Pregnant women are more often than not advised to change their lifestyle. Watching what you eat, drink how much you sleep and generally taking better care of yourself can have a huge bearing on how easy and how healthy your pregnancy is. And then there’s exercise.
Exercise is imperative to keep your body healthy and strong and ready for the birth; and one of the most effective exercises you can do is Pilates. Amy Curtis, BCP-qualified Pilates teacher, explains why:
What is Pilates?
If you’re not familiar at all with Pilates, taking it up when your body is going through the major changes that pregnancy brings might be a bit daunting. But it is genuinely one of the most beneficial forms of exercises, precisely because of all the physical changes that carrying a baby brings about.
A Pilates class consists of slow, precise movements that target particular areas of your body in order for it to move and work in the most efficient way possible. Most of the movement is based around the spine and core: this is what Joseph Pilates (Pilates founder) called the ‘powerhouse’ because it’s where most of your day-to-day movement is supported.
Is Pilates safe during your first trimester?
If you have never done Pilates before you should get the go ahead from your doctor before joining a class and make sure you choose a pregnancy-specific class, not a general one.
It is safe to do gentle Pilates throughout your pregnancy, but some women (and some instructors) prefer to wait until the pregnancy reaches 16 weeks, so it is properly established, before starting a new form of exercise.
What does pregnancy Pilates focus on?
As well as fine-tuning the way you use your body, the slow movement and breathing patterns used for the exercises will go a long way to helping you feel less stressed. There is evidence that stress in pregnancy (aside from the obvious effects of higher blood pressure) acts as a pollutant in the system and can actually be a cause of asthma and weaker immune system in the foetus. Pilates classes are designed in such a way that you will be focused throughout, breathing deeply and therefore your stress levels will be lowered.
Pregnancy Pilates and pelvic floor muscles
Many of the exercises in your class will be aimed at strengthening the pelvis and the pelvic floor muscles. This is helpful for two reasons:
- Your spine is moving and adjusting to the changes in your body and a strong pelvis will help to stabilise this and hopefully avoid painful back and pelvis issues.
- The pelvic floor is under a lot of pressure and it is in your best interest to start strengthening it as soon as possible in order to minimise the risk of incontinence later down the line.
Pregnancy Pilates and postural changes
On top of strength work, as the uterus grows, the centre of gravity no longer falls over the feet so your posture changes to counterbalance. This change in posture can look different from one woman to the next, and includes issues such as the following:
❌ Feet rolling inwards
❌ Bottom sticking out
❌ Head shifting forwards
❌ Shoulders rounding
❌ Knees locking out
Everyone's body reacts differently, so it’s best if you’re in a class (not doing classes on YouTube for instance) as the teacher can address your particular situation.
Pregnancy Pilates and abdominal separation
Lastly, you might be worried about diastasis recti, or ‘abdominal separation’ which is very common in post-natal women.
This can be quite an upsetting problem but women with deeper abdominal control and strength are far less likely to suffer. And guess what? Pilates will give you deeper abdominal control and strength!
What are the benefits of pregnancy Pilates?
After taking classes at least once a week throughout your pregnancy, you will find countless benefits, but a few are:
✔️ You'll get better at relaxing (through breathing techniques)
✔️ Posture will improve and reduce or prevent aches/pains
✔️ You will have better core stability
✔️ Coordination/balance will improve
✔️ Pelvic floor is prepared to react to stress incontinence
✔️ Abdominal function will be optimum (to minimise diastasis recti)
What happens in a pregnancy Pilates class?
If you are new to Pilates, you should join a specific antenatal class. If you are already taking Pilates classes, you may be able to carry on in a normal class as long as the teacher is comfortable with this; but eventually (after around 16 weeks) you will need to join a pregnancy-specific class.
A class will last between 45 minutes and an hour, and will typically work through the joints in your body, working on exercises to learn how to use your muscles most efficiently and not overload any joints when you are moving, standing or sitting in everyday life. There will also be a focus on breathing.
Pelvic floor exercises will be introduced early on. These should be a mix of slow, focused muscle control but also practicing fast control to help you learn to recruit the control you need quickly and efficiently when needed.
As you progress into the later trimesters, your teacher will adjust exercises to ensure you’re still able to safely do them all. This might include leaning on a pregnancy wedge or sitting in a chair.
Try these pregnancy Pilates exercises
Any exercise that helps open up your chest, work your spine in the right direction and assists in good breathing technique will be beneficial. These are my favourites:
A simple exercise to help you breath deeply (Pilates instructors call this ‘lateral breathing’), which will have huge benefits if you suffer from shortness of breath at any stage in your pregnancy but it will also help you to breathe deeply during labour.
How to do it: take a scarf or, even better, a resistance band, and wrap it around your back, between the base of the rib cage and top of the pelvis. Make sure it is flat, not wrinkled, and cross the ends over in front of your belly. Make sure there’s pressure around your body but it’s not restrictive. Breathe in (imagine the breath travelling past your lungs and into your abdomen) and aim to push the band outwards at every point.
Great for anyone suffering with rounded shoulders, which is usually due to breasts being larger and heavier.
How to do it: stand tall with feet a hip-width apart. Arms are by your side with palms facing behind you. Breathe in, then as you exhale, push your hands back, moving from the shoulders, and turn your head to the left then to the right. Repeat.
The cat stretch
This is hugely helpful if you are suffering from lower back problems due to your posture changing (to a sticky-out bum!).
How to do it: go onto the floor on all fours, making sure your hands are directly below your shoulder joints and knees are directly below the hip joints. (If your bump is too big for this position, try it standing with knees slightly bent and hands resting on thighs.)
Breathe in, then as you exhale tilt your pelvis towards your belly button. Let this small curve in the base of your spine continue until the whole spine is curved, then return to the starting point. If you suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome, try resting the heels of your hands on a raised block (a dictionary or similar is perfect) and let your fingers dangle over the front.