to push, as well as keeping your waist trim and tight, AND keeping the strength to support your lower back (which can start aching without a little love).
Tip: If you need to modify and bend your bottom leg and place it down (almost like a kickstand) go for it—it's most important that you listen to your body, Speir says.
4. Cat/Cow with Band
Reps: AMRAP for 1 minute (taking your time)
A. Wrap band around shoulders and come onto hands and knees (with hands directly under shoulders and hips directly under knees). The end of the band should be securely under the heel of your hands.
B. Dive chest open, looking straight ahead and gently stretching into abdominals.
C. Slowly curl tailbone under and round into back, pressing heart up toward ceiling and looking under body.
D. Repeat at a slow and deliberate pace.
Why: "This is one of the best and most recommended exercises to gently and safely stretch out the abdominals and lower back," Speir says. Sacroiliac (SI) joint pain can be common, so it's important to make time to release this area of the body. "This move also releases and stretches out the round ligament, which supports the uterus, so when strengthening the core, it's important to also help stretch and release these muscles to get circulation moving through the round ligament and keep our bodies in balance," she says.
Tip: This stretch is fantastic to do not just during your core workout, but also before bed, Speir says.
5. Thoracic Extension with Band
(Can also be done with a bathroom towel)
A. Stand with feet hip distance apart, holding theraband between thumb and forefinger just wider than shoulder-distance, lifted up to shoulder height.
B. Keep knees bent as you extend and reach the band up and overhead into a mini extension.
C. Bring body back center, reaching toward ceiling.
E. Straighten legs and reach back in front of body.
Why: "Not only does this exercise give you that great bonus of arm and back strengthening, but it also helps to train the abdominal muscles to stretch out and contract back," Speir says. "This will be huge for preventing that tightness and dreaded diastasis tearing, and also help those abs get trained to bounce back post-baby."
Tip: Lengthen the spine up and back, thinking about growing longer vs. crunching or arching back, Speir says. "This should feel great and be somewhat gentle, so take it slowly with your body."
6. Lateral Extension with Band
(You can also try this one with a bathroom towel or no band at all.)
A. While holding the band just wider than shoulder-width with arms extended out across from shoulders, bend knees and reach arms up to ceiling.
B. Lengthen over to one side, bending outside elbow in toward body, drawing shoulder blades together.
C. Extend arm back out.
D. Stay in squat and come back center. Repeat on other side.
Why: This is one of the best ways to lengthen and strengthen those key oblique muscles that get tight during pregnancy, Speir says. "Elongating and strengthening these muscles will not only aid in labor, but will also help you pick up your baby and all that (heavy!) gear once the baby arrives!"
Tip: Think about growing three inches taller throughout the exercise. As you draw your elbow in toward your body, imagine cracking a walnut between your shoulder blades to get the lats and traps truly engaged, she says.
7. Squatting Side Bends
Reps: 10 sets/variation
A. Stand with feet more than hip-width apart and hands stacked behind head. Lower into squat.
C. Lengthen body side-to-side in gentle side crunching action.
A. Add on reaching outside hand toward floor.
B. Bring hand back up behind head and repeat on the opposite side.
A. Reverse direction and reach over head while rocking to one side.
B. Repeat reaching overhead in opposite direction.
Why: This series of movements helps to challenge and build strength in the entire core. It can help get blood moving through an area tends to have poor circulation during pregnancy (which is why you get those darn leg cramps at night). It also challenges, builds strength, and simultaneously stretches out every part of that core.
Tip: Keep movement consistent and flowing. Listen to your body if it's telling you not to go too low in your squat or reach.