Third trimester pregnant woman performing pelvic floor safe abdominal exercises

When many of us thing of our core, we think of our 6-pack muscles. When you think of abdominal exercises, maybe you think of sit-ups, crunches and planks. But our core is much more than just our 6-pack, and during pregnancy (and really- this is for anyone) it’s beneficial to do a well-rounded suite of core exercises.

Let’s define the core

Our core is literally our body’s center. It is the platform off of which we generate power in our limbs and perform all of our distal movements. It’s not just for looks.

Our core is made up of a few layers of muscle. It’s the inner-most layer- the so-called inner core canister, that is responsible for stabilizing our spine and torso, controlling continence (keeping us dry!) and supporting our pelvic organs. During pregnancy, these muscles are stretched, the coordination between them is disrupted and a breakdown in their smooth functioning leads to common pregnancy symptoms liking leaking urine, low back pain and feelings of heaviness through the vagina and pelvic floor.

Although not strictly a member of the inner core canister, the glutes (butt muscles) work closely and synergistically with these muscles and are frequently denoted the inner core’s BFFs. As we program our core exercises, we can’t forget the glutes if we want to build a strong and functional core.

Deep core muscles: Diaphragm, Pelvic Floor, Innermost Abs and Multifidus
The innermost core, the so-called “core canister”, is composed of the diaphragm, transverse abdominals, pelvic floor and multifidus. Permission to use copyright image from Pelvic Guru, LLC

How the core SHOULD function

On inhale, the diaphragm contracts downward and the pelvic floor and transverse abdominals reflexively lengthen (pelvic floor releases slightly down, transverse abs release slightly outwards). On exhale, the reverse occurs: The diaphragm contracts upwards, the pelvic floor and transverse abdominals recoil and contract upward and inward, respectively.

Animated demonstration of piston breathing: Diaphragm, pelvic floor and transverse abdominals in motion

If you are breathing in a coordinated fashion, your pelvic floor and innermost abs are getting a workout on every exhale. In addition, they’re experiencing their full range of motion on each breath cycle, which means that they are optimized to function well and respond to fluctuations in demands placed on them by exercise or activities of daily living.

Your core should function reflexively (without your conscious effort) to anticipate increased demands required when you do hard things. For example, just prior to lifting a heavy load, your pelvic floor and transverse abs should co-contract to stabilize your spine and provide support for your task. Pregnancy often throws a wrench in the coordination and reflexive response of your core, which is why core training in pregnancy and postpartum is so essential to maintain and rebuild strength in these muscles.

Breathing is THE foundational core exercise

During pregnancy, the most fundamental core exercise, and pre-requisite to any and all higher level moves, is the Connection Breath. This breath is the tool that allows you to manage the pressure generated in your abdomen during exertion. If you can’t manage this pressure well, it manifests as doming through the abdominal midline or pressure through the pelvic floor. In the long-term, poor pressure management can result in conditions like diastasis recti or pelvic organ prolapse.

To perform the connection breath, begin with a good inhale. On your inhale, let your rib cage expand in 360 degrees (like an umbrella opening) and let your belly and pelvic floor relax. On your exhale, gently contract your pelvic floor (→ kegel). Sounds simple, but if this is new it can be a little bit like patting your head and rubbing your belly. For more detailed instruction and support, I recommend The No B.S. Guide to Breathing for Strong Pregnancy and Postpartum which takes you through, step-by-step, how to coordinate your breathing and pelvic floor.

Our core stabilizes us in multiple planes of motion

The inner core works to stabilize our bodies in several planes of motion. Front to back, side to side and against rotation. It can also drive us into flexion at the hips, side bends and rotation. When we do intentional core strengthening, we need to work in all of these planes. During pregnancy, it becomes crucial to focus on the stabilizing functions and train the so call anti-extension (anti-front-and-back), anti-lateral flexion (anti-side-to-side) and anti-rotational components. I like to throw in rotational training too, since it’s a category of movement parents engage in on a constant basis.

What abdominal exercises are safe to do in pregnancy? Are there ab exercises to avoid during pregnancy?

The answer to this question depends a bit on where you are in your pregnancy. Core work will change a little bit from first trimester to late third. During the first trimester, core work will probably not look too different from whatever you were doing pre-pregnancy. As you move into the second trimester, or as your baby bump becomes visible, you’ll likely need to adjust some of your exercise selections and/or breathing strategies.

  • As you move farther into your pregnancy, you’ll want to begin substituting any exercises that put a lot of load through your abdominal wall. This might include planks, push-ups, sit-ups, or toes-to-bar. These exercises put load through the abdominal wall through either gravity or hard-flexion of the spine and can overtax abdominal muscles that are already quite strained from supporting your growing baby.
  • After 20 weeks or so, you may also feel less comfortable on your back and want to eliminate supine (back-lying) exercises. Many back-lying exercises can be propped up at a 15 degree angle and be done comfortably.

We often ask questions like can you do sit-ups while pregnant? Or can you do planks during pregnancy? Let’s shift the conversation from “can I” to “should I”. Consider the additional strain these exercises impose, the possible long-term consequences of damaging key muscles and the myriad of other exercises you might choose instead.

What are signs and symptoms that the pelvic floor is becoming overtaxed?

It’s very important to be aware of the signs and symptoms that the core is not performing optimally.

Keep an eye out for the 4P’s:

  • Pain (anywhere really, but specifically in the vagina or perineum)
  • Peeing (unwanted leaking!)
  • Pressure (through the vagina, rectum or perineum)
  • Peaking (or doming through the midline of your belly)

If you experience any of these symptoms, it may be time to re-evaluate the way you are performing an exercise, or it may be time to substitute an exercise with something more suitable to your stage of pregnancy. I recommend seeking professional guidance from a pelvic floor physical therapist or a qualified pregnancy fitness coach to assist you in troubleshooting and exercise programming.

Core workouts for all three trimesters:

Here I’m offering a few quick core-specific circuits with examples of exercises likely to be appropriate for each trimester of pregnancy. However, be aware of the 4Ps and note that some exercises may not be appropriate for your body.

Perform 1-3 sets of these exercises, circuit style, 10-12 repetitions each, or as many as you can do with good form and control. Quality over quantity friends!
For planks, hold 20-30 seconds. For carries, you can use your discretion or aim for 10-12 steps (per side, if unilateral).

As you perform these exercises, apply the connection breath. Inhale to prepare, exhale during exertion, inhale to relax. During isometric exercises like plank or dynamic exercises like carries, make sure you keep breathing the entire time. Your breathing won’t correlate to reps in the same way as it will for rep-based exercises.

If you’re looking for guidance in navigating your exercise during pregnancy, I offer 1:1 coaching and consultations. Please send me a message to set up a free Meet and Greet to discuss your goals and how I can help you achieve them!

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Dial in your breathing strategy. Harness control of your pelvic floor. Feel stronger in your workouts. Grab your FREE copy of The No B.S. Guide to Breathing for a STRONG Pregnancy and Postpartum.

Laura Jawad Pregnancy and Postpartum Personal Trainer Headshot

My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things.

Contact me if you have questions about exercise or pelvic health pertaining to pregnancy or postpartum. I work with people locally (Seattle’s Eastside: Redmond, Bellevue, Kirkland and surrounding areas) and online to develop personalized pregnancy and postpartum personal training plans. I also offer labor support (doula services) within the greater Seattle-Metro Area.