Guest blogger: Jenn Seracuse, Director of Pilates, Flex Studios in New York City.
There is a long list of reasons to maintain a Pilates practice during pregnancy, but here are what I believe to be the most important benefits for moms-to-be:
1. A stronger transverse abdominis, which helps prevent diastasis recti.
This is a big one, which is why it is first! One of the major misconceptions out there is that women should not work their abdominals during pregnancy. Of course they should! It’s just a matter of “how” they are working their abdominals. Women should focus in on the Transverse Abdominis during pregnancy and not on the Rectus or what people see as the six pack muscles. This means forgoing any ab work involving lifting or holding the torso up against gravity, which would include any of the series of 5, roll ups, or ½ rollbacks or C curve exercises. Instead women should opt for isometric abdominal contractions of the Tranverse, which is like lacing up an internal corset. Strengthening the Transverse will help combat an exaggerated Diastisis Recti, which is something that every mom-to-be should be aware of. As the abdominals stretch, a small separation will occur between the 2 sides of the Rectus, which are the most superficial layer of the abdominal wall. This is a natural protection response preventing Rectus from having to stretch too far, but if not handled with care, this separation can become over exaggerated and even sometimes not return to its natural state after delivery. This is the number one reason to maintain a strong connection to the deep abdominal muscles, whose job is to keep everything together, even in the stretched state of pregnancy.
**If you are not sure if you have an exaggerated Diastisis, ask your doctor or Pilates instructor to palpate your belly and check**
2. A stronger connection to the pelvic floor muscles
Most women have heard of “Kegel Exercises”, but don’t really understand the importance the Pelvic Floor during pregnancy. One of the main functions of the pelvic floor is to support the organs in the lower abdominal cavity. As the uterus grows it relies on the pelvic floor more and more for support, which is why it needs to be strengthened. On the flip side, in order to give birth, the Pelvic Floor must completely relax to allow the baby to pass through. Pilates helps women not only feel the contraction of the Pelvic Floor muscles but also the release, ensuring that it is both strong and flexible. A strong Pelvic Floor will also help the body return to its pre pregnancy state more quickly and prevents incontinence.
3. Better breath control
As the baby grows, the diaphragm is compressed up into the chest, and even though a woman’s lung capacity remains the same, it can feel increasingly harder to breathe. Pilates breathing taps into the intercostal muscles lining the ribcage, which allows moms to still feel able to take deep breaths. Pilates breathing also helps keep the thoracic spine (middle back) flexible, which can get very tight during pregnancy. Also, since each exercise in Pilates is associated with the breath connection it makes using the breath during labor much more accessible.
4. Less discomfort due to muscle & skeletal imbalances
As the baby grows the body has no choice but to adapt to make room. This of course means that posture and alignment will be compromised. While Pilates cannot stop this from happening, it can help to strengthen the stabilizing muscles, especially those surrounding the hips and pelvis to ensure less discomfort (especially in the low back) as the baby grows and also help with balance issues. Strengthening these muscles also helps to ensure there are no permanent imbalances postpartum.
And of course...
5. A quicker recovery & return to pre-pregnancy body
It’s simple... the stronger the body is going in to pregnancy and throughout, the stronger it will be after. If women lose the connection to their abdominals as they stretch during pregnancy, it will be that much harder to reconnect once the baby is out. It’s not just about abs either. So much of being a mom involves lifting, bending over and time spent rounded forward (feeding, changing, pushing a stroller, etc) so strong arms and back are also important to prevent permanent tension, imbalances and bad habits.
A note to moms-to-be:
It’s no secret that there’s a lot going on during pregnancy, so the most important thing to remember as a mom-to-be is that you are no longer the same person and your body is not your own anymore. It is crucial to respect these changes you are going through and not push yourself. Make sure that you drink enough water to stay hydrated through your workout. Of course, consult your doctor before beginning any pre or post natal exercise regimen and make sure to work with a professional who has experience with pre and post natal clients.
Here is my favorite prenatal exercise…
Watchdog Balance: This is an excellent exercise for the balance, stability and strengthening the traverse abdominis. I usually do this at the beginning of class as part of the warm-up in my FlexPilates Prenatal class to get connected to the abdominals and stabilizers right away.
* Shown here on the reformer as we would do in class at FLEX, but can also easily be done on a mat at home.
• Start in an all fours position with the wrists under the shoulders and the knees under the hips. On the reformer this means opening the carriage a few inches and holding it open throughout, giving the abdominals more of a challenge.
•Exhale, engage the transverse bringing the belly up to the spine and lengthen one leg back straight off the floor and the opposite arm straight forward off the floor maintaining neutral alignment in the rest of the body.
•Inhale to hold & balance
•Exhale, open the arm and leg to the side in opposite directions, again maintaining neutral alignment without moving the spine, ribs, shoulders or pelvis. Only open as far as possible without shifting (6-12in).
•Inhale return arm and leg to center.
• Repeat on same side 8-10 times and then switch, trying not to move the carriage.
• If pelvic alignment and engagement of the Transverse cannot be maintained throughout the open and close movement, eliminate it and just hold the balance.
• Can be done just lifting the leg or just the arm.
Jenn Seracuse is certified in Mat and Apparatus through Pilates Academy International, as well as TRX suspension training and Prenatal & Postnatal exercise. Jenn has been featured in several major publications including New York Magazine, SHAPE, People StyleWatch, New York Daily News and Metro New York. She has appeared in segments on NBC’s “TODAY,” FOX News and Telemundo. She also trains a wide range of clients including Victoria's Secret models, film, television and Broadway stars, marathon and Ironman competitors, NYC socialites and of course new & expectant moms. She loves transforming bodies by adding a modern spin to classic Pilates exercises.
Flex Studios is a boutique fitness studio in NYC’s Union Square offering group FlexPilates Reformer, FlexBarre and FlexTRX classes; as well as combination classes incorporating all three methods and classes for prenatal mom. Learn more at www.flexstudios.com.