Prenatal Exercise: Modifications for a Fit Pregnancy

Prenatal Exercise: Modifications for a Fit Pregnancy

When I was first pregnant with my now 12-year-old daughter, I immediately felt different.

Barely registering a positive result on the pregnancy test, I felt constantly nauseous and like I could eat nothing without experiencing indigestion. I craved Campbell’s Cream of ANYTHING, one of the few foods that didn’t give me severe reflux. The only relief from this digestive nightmare, that I knew to be safe for baby, was to walk.

My husband and I lived in Rotorua, New Zealand at the time, and walking through the redwood forest was my only respite from that green, sickly feeling of the hormonal changes. I felt so out of shape. Not even showing yet from my tiny wee baby girl, I would become extremely winded on the slightest hill. It was especially hard to attempt any strength exercise like a push-up.  As my baby and my body grew, so did my weakness and the fear that I might never “get my body back.” I share more about that in my story HERE.

What I knew for certain was that light exercise made me feel better. It made me happier and less homesick. I walked almost exclusively during that pregnancy. I didn’t “eat for two” or overindulge. I gained a healthy 32 pounds. And I always, proudly at the time, held my abs in tight (i.e. I held my breath often). Within a quickly changing year, I had weaned my daughter and was again teaching fitness classes and auditioning for what would become my first DVD project since the Lotte Berk Method (the original barre studio in the U.S. where I received my classical training). Life continued to be busy, as my training business grew and the leading role in the 10 Minute Solution DVDs kept me traveling back and forth between LA and NYC.

Four years later, when I became pregnant with my son, I was teaching a ton of barre classes while becoming increasingly interested in structure and alignment. I had a forerunning intuition that much of what I had learned at Lotte Berk, the excessive focus of abdominal contraction combined with a tucked pelvis, was not all it was cracked up to be. I made the decision to teach barre from a neutral spine perspective. That was more than eight years ago and I am proud to see other fitness professionals following suit.

That said, I still had so much to learn about structure and a lot of outdated pregnancy advice to overcome. I had been taught at Lotte Berk as a newbie “fitness pro” that women should curl their pregnant bellies during ab work to avoid developing weakness in their “cores.”  I had asked my midwife if I could hold my abs in all the time- it made my tiny bump a little smaller and I thought I was so strong. She didn’t mind and thought it might help labor. All the while, I was starting to experience pain in my own body like nothing before: pain deep in my hips and at my navel, with even more severe acid reflux. I was concerned about the damage I might already have done from outdated fitness practices.

On a trip to NYC for my first shoot with Pilates Style Magazine- walking through the city in my trendy negative heel flip flops, pulling in my tummy, holding my breath- I suddenly locked up in pain. It was several minutes before I could move or shake the overwhelming feeling that something was terribly wrong. This sciatic pain eventually passed but would rear its ugly head throughout the rest of my pregnancy. I misplaced blame on my right piriformis and would often have Levi dig his elbow into my hip.

The pain continued, both in my hips and at my navel, as well as exercise induced incontinence, well after the birth of my big nine pound baby boy. Incidentally, he was so late I had to be induced. I have to wonder now, was my structure keeping him from making his way down the birth canal? I had known throughout both pregnancies that form and alignment were important, but just how important only became clear when having to repair and rehabilitate my own body after the birth of my son.

I was on a mission to find out how to heal myself, to relieve the pain, and how best to teach my clients, prenatal, postnatal, or otherwise. I became passionate about alignment, balanced structure,and the negative impact of excessive sitting, overtraining chest/abs/quads, over and under stretching. How to teach like the body is a simple machine. Everything grew out of this painful opportunity to learn.

I started researching all of the structure experts that I could find. I watched and read everything I could for free online. I bought countless books on anatomy and movement. I invested $1000s in kinesiology programs. I traveled far and wide to meet and interview physical therapists and posture specialists. I was obsessed with improving my method, my online workouts, and of course, my barre and prenatal fitness programs.

Out of this research, I created my number one selling prenatal DVD, Slim and Toned Prenatal Barre Workout which I love because it’s equally tough and aligned. What followed is my MOST favorite prenatal DVD to date, the BarreAmped Sleek and Toned Prenatal Workout. As the most current and solid prenatal workout in my repertoire, in terms of protecting your abs/pelvic floor/lower back, I believe it’s the safest prenatal DVD you’ll find on the market.

I am still a work in progress and research has revealed to me why I developed so many issues during my second pregnancy, including urinary incontinence and diastasis recti (which is the separation of the top layer of abdominal muscles). The following factors contribute to pre- and postnatal pain specifically diastasis, pelvic floor dysfunction, leaking, and deep hip pain. Consider them from head to toe:

Poor posture: I did not know how to sit or stand “stacked up.” You may recall similar cueing in some of my workouts. I also lived for years with my shoulders internally rotated and my back rounded (in a curve like the letter “C”).

Holding the breath:  When I was about 11 years old, my mom’s well meaning friend slapped me lightly on my stomach and told me to “suck in” so I could have flat abs. In our ab-obsessed culture, this led to years of breath and ab holding, an ingrained behavior I have fought hard to unlearn. Constant tension of the abdominal muscles prevents them from supporting your body as they should. They need to move. They need to function. They need to help you breathe. They need to stabilize your spine. Yes, they need to be strong, but they will never be made stronger or more efficient than by breathing!

Holding a tuck in Barre: While I give credit and am grateful for my years at Lotte Berk Method, their emphasis on a tuck (in all but most thigh work) completely wrecked my hips. The ultimate point of it was to stretch the lower back and pull in the abs. In class and in life, I had to unlearn that, too. Excessive chest, abdominal, and quad work does far more damage than most people realize. We were overtraining the front body and neglecting the back body, or posterior chain. I abandoned the excessive tuck very early on in my career, and must warn you. If you are teaching or taking classes in a method that utilizes the tuck, I promise there are better methods out there, designed to extend the spine rather than exacerbate a ‘C’ shape in the back.

Getting up without regard: I did not intuit the need to support myself and my growing belly when getting up from the floor or out of bed. I just “went for it.” As the torso moves from point A to point B, there is pressure on the connective tissue that holds the expanding abdominal wall together. The baby and belly have to go somewhere and without support, that will usually be toward the navel. Thus, the pain and separation that I experienced. Furthermore, pressure upward can displace the stomach, contributing to reflux!

Sitting too much: Frankly, we sit too much. This causes the hip flexors (psoas, iliacus, rectus femoris, glute minimus, tensor fascia laetae, to name just a few!) to adapt and shorten. That adaptation, combined with weak backsides (glute max, medius, hamstrings), breath holding, and poor sitting posture (head forward, shoulders turned inward,back rounded, sitting on sacrum) creates almost constant pressure on the growing bellies that house our precious babies! Movement great, Ester Gokhale, taught me to ask, “If you had a tail, would it be underneath you or behind you? It should be behind you.” Don’t sit on your tail (or tuck your tail underneath you in a barre class). Stand up, focus on the back of your body, and breathe. Here’s how: see the seated relaxation breath work from this blog post.

Not keeping the pelvis in neutral: For the pelvic floor muscles to work effectively, the pelvis needs to be in an optimal position. It’s okay to move your hips some generally but frequently sitting “on your tail,” clenching your abs, and both standing or working out with your pelvis tucked, can weaken your pelvic floor muscles. One consequence is stress incontinence, such as wetting your pants on impact or when sneezing. Furthermore, Kegals are not going to fix a broken core system. Sitting at the red light, on your tail in the bucket seat of your minivan, squeezing your pelvic floor is NOT going to help your pelvic floor muscles function. Period.

Not understanding true pelvic floor utility: I did not understand that the abdominal wall, diaphragm, and pelvic floor muscles must all work in tandem with each breath. I didn’t know that this was coordinated until I found the work of Julie Wiebe. Julie is a physical therapist from LA, who specializes in training other PTs and fitness instructors to help their clients “return to fitness.” I went to Chicago for her professional training and was the only fitness pro there. I was fascinated and had never heard anything like it before. It changed everything. For the first time since having my son, I could jump without slightly wetting my pants. I highly recommend her rehabilitation program for new moms. Today, I consider Julie a friend who has changed my life and the way I teach.

Wearing the wrong footwear: I do not wear negative heel shoes anymore. Nor do I walk around on man-made floors/roads/sidewalks in non-supportive shoes. I am usually wearing flats or slightly elevated Fit Flops or sneakers. I don’t spend much time in heels. I do like minimal footwear, on natural surfaces, in short bursts. I also love jumping and doing barre on my trampoline for the way it strengthens and stretches the muscles in my feet.

It is important that your workouts change to mirror the changes in your miraculous body as it supports a new life. As soon as you begin to show, it is wise to alter your regular workouts (in terms of alignment).I see far too many women being led to do excessive exercise far too late into pregnancy. I don’t advocate for excessive exercise anyway, and this is especially true when you are pregnant or a new mom. I also do not advocate any excessive ab-work ever! The more I learn the less I do. The problem with “focused ab work” during pregnancy, is that you will do just the opposite by continuously flexing your spine like you do in traditional ab work. For goodness’ sake, if you are showing in pregnancy, do not do crunches on a ball. Please don’t do crunches or curls at all. You can still keep your core strong by doing the kind of planks/table top moves that are central to SBF. In addition to my prenatal workout DVDs, an SBF Streaming Membership offers a variety of thoughtfully designed workouts that can be done by most women, both prenatal and postnatal workouts and plenty of regular workouts that you can do WITH these modifications.

Julie Wiebe once told me to be a “C” student. I had been trying to do everything she was teaching like I used to treat my body. Like there was only one spot that was perfect and unattainable. Life isn’t like that and our bodies are very forgiving. Do your best. Breathe. If you want to work your abs, breathe! If you want to have a strong core, breathe. If you want to tone your pelvic floor, breathe. While you are breathing, make sure your pelvis is in the right place. Stand or sit with your tail behind you. Listen to your body. Again, breathe.

Before beginning any exercise, consult your doctor/healthcare provider.

**This is my professional athletic opinion, only, and should never be substituted for medical advice or treatment.

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