During my career as a child-bearing woman, I have endured the destruction and rebuilding of my core on three different occasions. From those experiences, I have discovered one very important fact: no matter what we do to thwart the devastation, babies will always ravage our bodies to some extent (but those adorable coos and slobbery kisses make it totally worth it). While you can’t prevent what happens to your core (don’t even get me started on the other victim of childbirth), you can minimize the carnage. Training your core throughout your pregnancy is your best bet for battling the bulge, so to speak, and reducing collateral damage.
A strong, stable core is paramount for runners to maintain hip and spine stability and ensure proper biomechanics of the lower extremities. During pregnancy, as your abdomen muscles stretch and expand, they also become weakened. This, in turn, forces your body to rely on the other core muscles for continued stability and running efficiency. An unyielding core is especially important for running mommas when you consider, at some point in the near future, you’ll be using those same muscles to push a tiny human out of your body. Exciting, isn’t it? In order to keep that hot body in running (and pushing) shape, you need to keep those muscles strong and balanced.
The core is like a cylinder surrounded on all sides by muscle reinforcement. At the top you have the diaphragm; the front consists of the rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis; the sides are made up of the obliques; the back muscles encompass the rear portion; and the pelvic floor muscles support the bottom of the cylinder. All of these muscles need to be resilient enough to support the transfer of energy while also offering adequate stability to your hips and torso. A weakness in any part of the core will result in imbalances, inefficiency and eventually injury.
During your first trimester, feel free to continue your usual core training routine. Once you start showing and your growing belly impedes your normal exercises, it’s time to change things up. Throughout the remainder of your pregnancy, rely on isometric exercises to keep your core strong. Not only are they safe all the way up until D-day (and longer if your babies have a tendency of being well-done), but research performed by Dr. Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics, found them to be far more superior than dynamic exercises in terms of improving core stiffness. A stiffer core promotes spinal stability while also making energy transfer more efficient. This will lower your risk of injury, keep you running as long as possible during your pregnancy, give you more pushing power during delivery and get you back in your favorite running kicks sooner after baby arrives.
Train your core three to four times per week, adjusting volume and intensity as your pregnancy progresses. Early on, hold each position 10-20 seconds, repeating each exercise two to four times. As your belly grows and your baby gets heavier, you may find it necessary to reduce the time spent in each position. Some women may find splinting the abdominal muscles also a necessity to minimize discomfort. Avoid holding your breath — make it a point to breathe normally throughout the duration of each exercise. The moves listed below target every portion of the core except the pelvic floor muscles. To maintain and improve strength in this area of the core, do your Kegels regularly and incorporate squats into your workout routine.
Target Muscles: Diaphragm and abdominal muscles.
You’ll find belly breathing to become more and more difficult as your baby grows and pushes upward, but this is when it’s especially important. Thoracic expansion and lung volume is limited toward the end of your pregnancy; belly breathing will help maximize it as long as possible while also giving you a solid top on your core cylinder.
Sit with your back straight, head level and hand on your belly. Breathe in as deeply as possible, allowing your belly to expand under your hand. Using your abdominal muscles, forcefully exhale out of pursed lips until you have no more air left in your lungs. Breathe normally for a minute then repeat the exercise up to five times. Take longer breaks between breaths if you start to get light headed.
Target Muscles: Abdomen, back and hips
The bird dog targets the bulk of the core musculature and also improves balance – something every pregnant runner can appreciate.
Begin on your hands and knees, stabilize your core then lift your right arm and left leg, extending them in a long, straight line. Hold the position then lower to the floor to repeat with the opposite limbs.
Target Muscles: Entire core, shoulders and hips
Ladies with exceptionally large bellies or those who suffer from back pain may find this one difficult or uncomfortable. If that’s the case, go ahead and perform it against a wall in a standing position.
For everyone else, begin on your hands and knees then lower down to your elbows, or remain on your hands, and extend your legs to the rear. Lower your hips until your body forms a straight line from head to heel, or as close to a straight line as you can get without bumping into the floor.
Target Muscles: Obliques, back and hips
Lie on your side with your feet, legs and hips stacked and your bottom elbow supporting your upper body. Place your other hand on your hip, belly or any place that’s comfortable. Contract your core to lift your hips off the floor until your body forms a straight line.
Target Muscles: Entire core, hips and shoulders
Stand with your torso erect and a weight in one hand, your arm extended at your side. Choose a weight heavy enough to present a challenge but not so heavy it pulls you over sideways. With your core stable, walk for 10 to 20 seconds while carrying the weight. Switch hands and repeat the exercise.
Target Muscles: Abdomen and back
Begin on your hands and knees with your back flat. Use the muscles of your lower abdomen to lift your knees a few inches off the floor so that your body is supported by your hands and the balls of your feet. Hold the position while breathing normally.
Resistance Band Walkout
Target Muscles: Entire core and hips
Secure a resistance band to a sturdy object at shoulder height. Stand next to the object and hold the band with both hands at chest-height with your elbows bent and hands close to your body. Adjust your stance so that your feet are hip-width apart and the band has no slack in it. Stabilize your core and slowly take one step sideways, keeping your torso upright and your hands and arms in the same position. Hold here for a breath then return to the starting position. Complete the desired number of reps before switching sides.
*The model, Jessi, is a rancher, a jogger, momma to an 18-month-old boy and 38 weeks pregnant with a baby girl.