Pilates is a form of exercise that focuses on spinal alignment, core strength and posture.
Core strength comes from the muscles in the areas of the pelvis, rib cage and diaphragm, which work to maintain posture and support the spinal column and pelvis in correct alignment.
In Pilates exercises, the majority of concentration is placed on the deep core muscles.
Pilates uses a sequence of exercises to work these deep core muscles in the proper spinal alignment by adding the challenge of weight to the core, balance, or by general movement of the arms and legs.
The main muscles that make up your “core” are the transverses abdominis (TA), multifidus, pelvic floor muscles, rectus abdominis and the obliques.
The TA acts like a thick corset around your centre. The TA muscle is sometimes referred to as the belt muscle because it offers stability to the torso and support to your centre to help maintain a correct upright posture.
All movements of the body activate the core muscles. For example, when you lift your arm to brush your hair, the muscles in your back and abdominal activate to assist this move.
Your core is also stabilised by another group of muscles called the pelvic floor, which are extremely important for pregnant women.
During pregnancy, your core requires greater stabilisation due to the changes in your posture, weight and centre of balance.
Creating strength in your core muscles will help to reduce some of the excessive pressure on surrounding joints, muscles and bones.
By building strength and endurance in these muscles, they will provide support for the abdominal organs and your growing baby.
As your belly grows, the TA stretches, creating even more instability in the pelvis as well as challenges in your posture.
An unstable pelvis can lead to pelvic pain, sciatic pain and low back discomfort. A strong core will help improve posture and balance.
Also, if you build strength and endurance in the deep core muscles, you are more likely to return to your pre-pregnancy shape in the abdominal area much quicker in the postpartum period.
It will also provide assistance during labour and delivery and play a very important role during pregnancy and also in assisting recovery from child birth.
During pregnancy, your baby, your bladder and other organs will start to push down on the floor of the pelvis.
If you have weak pelvic floor muscles, you may experience urine leakage during and/or after your pregnancy.
Strengthening the pelvic floor and practising the deep core exercises will help maintain some stability in the pelvic and reduce the risk of urinary incontinence during and after pregnancy.
Pilates helps you find those muscles and to gain control of them while working on increasing their strength.
Is exercise safe during pregnancy?
Women are generally encouraged to continue exercising at a mild to moderate level during their pregnancy, as long as it is uncomplicated.
It is important to remember pregnancy does change a woman’s physiological response to exercise.
A pre-natal exercise programme will need to be constantly modified to allow for a mother’s hormonal and body changes, and to maintain maximum safety of the mother and fetus.
All pre-natal exercise should be done with the permission of a physician, and if the pregnancy is complicated, the special instruction of a physician.
With Pilates, you can start at anytime in your pregnancy. Pregnancy is not the time to take up new activities such as running or other high-impact activities.
There are many advantages to exercising during pregnancy.
They include: less maternal weight gain; help to reduce/prevent urine leakage, low back pain and haemorrhoids; helping the mother cope with labour better; prevention of gestational diabetes; improved psychological well-being of the mother; increased abdominal strength that provides support for the uterus and baby; and aiding childbirth by making the pelvic floor muscles stronger and giving the mother greater body awareness so she can focus on this area better during delivery.
Exercising during pregnancy can also quicken post-natal recovery; aid with breathing in labour and reduce shortness of breath during pregnancy; reduce general aches and pains by improving posture; improve circulation and help to prevent varicose veins and leg cramps; and create stronger, toned abdominals that are less likely to separate severely.
Key changes during pregnancy
Many women experience shoulder and upper back aches as the breasts grow.
The increased weight of the breasts causes the shoulders to start to roll forward, resulting in the muscles of the chest becoming tight and the muscles in the back becoming stretched.
It is important to keep the muscles of the upper back strong in order to prevent a slouched posture from developing.
The month-to-month and often week-to-week changes in the centre of gravity of pregnant women means that they need to re-educate their bodies on a regular basis as to what is ‘normal alignment’.
In addition, during pregnancy the body produces a hormone called relaxin that is designed to loosen the ligaments and joints around your pelvis to prepare the body for delivery.
It is produced the second week of pregnancy and reaches its highest level by the end of the first trimester. It then drops by approximately 20 per cent and remains at that level until after the birth.
The role of relaxin is to relax the ligaments of the pelvis and allow separation of the joint surfaces, allowing more space within the pelvis to accommodate the growing baby and prepare for labour.
Some women feel the effects of relaxin in all of their joints, making them more susceptible to discomfort or injuries in their ankles, wrists, knees or low back.
Relaxin also remains in the body for three to five months after childbirth – and longer for breastfeeding mothers – so try to allow your body time to recover postnatal before moving on to some of the more advanced stretching moves or exercise programmes.
Pregnant women need to ensure that they don’t ‘over-stretch’ their muscles as they often feel more flexible than they actually are.
There are many benefits of staying active throughout your pregnancy, and after you have given birth, as long as it is done in a safe manner.
Doing core work – such as in Pilates – is an effective and safe way to help prepare yourself for childbirth, along with activities like walking, swimming, light resistance training and mild stretching.
Be sure to check with your doctor before starting any pre-natal exercise programme.
Deanna Smith is an exercise physiologist and Pilates instructor at ENERGY. She can be contacted at: [email protected] or 946-6006.