By LISA GIMENEZ-CODD
Female Health & Exercise Coach
Pilates & Lower Back Exercise Specialist
Mummy to 2 young boys!
Some people have funny ideas of what Pilates actually is and may envisage hippy toting, sandal-wearing, tree huggers laying in various positions doing breathing exercises. Breathing is one of the key original principles of Pilates but there is much more to it than that. I’ll talk you through some of the benefits of Pilates and how they can help you through pregnancy and beyond in the paragraphs to come but first, a little about what Pilates actually is.
Pilates was originally called “Contrology” by its founder, Joseph Pilates and is a series of movements aimed at focussing the mind and body, making movements efficient and increasing energy.
Mat Pilates is based around 34 original movements. Some of these movements are reserved for advanced practitioners and others need to be adapted for later stages of pregnancy. That is why it is important to find not only a suitably qualified Pilates instructor but one with qualifications and experience of working with pre- and post-natal clients. Ask your midwife whether she knows of any pre-natal Pilates classes in your area.
So how can Pilates help you through your pregnancy? In a number of ways!
To me, breathing is hugely under-rated. It is a continuous action that our body just does and we take for granted. Yet your body adapts your breathing according to circumstance. It takes faster and more shallow breaths when anxious or busy, and slower, deeper breaths as you relax.
As your pregnancy advances, you have the added impact of your baby placing upward pressure on your diaphragm. This was a particular issue for me second time round with a big baby taking up all the room!
Focussing your breathing has a calming effect on the body. Breathing in deeply through the nose, visualise that breath filling your lungs beneath the rib cage so the ribs expand outwards, like a pair of curtains opening, relaxing back together as you exhale through the mouth.
Sighing the breath out through the mouth also allows the diaphragm and ribcage to relax downwards, reducing pressure through the mid-spine. All good comedy films featuring childbirth, focus on breathing in some humorous way or other but this is based on fact. Being able to concentrate (another principle of Pilates) on your breathing effectively keeps you calm, ensures your body is receiving the oxygen it needs and expelling the carbon dioxide it doesn’t need.
Concentrating on deep lateral breathing also distracts you from contractions, which has got to be a good thing! Practicing the ‘art of breathing’ for relaxation and concentration during your pregnancy means you have a great tool ready to use during childbirth. The benefits of breathing deeply and slowly do not stop at childbirth either – believe me, when your little darling is throwing an almighty tantrum in the middle of a busy shop – these breathing techniques are worth their weight in gold! Learning how your breathing affects your mental, physical and emotional responses is a hugely valuable tool that Pilates focuses on.
2. Core strength and control
As pregnancy advances your centre of gravity changes moving forward and down. Your abdomen obviously becomes heavier and larger which can tilt the pelvis forward, increasing the arch in the lower back. This can lead to hip and lower back pain.
By learning the standard set-up positions, pivotal to Pilates movements, when standing, sitting and lying down, you become more aware of your ‘neutral’ pelvis position and achieving the best, and most comfortable position for your spine. The ability to control your body’s response to carrying your baby is taught through a number of techniques. Teaching people to engage their transverse abdominis and pelvic floor is the foundation of these techniques. The beauty here is that, once learnt, you can utilise these techniques standing (doing the washing up or waiting for a bus), sitting (at your desk or while watching TV) or lying down (when you wake, go to bed or snooze).
The transverse abdominis is the base layer of your abdominal muscles and effectively acts a bit like a corset. Rather than making pregnancy and childbirth more difficult as some would have you believe, connecting with this muscle helps maintain your posture and eases labour by increasing its ability to contract and relax. Being able to engage and exercise it during your pregnancy also helps you regain your abdominal shape after baby is born.
The pelvic floor is actually a sling of muscles that attaches to the front and back of your pelvis. It effectively carries the weight of the contents of your abdomen. Obviously as your pregnancy progresses, the weight and pressure on your pelvic floor (and bladder!) increases. There are both slow and fast twitch fibres within these muscles meaning that some are more endurance based, being able to hold that weight continuously; while others are there for ‘emergency’ situations like when you cough, sneeze or laugh….. I didn’t practice my pelvic floor exercises anywhere near enough during my first pregnancy, not being a
Pilates practitioner at the time, and I remember my first sneeze after giving birth. We were actually in “Toys R Us” at the time and I just remember not daring to look down in case I was standing in a puddle!
I include activation of the pelvic floor and transverse abdominis within all my Pilates classes and would advise that you find an activity you do 3-4 times a day (like putting the kettle on, for example) and activate these muscles every time you do that activity. That way you have a trigger to remind you, and it soon becomes a worthwhile habit – particularly if you plan on enjoying trampolines with your child as they grow older.
Directly exercising your more superficial abdominal muscles is not advised in the later stages of pregnancy, as the rectus abdominis (or 6 pack muscle) needs to lengthen and stretch to allow expansion room for your growing baby and the muscle can naturally separate, referred to as diastasis recti.
The picture below shows both a normal rectus abdominis and one in which diastasis recti has occurred. The rectus abdominis is connected down the centre by connective tissue, called the linea alba. As the abdomen expands during pregnancy, this can become stretched as shown. This also causes a relative weakness in the core.
This is not uncommon and, in the majority of cases, the gap naturally closes in the weeks and months after you give birth. It does however represent a weakness in your core which could affect your stability and pelvic position and so needs to be treated with care and patience.
Pilates allows you to engage the muscles of the whole core, that is your trunk, for stabilisation, strength and mobility without compromising the natural adjustments your body is making during pregnancy and after childbirth. Used correctly, it can also help support the natural reduction in any abdominal separation that has occurred. It is important that any instructor you use knows how to check for diastasis recti when you return to classes post-pregnancy and how to support you.
3. Self Awareness
The most common comment from my attendees at my Pilates classes is that they feel more in tune with their body. Throughout the 9 months of your pregnancy, your body adapts, grows and changes continually. Practicing Pilates makes you more aware of these changes and how you handle them. During pregnancy you may subconsciously allow your lower back to arch as your baby grows, as described above. Once your baby has arrived, how you feed and carry your baby will affect your body. Pilates gives you a set of tools to maintain joint alignment, posture and core strength to reduce the impact of these joys of motherhood on your body.
Feeding your baby can pull the shoulders out of alignment, rounding the upper back. If you are able to breast feed you will be more conscious of feeding in different positions using both the left and right arm. When bottle feeding, this is less likely and can lead to dominance on one side.
We ladies tend to do this when carrying our children too, favouring one hip over the other. Again this changes your alignment, pelvis position and muscular balance – Pilates helps address all of these points.
4. Precise, controlled movements.
Some people bloom during pregnancy, feeling more vibrant and healthy than ever before. For others, pregnancy can be hard work –aches, tiredness, morning sickness (why do they call it that? – it was all day sickness for me!). The beauty of Pilates is its adaptability and focus on precision. My catchphrase for Pilates classes is that “size (of movement) does not matter – it’s the quality of the movement that counts”.
This means that you concentrate on maintaining control of your body through an appropriate range of movement, challenging your body at an appropriate level. The flow of movements promotes circulation and further enhances your breathing, whilst producing an overall relaxing effect. As your pregnancy progresses, shorter sessions (of say half an hour at a time) may be more appropriate. I love the fact that Pilates has that adaptability in terms of time, space and ability.
I also remember feeling like a beached whale towards the end of my pregnancies, particularly the second one. Having a simple form of exercise which is still achievable, albeit with adaptations, is empowering and invigorating when you feel like that. It all sounds idyllic really doesn’t it? There is one particular point to be wary of however. Flexibility is also enhanced through Pilates practice and this is an area to exercise caution in, particularly from your second trimester onwards.
In pregnancy, your body produces increased amounts of a hormone called relaxin, which does exactly what it says on the tin! It allows your pelvis and uterus to expand to make way for the growing foetus and ultimate delivery of your baby. It also affects your joints and all the other connective tissue in your whole body, even your blood vessels and muscles between your ribs. Therefore, you need to concentrate on easing into gentle stretches steadily and maintaining joint stability when stretching. Remember that relaxin levels remain elevated for some months after childbirth and this is extended further by breastfeeding, so keep stretches controlled. I could extol the benefits of Pilates for many more pages but I think Joseph Pilates summed it up really elegantly himself:
“Pilates develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong postures, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind and elevates the spirit.”
Pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood are truly amazing experiences. Pilates can provide you with a key set of tools to ensure you get the most out of every second.
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Please speak to your doctor and/or midwife before you start Pilates practice during pregnancy, especially if you have not practiced before your pregnancy. Look for an appropriately qualified and experienced Pilates instructor who is also trained in pre & post natal exercise. Be sure to tell your midwife and instructor about any untoward symptoms you experience.