Best Pre & Postpartum Exercise: Trimester Specific Training Written by Nikki Bergen, Master Pilates trainer, creator of The Belle Method, Core & Pelvic Floor Expert, Doula, Health Coach and Mama of (soon to be) two!
Best Pre & Postpartum Exercise: Trimester Specific Training
Written by Nikki Bergen, Master Pilates trainer, creator of The Belle Method, Core & Pelvic Floor Expert, Doula, Health Coach and Mama of (soon to be) two!
We know that exercising during pregnancy is good for both mom and baby -- from boosting your energy and sleeping better, to reducing the risk of gestational diabetes and joint pain. Still, the current pregnancy exercise guidelines are vague at best. "Warm up, keep your heart rate under 140 BPM, stay off your back, avoid dangerous sports and stay hydrated" pretty much sums it up.
I remember taking my first pre and postnatal certification course over 10 years ago, and the guidelines were just as generic. I was disappointed as a fitness professional, especially one yet to have kids at the time. There had to be more guidance. Pregnant women were uncertain as to what was safe. Many often quit working out altogether. Those who did persevere with their regular classes often received no direction other than "take it easy" while trying to self-modify the group exercises.
So naturally I nerded-out and learned everything possible about pre and postnatal fitness. From interviewing a Urogynecologist and Obstetrician, to mentoring with a PhD, to becoming a Labor Doula – I was on a mission. I even took three different courses on diastasis recti, a.k.a. 'mummy tummy'; the separated connective tissue that leaves many postpartum moms with pooching bellies and a compromised core.
The search for a better pregnancy workout guidelines led me to discover pelvic floor physiotherapy. It turns out that a functional pelvic floor is pretty much the most important thing ever. Want to prevent pregnancy back pain andreduce your risk of diastasis recti? Want your body to recovery more easily after you deliver? Want to avoid organ prolapse and incontinence? It comes down to keeping your pelvic floor -- the base of your torso and centre of your stability – strong and functional. It comes down to your "Kegels," and whether you're doing them right (hint: most aren't). In fact, Kegels might be bad for some women.
Here's how pregnancy and the pelvic floor works: picture a bowling ball (your baby) bouncing on a trampoline (your pelvic floor). As the ball gets bigger and heavier, your trampoline needs to keep up with demands. We need to ensure the trampoline is strong enough (not too taut, not too lax) to support things properly. Unfortunately, telling women to do their Kegels just doesn't cut it.
These exercises were originally created and taught by Dr. Arnold Kegel in the 1940s during gynecological exams. Most women today are merely guessing whether they're doing Kegels correctly, and many are forgetting to release. They're just "holding their pee." (Picture someone with very tense, elevated shoulders holding heavy weights over their head at the gym for minutes on end. Bad idea. Tension gets worse. Tension→ dysfunction → weakness.)
Pregnancy and Postpartum exercise must include instruction on proper pelvic floor engagement and postural alignment, coupled with key strengthening and stretching exercises to assist women through pregnancy, labour/delivery and postpartum recovery. Here's the breakdown:
First Trimester: 1 - 13 weeks
Issues: Your body is building the placenta and hormone levels are doubling each day. Mood swings and fatigue are common. Blood pressure is lower than usual due to vasodilation from the new hormone relaxin, which can lead to increased heart rate and dizziness on exertion
Goal: Connect with your deepest layer of abdominals (the transversus abdominis) before this muscle stretches out from the growing baby in the second trimester. Learn how to breathe using your diaphragm to help manage hormonal related dizziness and nausea.
Second Trimester: 14 - 26 weeks
Issues: Your hormone levels have stabilized now that the placenta is built. Blood pressure has normalized and energy levels have improved so this is the best time for introducing more intensity to workouts. The growing baby has started to stretch the transversus muscle so it may feel more challenging to connect with the deep layer of abdominals.
Goal: Add new dynamic movements to build on the diaphragmatic breathing learned in Trimester 1. Focus on preventing postural changes as the belly grows. Strengthen pelvic floor and outer hips for balance and stability, and stretch shortening muscles to maintain alignment.
Third Trimester: 27 - 40 weeks
Issues: In this final stage of pregnancy, your body is coping with the greatest amount of intra-abdominal pressure from the large baby. The strain on the abdominal wall and pelvic floor is significant. Postural compensations due to this increased load can create discomfort and fatigue.
Goal: Practice releasing the pelvic floor (no more Kegel lifting) in preparation for delivery. Prevent mummy tummy or diastasis recti (overstretched abdominal tissue) by avoiding front loaded positions like plank or quadruped to minimize forward pressure on the abdominal wall. Focus on both stretching and strengthening to manage discomfort in this final stage of pregnancy.
Fourth Trimester: First 12 weeks Postpartum (although this recovery stage is often longer than 3 months!)
Issues: Tissue healing after delivery (both vaginal and caesarean) is key. Allowing adequate time to rest as your uterus contracts back to its pre-pregnancy size is important. Caring for an infant while recovering from birth in a sleep deprived state often increases cortisol levels which in turn, increases inflammation. Pelvic pain, prolapse, diastasis recti and incontinence can all be factors.
Goal: Reconnect the brain-muscle connect of your transversus abdominis and pelvic floor. Re-pattern your breathing to ensure proper diaphragmatic/pelvic floor mobility. Re-create tension across the linea alba to heal diastasis recti. Strengthen glutes to reduce back pain. Mobilize tight muscles from holding/feeding babies.
All women will benefit from following these trimester specific guidelines, regardless of their prior fitness level. Each trimester presents different challenges and calls for a different workout focus. To follow along at home, check out our online Bump Method Prenatal & Postnatal training program here.
Make it a priority to take care of yourself. Try coming from a place of self-kindness. Too often the message we internalize around pregnancy and postpartum is one of self-criticism and competition to "get your body back fast." This mindset leads to negative self-talk and frantic stroller baby bootcamp injuries. We either give up with a defeatist attitude and do nothing, or punish our bodies back into our skinny jeans. Either way, our body suffers!
Let's find some middle ground and work not only on that pelvic floor abdominal connection, but on that positive mind body one too! I’m with you mama!