Smooth moves: Pilates during pregnancy

Is Pilates the right exercise for your pregnancy?

“Wow, you’ve got a spring in your step.” Margot McKinnon got that comment a lot when she was pregnant with her son. McKinnon practised Pilates every day and says it helped her maintain her posture throughout her pregnancy. “I would stand up [afterwards] and feel like my back was longer and the tightness in my sacrum at the base of my spine would be alleviated.”

McKinnon, studio director and founder of Body Harmonics Pilates, says Pilates can support the postural changes your body goes through as your belly grows and your back starts to sway more. “It helps stave off those sensations of feeling wobbly and loosey-goosey.”

Similar to yoga, Pilates was invented by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s to develop and maintain strength in the core area (abdomen, back and pelvic floor) of your body that becomes challenged as your pregnancy progresses.

Beth Evans, program director at Stott Pilates, says Pilates and pregnancy go really well together. “We’re always focusing on stabilizing and controlling movement, making it precise and fluid, and breathing as you do it. So people find it very relaxing, and that works very well for pregnant women.”

“My energy level is very high,” says Sarah Douglas, who is still practising Pilates 8½ months into her first pregnancy. “There are some days that I’m achy and feeling a little worse for wear, and I find that by doing some of the moves — the stretching and strengthening — I feel much more open and invigorated.”

And if that growing belly of yours throws your balance off, as it did for Linda Andross, the Pilates focus on stability and coordination may be the perfect antidote. “The one thing I really noticed during my pregnancy was how Pilates helped me keep my balance. I wasn’t expecting how much pregnancy affects your balance.”

Pilates can also help expectant moms prepare for caring for a baby. “You need to keep your upper body really strong because you’re going to be picking up and carrying a baby,” says Evans. What’s more, your upper body and your shoulders may tend to round forward as your breasts get larger and you breastfeed. Pilates can strengthen your upper body and help counteract those postural changes, says Evans.

In fact, Kim Bozak took up Pilates after her first child was born. “He was a big baby and I’d started to have bad lower back pain.” Practising Pilates relieved the pain in Bozak’s lower back, and she stuck with it when she became pregnant with twins. “I think continuing Pilates through my pregnancy and then post-pregnancy helped me get my body back faster.”

Try the following exercises suggested by Sandra Brunner of Go Pilates in Toronto:

Deep Breathing

How to do it: Sit in a chair, feet flat on the floor hip-425 apart. Your ankles are directly under your knees and your hands are on your rib cage. Inhale through the nose and try to direct your breath into your hands. Feel your rib cage expand. Purse your lips and exhale through the mouth. On the exhale, try to lift the muscles of the pelvic floor up to the belly button. Repeat 5 to 6 times.

What it does: Releases the rib cage and helps initiate a connection with the muscles of the pelvic floor. Focusing on the breath also establishes a connection between the mind and body.

Mermaid

How to do it: Sit in a chair as previously described. Stabilize yourself by holding the edge of the chair with your right hand. Keep the right arm straight, without locking the elbow. Inhale and lift the left arm to the ceiling. As you exhale, arch the arm overhead, reaching to the right, to the point where the wall and ceiling meet. But don’t collapse through the right side of your torso. Try to arch the left side of your torso and lengthen the right side. Inhale to bring the arm back to centre. Exhale and lower the arm. Then inhale to bring the right arm to the ceiling and repeat with the right arm. Repeat 3 times on each side.

What it does: Stretches the abdominal muscles that support the spine. Helps open up the ribs and shoulders.

Imprint and Release

How to do it: Sit in a chair as in the previous exercise. Relax your hands down by your sides and think about sitting up straight, lengthening your spine from your tailbone to the crown of your head. Place your thumbs on your hip bones and your index and middle finger on your thighs. Lift the pelvic floor muscles as if you were gently pulling a zipper up from your pubic bone to your belly button. Then roll your hip bones away from your thighs, so your thumbs move away from your fingers. Repeat 5 to 6 times.

What it does: Works the deep abdominal muscles, opens the hip sockets, and helps release the hip flexors. Massages the lower back, which tends to be tight during pregnancy.

Spinal Twist

How to do it: Sit tall in a chair and find length through your spine as in the previous exercise. Soften the muscles around your rib cage. Have your chin parallel to the floor. Lengthen your neck by imagining that someone is lifting you up toward the ceiling by the tops of your ears. Cross your arms over your chest. Inhale. As you exhale, rotate slightly to the right, keeping your chin in line with your breastbone, so your head doesn’t rotate further than your spine. Inhale, rotate back to the centre, and exhale to rotate to the left. Rotate 3 or 4 times to each side.

What it does: Strengthens the abs and muscles supporting the spine to carry the extra weight of the baby.

Cat Stretch

How to do it: On all fours, place your hands under your shoulders, and your knees under your hips. Try to bring weight into the centre of your palms, so it’s not all in your wrists. Think about lengthening through the tops of your ears to bring your neck in line with your spine. Then imagine pulling your belly button up through your spine to engage your abdominal muscles and make your back flat like a table. Now arch, or round, your lower back by rolling your pelvis away from your thighs. Inhale to hold the arch. Then exhale to bring your spine back to tabletop position. Repeat 3 to 4 times.

What it does: Strengthens the arms, upper body, lower body and muscles that stabilize the pelvis. Helps strengthen and stabilize the lower back during pregnancy and avoid the tightening caused by carrying the extra weight of the baby.

Find a Class
Body Harmonics Pilates (416) 537-0714 has a Canada-wide database of trained instructors. The Prenatal Pilates Manual, produced by Body Harmonics Pilates, features step-by-step photos and instructions.

The Stott Pilates website has an instructor finder tool.

Safety

As with any exercise during pregnancy, get the green light from your health practitioner before you begin. Then be mindful of these precautions:

• Beyond the first trimester, don’t do exercises that require you to lie flat on your back. The weight of the baby may cut off blood flow to the heart, which may decrease oxygen in your and your baby’s blood supply.

• Beyond the first trimester, avoid exercises in which you curl forward as this may increase the likelihood that your abdominal muscles, which run down the front of your body, will separate as your belly grows.

• As your pregnancy progresses, your abs get stretched out. So just accept the fact that you won’t be able to work them as hard as before.

• Be careful not to overheat. Don’t exercise in a hot room or when it’s hot and humid. Remember to drink lots of water.

• Listen to your body and work within your limits. Don’t push yourself to keep up with your pre-pregnant self or try to increase your fitness level during pregnancy.

• If an exercise hurts, stop doing it. Pilates should not create pain or stress in any way.

• Avoid exercises that require you to raise both feet in the air at once, since the weight of your legs may put too much pressure on your spine. Instead, alternate, lifting one leg at a time.

• As your ligaments loosen up to prepare for childbirth, you may find your flexibility increases and your joints, hips, knees, elbows, ankles and spine feel a bit unstable. So to avoid injury and overstretching your ligaments, pay careful attention to the proper body alignment of each exercise.

Modify your practice
So you’re an experienced Pilates aficionado. How do you modify your practice to take your pregnancy into account? Work with a trainer experienced in prenatal Pilates and listen to your body. “A lot of people need to slow down,” says Sandra Brunner, trainer and founder of Go Pilates. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t do an exercise as well as you could in your pre-pregnant form. “You’re in a different world now,” says Brunner. “Go with it.” After the first trimester, sit against an arc barrel, which supports the spine, to do exercises usually done lying flat on your back. As your ligaments loosen up during pregnancy, your range of motion will likely increase, making your joints less stable. To avoid injury and overstretching your ligaments, resist the urge to see how far you can go with your new-found flexibility.

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