This is one of the most important exercises to practice during your pregnancy, says Ali Handley, New York-based pilates specialist and founder of BodyLove Pilates, a prenatal and postnatal online studio. "This exercise strengthens the transverse abdominis (TVA), which wraps around the midsection of the body like a pair of spanx," says Handley. "When activated correctly it cinches, lengthens, and importantly during childbirth, it compresses." (P.S. One study found that exercising while pregnant could mean your child more active.)
During the pushing phase of labor, this move helps the uterus in the final contractions to get your baby out. It's also the first move you'll need to practice postnatal to get your abs back in shape, says Handley.
What to do:
A. Get seated comfortably in neutral—on a physioball, yoga block, or household chair (just make sure you're on sitting bones). B. Inhale through nose, allowing belly to fill up with air and stomach muscles to completely relax. C. Exhale a long, slow, even breath out the mouth as you imagine the TVA wrapping around your baby and hugging it into your spine.
Tip: "I like to place one hand on top of my belly just below my sternum, and the other just below my belly button," says Handley. "Focus on pulling your belly away from your bottom hand, but keeping your top hand where it is so you're not rounding your spine as you do the exercise."
Squats are one of the most accessible and functional exercises, even as your due date approaches. They're an excellent way to strengthen your legs and butt—and if you're planning a natural childbirth, you'll need a strong lower body to hold some recommended birthing positions.
"The movies have unfortunately made us believe that women still labor on their back with their legs in stirrups when, in fact, the squatting position is an awesome way to give birth," says Handley. "The birth canal is in better alignment, and there is an added bonus of gravity to help get that baby out."
What to do:
A. Stand with both feet evenly on the ground, hip distance apart. Inhale through the nose as you hinge at the hips, bend at the knee and sit into a squat. Imagine reaching sitting bones back like you're lowering into a chair. C. Exhale a long, slow, even breath out the mouth as you imagine your TVA wrapping around your baby and hugging it into your spine. D. Push through your feet, lifting your pelvic floor, standing back up.
Tip: "The squat is an excellent place to test your mind-body control and muscle endurance," says Handley, who recommends holding the squat and breathing 5-10 breaths. Focus on your breathing and ignore your burning muscles. "Your uterus contracting during labor to get the baby out is like any other muscle contraction—you need to practice breathing through it," she adds.
"The pelvic floor muscles are an incredible system made up of three different layers, and are required to do so much more than just a kegel squeeze during pregnancy," says Handley. Once you hit your third trimester, it's crucial that you start to really stretch these muscles to enable the baby to come out. (See also: 7 Reasons You Should Work Out While Pregnant.)
What to do:
A. 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. B. Inhale through the nose as you slowly slide down the wall. Exhale a long, slow, even breath out the mouth continuing down the wall, allowing the pelvic floor to fully release until you reach your yoga block/pillows. C. Once down, butterfly your knees open and gently apply pressure just above the knees for an additional stretch. Hold for 90 seconds. Close knees and repeat.
Tip: "I recommend adding pelvic floor stretching to your daily routine in the weeks before your due date," says Handley. "You want to have an awareness of what it feels like to really stretch and release these muscles you've been working so hard to strengthen."
"During labor, you'll need the power of your exhale to fully release the pelvic floor muscles and get your baby out," says Handley. "It takes some practice, but with a little training, you'll hit this exercise out of the park."
What to do:
A. Sitting comfortably on the floor or on a physioball ball, inhale through the nose and feel the pelvic floor lift. As you inhale, the diaphragm will push down at the same time. B. Exhale and make a hissing sound out of the mouth to imagine fully releasing and letting go of the pelvic floor muscles. The hissing sound allows you to use the TVA to help uterus in its final contractions as the baby comes out.
Tip: Try a few sets of squats with the reverse breathing technique. "Exhale and release the pelvic floor as you squat down," says Handley. "Inhale and lift the pelvic floor as you stand up."
"This move is basically the mac daddy of labor-prep exercises," says Handley. "It combines core strength, lower body endurance, spinal mobility, pelvic floor stretching, and gives you the opportunity to practice the reverse breathing technique."
What to do:
A. Stand with legs apart and externally rotated, with a physioball just in front. B. Inhale through the nose, nod chin, and begin to roll down. As you do, place hands on the ball and start to push ball out in front. C. Exhale a long, slow, even breath out the mouth as you continue to push the ball, folding at the hips, bending knees, and reaching sit bones out behind until arms are straight and body is almost parallel to the mat. Inhale through your nose and hold the position. D. Exhale a long, slow, even breath out the mouth as you hug your baby to your spine and lift pelvic floor, rounding lower back into a C-curve and pushing through feet to stand back up, articulating the spine the same way you did on the way down.
Tip: Handley suggests practicing reverse breathing for five breaths when you're down in the swan position, suggests Handley. This will challenge your legs and stretch the pelvic floor.