Prenatal Exercise: Debunking Misconceptions and 5 Safe, Beneficial Exercises

Prenatal fitness is an important aspect of a healthy pregnancy, but there are many misconceptions and myths surrounding it.

One of the most common misconceptions is that pregnant women should avoid exercising altogether. However, studies show that regular exercise during pregnancy can have many benefits for both the mother and the baby.

This includes things like a more positive labor and delivery experience – such as an easier delivery and a decreased need for interventions – and a more optimal postpartum recovery.

Beyond regular exercise, corrective exercise can be beneficial for both moms and pregnant women in several ways. It can help to alleviate aches, pains, and discomforts during pregnancy, improve posture and alignment, and prevent or rehabilitate common pregnancy-related conditions such as diastasis recti (separation of the abdominal muscles) and pelvic floor dysfunction.

Benefits For Baby

The benefits for the baby are just as impressive! Research shows that babies born to mom’s who exercised during pregnancy have higher Apgar scores compared to babies born to mother’s who didn’t exercise during pregnancy.

Studies have found that regular exercise during pregnancy is associated with improved fetal oxygenation, which can promote better fetal growth and development. Additionally, regular exercise during pregnancy has been associated with improved maternal cardiovascular fitness, which can help to support the baby’s cardiovascular system and promote better fetal oxygenation. These mechanisms may contribute to increased newborn alertness immediately after birth.

However, it is important to note that the correlation between increased newborn alertness immediately after birth and mothers who exercised during pregnancy is not conclusive, as many other factors such as genetics, prenatal care, and overall health of the mother can also play a role in newborn alertness.

Similarly, newborns who were exposed to exercise while in the womb have also been shown to have an easier time latching after birth, perhaps due to increased alertness.

Picture showing group of pregnant women during fitness class

Other Misconceptions When Exercising During Pregnancy

In the past, pregnant women were often told to only do low-impact exercises. While it’s important to listen to your body and not push yourself too hard, many women can continue with their normal exercise routine during pregnancy, as long as they are cleared by their doctor. Let’s be clear, pregnancy is not the best time to go learn something exceptionally challenging that could pose harm to mom and baby. However, if you enjoy a particular strenuous activity that you were comfortable doing before pregnancy, chances are you can continue the same challenging activity during pregnancy, or at least a variation of it. Seek help from an expert who specializes in prenatal fitness if you are unsure if you should continue with your regular training routine.

Another misconception is that pregnant women should avoid certain types of exercises, such as weightlifting or high-intensity interval training (HIIT). These types of exercises can be safe and beneficial for pregnant women as long as they are done in moderation and with proper form and muscle balance. Women who train with Mom Belly Fitness during their pregnancy often comment that “Labor HIIT Training” exercises were a great tool that helped to prepare them for the physical challenge of labor and delivery.

Lastly, it is not always necessary for pregnant women to avoid lying on their back during exercise, as long as the woman is comfortable. Understanding proper diaphragmatic breathing techniques can assist with a more optimal posture to help disperse pressure on the spine. 

5 Beneficial Exercises For Pregnant Women

It is always important to understand your specific muscle imbalances and to focus your training to correct these imbalances before progressing your routines. However, if you’re just getting started, here are some key exercises to support your fitness routine during your pregnancy.

1. Pelvic Tilts

This exercise helps to strengthen the abdominal muscles and improve posture, which can alleviate lower back pain during pregnancy.

More importantly, by understanding the position of your pelvis, you can focus the work during your pelvic tilts to work achieve a more neutral position which can provide you with better access to your core and pelvic floor muscles. A comprehensive physical assessment can help you understand if you have a more anteriorly dominant or posteriorly dominant tilt in your pelvis. It is common for pregnant women to have a more anteriorly dominant pelvic tilt which can lead to pregnancy-related low back pain and mis-managed pressure on the pelvic floor.

Pelvic tilts can be performed while standing, back-lying, side-lying, or while on all fours (such as in “Cat-Cow”).

2. Pelvic Floor Exercises (Like Kegals)

These exercises help to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, which can prevent or treat incontinence and other pelvic floor dysfunctions that may occur during pregnancy.

Note: It is strongly recommended that you complete a pelvic floor assessment either before, during, or after your pregnancy (it is even better to do so at each stage, since these muscles can change throughout your pregnancy and after delivery) to understand if your pelvic floor muscles are over-active or under-active. By understanding the way in which your pelvic floor muscles are firing, you’ll be more equipped to perform Kegals in a way that is best going to support your hips, pelvis, core, and low back as your uterus grows as well as during the postpartum period. For example, it may not be wise to perform Kegals consisistently throughout the day if you are presenting with over-active pelvic floor muscles.

Weak pelvic floor muscles can present in women who are both under-active or over-active in the muscles supporting their pelvis.

3. Cat-Cow Stretch

This exercise is a gentle way to stretch and strengthen the back, which can help to alleviate pain and improve posture.

This is also a great position to perform pelvic tilts and to practice diaphragmatic breath techniques.

Depending on the tilt of your pelvis, you may want to focus your range to be more dominant posterior or anterior to help rebalance the muscles that support the pelvis. For example, a pelvis that presents more anteriorly dominant can cause low-back pain and a weak pelvic floor over time. It is a good idea to have a prenatal fitness specialist assess the tilt of your pelvis, so you can work to correct it throughout your pregnancy. It is common for pregnant women to have an anteriorly tilted pelvic tilt as baby grows and the pelvis dumps forward.

4. Squats

Photo Credit: Laura Weigel Photography

Squats can help to strengthen the legs and prepare the body for labor and delivery. It’s important to use proper form and to be mindful of your range of motion. It is often recommended that pregnant women avoid going too deep to avoid putting pressure on the pelvic floor. However, with the proper use of your core, pelvic floor, and postural muscles, you may be able to safely increase your range of motion.

Squats are also very beneficial to practice throughout your pregnancy and ahead of birth. Squatting during childbirth is believed to open up the pelvis and potentially make more room for the baby to pass through the birth canal. Some studies have found that squatting may slightly increase the diameter of the pelvic outlet, while others have found no significant difference. A squat position also allows for gravity to assist with delivery.

Start with bodyweight squats to get a feel for what muscles are taking over during a squat movement. Aim to recruit the glute and core muscles during a squat and allow your quads to assist you during this movement. To keep pressure out of your knees during a squat, be sure to focus on sitting the hips back and down to keep the knees from going forward of the toes. If your quads feel dominant during your squat, try tucking your tailbone slightly and driving through your heels to rise from a squat.

5. Hip-Bridges

Photo Credit: Laura Weigel Photography

This exercise helps to strengthen the glutes and core, which can alleviate lower back pain and improve posture. If you have trouble loading your glutes or if you are noticing you have low-back pain during a bend or deadlift movement, hip-bridges are a good way to train your bend pattern without putting unnecessary strain on your low back. Once you feel you have proper glute load in a hip bridge, try transitioning to an upright bend position and aim to keep work in the glutes and out of the low-back.

Find What’s Best For You During Your Pregnancy

Whether you are just starting to exercise during your pregnancy or you are researching the best prenatal exercises to incorporate into your regular exercise routine, it is important to feel safe, comfortable, and pain-free. Look for exercises you enjoy and for movement patterns that will support your growing uterus and assist you with your labor, delivery, and recovery.

It is important to remember that weight gain is a natural and necessary part of pregnancy, and pregnant women should not be overly concerned about gaining too much weight.

Lastly, be sure to avoid holding your breath while exercising or performing physical activities (unless you are swimming under water without oxygen support!). If you find you are breath-holding during any of the above movements, you are potentially putting unnecessary pressure on your pelvic floor muscles, which can lead to leakage, pain, and other dysfunctions down the line.

It is always recommended to seek out guidance from a certified prenatal fitness expert or your medical provider during your pregnancy journey and Postpartum recovery.

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