Does Having Strong Abs Help With Labour?
During pregnancy, we are given a great deal of information and misinformation on training during pregnancy. At Tone and Sculpt we have put together an informative short series on training during every trimester in pregnancy, which you will find really useful when pregnant. It would be useful to read The Pregnancy Diaries series and then have a read through this blog post.
Abs is the short term for our abdominal muscles and it is the area of our bodies that many men and women want to train for that desirable ‘6 pack’. Pregnancy and your growing bump puts pressure on your abdominal muscles and your fascial tissue (muscle tissue) as your abdominal muscles needs to stretch and adapt to your growing bump. So much is going on physically, internally and externally as you progress through your pregnancy; every pregnancy is different and it is important to consider whether this is your first, second or third pregnancy too. Here, we will explore the role our ‘abs’ play in labour and pregnancy.
Your abs are a part of your CORE
It is important to remember that your abdominal muscles are a part of your core and your core comprise of different muscles. The ‘6 pack’ image of your abdominal muscles are just one part of your core, known as the rectus abdominis. As well as training the rectus abdominis (commonly trained using crunches and sit ups), we must train all other areas to strengthen and define our core. The rectus abdominis is connected to the external and internal obliques and the transverse-abdominis, plus muscles in your back, including your lats. Basically, your core is a major powerhouse and we need to train it to prevent injury in every other exercise we do; to support our posture and to prevent injury. In pregnancy, training your core is extremely important to support the changes to your body and postpartum recovery.
What does it mean to have ‘strong abs?’
Firstly, this phrase is confusing. If your image of ‘strong’ is a defined 6 pack, think again. When we see a defined 6 pack on others, it is most likely a result of a low body fat percentage. In pregnancy you are carrying and growing a human (!) and your body is likely to change, so please do not worry or even think about the 6 pack image. However, what you might be thinking is how can you strengthen or even ‘feel’ your core working during pregnancy to support child labour and post-partum recovery. The latter is how we should define ‘strong abs:’ like I mentioned earlier, they are a powerhouse which need to be conditioned and ‘exercised’ to keep you physically healthy and strong.
Your Pelvic Floor Muscles
Your pelvic floor muscles sit below your core and are also known as a part of your ‘deep core’ muscles. As opposed to ‘strong abs’, strong pelvic floor muscles can really help in pregnancy, child labour and postpartum recovery. There are several studies exploring the topic of pelvic floor exercises and whether women correctly can correctly recruit their pelvic floor muscles. However, once taught and if we practice consistently, it is an easy exercise to do on a daily basis. There is guidance in The Pregnancy Diaries: First Trimester on how to perform these exercises (known as kegel exercises) however, if you are not sure, it is recommended to consult your doctor or a womens’ health specialist. Strong pelvic floor muscles can prevent urinary incontinence pre and postpartum. Kegel exercises can also help prevent the risk of pelvic prolapse postpartum and the exercises help minimise diastasis recti (separation of the abdominal muscles). Yes, we are of course concerned about our abdominal wall muscles, however the more we do to train our deep core and pelvic floor muscles, the better it is to support a healthy pregnancy, birth and recovery.
What is diastasis recti and do ‘strong abs’ help prevent it?
Diastasis recti means the separation of the abdominal muscles from the linea alba (a line of connective tissue that runs from the centre of your chest all the way down to your pubic bones. Diastasis recti is very common during pregnancy and post partum. It is not necessarily anything to worry about and can be repaired, however there are certain exercises we can do and avoid during pregnancy to prevent or reduce the separation. That being said, even women who perform every recommended exercise going to prevent DR can get abdominal separation, so please do not worry too much! To prevent DR and to maintain strength in your core during pregnancy the following exercises can be helpful:
- Prenatal Pilates exercises
- Prenatal yoga
- Side planks
- Side bends
- Inhaling and exhaling through your deep core muscles (this is when you let all your tummy muscles relax and you exhale drawing your - - - Bump and belly in and up, imagining them retracting under your ribcage; hold for a few seconds and then release before repeating 5-10 times).
- Kegel exercises
The aim in pregnancy is to strengthen, relax and lengthen the abdominal muscles, all of which can be achieved performing the exercises above. As much as we focus on exercise and a ‘strong’ core, we also need to relax the muscles to give them time to recover and lengthen, which is just as important to avoid diastasis recti.
There are abdominal exercises that should be avoided in pregnancy, especially as the bump grows:
- Cross body crunches
- Exercises that involve lying on your back for an extended period of time
- Full planks
- Full body press ups
- Any exercise that puts a great deal of pressure on your core
- Explosive exercises (e.g, mountain climbers, snap jumps)
As every pregnancy is unique and every woman has a different experience, it is important to consult a physical health professional to guide you through particular exercises and support during your pregnancy, especially if you are new to exercise.
Training your deep core muscles and performing exercises that are safe for you during pregnancy can most certainly support a healthy prenatal journey and postnatal recovery, however they do not necessarily result in an easy labour. That being said, we know that prenatal exercise can support a healthy pregnancy and postpartum recovery, which is the most important thing. Out of all of the exercises mentioned above, the ones most closely aligned with muscles used in labour are deep core breathing and kegel exercises; they may not be your traditional gym based exercises but working on your breathing and kegels can help with the ‘pushing phase’ of active child labour.
In order to prepare for labour, it is important you consult your physician and prenatal medical care to answer any questions you have about labour and to prepare your birth plan. The birth plan is a great way to gain control over something that can seem quite scary in the first instance.
Remember, you have the strength and ability to deliver this baby - you are a strong woman who has got this!