The Safe Guide to Abdominal Exercises During Pregnancy [All 3 Trimesters]
By Dave Smith
Personal Trainer and Women's Weigh-Loss Coach
In this resource you will learn safe and effective ways to practice core exercises during pregnancy, including each of the three trimesters.
As with many fitness topics, there is an overabundance of information online and elsewhere offering you ideas to follow. Some of this information is excellent, but some is unreliable or even dangerous to your health.
You need accurate and trustworthy steps to follow, and that's exactly why this abdominal training resource exists. It includes abdominal exercise recommendations from top professionals in the fitness industry, particularly those who are experts in working with expectant moms.
Of course it's always best to consult with your doctor or midwife before following any of the specific exercises or routines outlined below. Be safe and stay healthy and strong during your pregnancy!
Differentiating Between Your Abdominal Muscles vs. Your Core Muscles
The first thing to consider is the difference between you abs and your "core" muscles. Your core includes all of the muscles in your midsection: Your abdominals are part of your core, as are your hips, your erectors (lower back), and even some interconnected muscles in your upper back.
Looking at the above diagram (yes, even though it's a man!) you can see just how much muscle is included in your core. The abdominals are just one small part.
Your Core Muscles That Weaken During Pregnancy
During pregnancy most women experience significant weakening of certain muscles, often due to stretching and hormonal changes that occur to prepare your body for the birthing process. The most commonly weakened/stretched muscles include:
- Hamstrings (back of the thigh)
- Gluteals (buttocks)
- Back and shoulders
- And of course, the abdominals
In other words, your entire core gets weaker during pregnancy! This is why our focus going forward will be on "core" strengthening, not just abdominal exercising during pregnancy.
Erica Ziel, a prenatal fitness expert, explains that there are two very important muscle groups expectant moms should focus on:
When pregnant, focus on strengthening your pelvic floor and transverse abdominals, both of which comprise your deep core.
Staying physically active during pregnancy is important for your own health and the health of your baby, but maintaining core strength deserves special attention. Here's why core strength is so important:
- It will help improve your posture
- It reduces lower back pain and an achy pelvis
- It can lead to fewer complications during delivery
- And can also provide you with stamina for a faster delivery!
- It increases your likelihood of quick recovery postpartum
In addition to all of these benefits for YOU, having supportive core muscles and a general high level of fitness has been shown to improve the health of your baby. What other reason do you need to invest some time in building up a strong core?
Before we jump into the recommended exercises, know there are some things that you will want to avoid during your pregnancy. Don't...
- Stop the exercise you're already doing, especially in the first trimester
- Do crunches or sit-ups, especially during trimesters 2 and 3
- Assume all yoga and Pilates exercises are safe for you
- Adopt lazy posture as your body changes
- Attempt highly unstable exercises where there is a chance of falling
- Overdo it or adopt too much new exercise into your routine
In the following video Dr. Siobhan Dolan explains some medical conditions that can make abdominal exercise unsafe during pregnancy. Do any of these apply to you?
In the next video Jessica Ennis-Hill, track and field star (and mother), elaborates on a few other exercise "don'ts" that you should consider during your pregnancy.
On a side note, see how she incorporates a wall into her abdominal exercise suggestions, therefore making them stable and safer for expectant moms in each of the three trimesters.
What About Diastasis Recti?
As explained by Jessie Mundell, pre- and postnatal exercise specialist,
Diastasis Recti is the common and necessary abdominal separation that many women experience in pregnancy and postpartum.
"Because your belly is growing to accompany your baby, your abdominal muscles stretch and expand. The 2 bellies of your rectus abdominis, the 'six-pack muscle', can begin to pull apart from the midline of the body, most notably around, above, and below your belly button."
The above diagram clearly depicts what is happening when diastasis occurs. As you can imagine, this trauma to your abdominal muscles drastically changes the types and intensity of core training you should participate in.
Celeste Goodson, pre- and postnatal fitness trainer, demonstrates how to perform a 3-measurement self-test for diastasis recti. Don't engage in abdominal training or core strengthening programs during pregnancy without doing this test!
If your test indicates that you may have diastasis, or if you're not sure, ask your doctor or midwife to perform the test and to provide a recommendation as to how much/what type of exercise you are safe to participate in.
There are two simple rules of thumb when it comes to safe abdominal exercises during pregnancy, and this goes for most other types of exercise as well:
During pregnancy, exercise in ways that a) feel good for your body AND b) have been given the go-ahead from your doctor or midwife
Below you will find several core workout routines that are perfect for the first trimester (again, this assumes your doctor or midwife approves).
You can use these abdominal and core exercise ideas by mixing and matching to create a routine that you really enjoy.
This simple routine is very well-rounded. It includes abdominal strengthening, plus some twists, which are excellent for your oblique muscles.
This is another oblique exercise that will also strengthen your hips and even your lower back. Try 10 reps per side, moving slowly.
This is quite an advanced routine that includes some excellent lower abdominal training. Notice that some crunch variations are included, which means this is likely best used during your first trimester only.
The first exercise is an excellent movement for full core strength, plus it will get your heart rate moving. The hamstring curl with an exercise ball is a good option for glute engagement (yes, your butt it part of your core!)
Remember that the transition between first and second trimesters will be different for everyone. YOU need to listen to YOUR body.
For some women, the change between trimesters is gradual and these women may be able to safely exercise much as they did in the first trimester. Other women experience a more pronounced shift from first to second trimester and have to adjust their exercise accordingly.
The following core exercises and routines are intended to be more gentle than those in the previous section. They also avoid most exercises from a lying supine position (i.e. lying on your back).
This is a great full-length routine (nearly 20 minutes) that offers modifications if your are in your third trimester and find the exercises too challenging.
Andrea Long does an excellent job explaining how to modify lying supine abdominal exercises so that there isn't too much pressure created on your organs. These exercises are simple but VERY effective!
Autumn Calabrese explains that this routine can be done through all 3 trimesters, but do know that some of the exercises are quite advanced. Be sure to ease into this routine.
This challenging routine will have you lie on your back for a brief period. If you feel uncomfortable pressure from the weight of your baby, you can use a pillow to prop yourself up into a more upright position.
Yes, exercise can be a little uncomfortable as your baby and belly grows, but there are lots of way to continue strengthening your core even at this late stage in pregnancy.
In your third trimester, don't give up on exercise! Aim to do "what you can, when you can" #wycwyc
Holly does an excellent job explaining why these particular exercises are so good for the third trimester. She has 3 great core exercise choices that are safe, yet challenging.
Pay special attention to the standing pelvic tilts and wood chopper as demonstrated by personal trainer, Ali McWilliams. Both of these are nice core exercise variations that get you up on your feet.
Emma from Barre Body offers some very good core strengthening moves that focus on the transverse abdominis (TA). Having a strong TA is crucial for avoiding or reducing low back pain during pregnancy.
Who would have thought that simply breathing could be such a great abdominal workout? Tamara demonstrates how to engage your core muscles with gentle breathing exercises.
There are plenty of safe abdominal and core exercises that can be performed all the way through your pregnancy. Even a little bit of exercise can help you experience a smooth delivery and a quicker recovery postpartum.
It's worth your effort!