Are Core Exercises "Safe" in Pregnancy?

When should I stop doing sit ups, planks, toes-to-bar, etc. in pregnancy? Are any core exercises safe in pregnancy?

These are common questions that I get from women often and I once asked these questions as well. I remember when I was pregnant with my daughter, I would go in for my doctor’s appointments with questions like this, but all I would get was, “just listen to your body and slow down if you need to”. At the time, I had no idea what that meant, so I assumed I could continue unless something hurt. Nothing ever really hurt in my abdomen, so I continued many core exercises well into late second trimester. And really, the main reason I stopped then was because of scary things I read online that said I had to stop or my abs would be ripping down the middle…

Looking back now, even though I “felt fine”, I was probably ignoring some signs that my body was giving me to back off of many of those movements. But I was used to feeling some discomfort in a workout and I really just didn’t know what to listen for.

So, to answer the question of when to stop core-focused exercises in pregnancy, let’s dive into a few things we need to look at first. Sit-ups, v-ups, toes-to-bar, planks, and different variations of these movements are the most common ones I get asked about, so we will focus mostly on these.

In early pregnancy, some of these may be fine, but it’s very dependent on the woman and what she is experiencing. The thing we are looking at with these (and most) core-specific exercises is that they generally create quite a bit of intra-abdominal pressure which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it isn’t managed well, it can cause some issues. Ideally, we want to try to distribute the pressure in our abdomen throughout the whole core to provide strength and stability all over.

Some women have a tendency to push the pressure downwards towards the pelvic floor or outwards into the abdominal tissue instead of distributing it more evenly. During pregnancy, these two areas become a bit vulnerable as they stretch and accommodate a growing baby and due to hormones that affect the elasticity of our tissues. So putting more pressure into these vulnerable areas can lead to some symptoms or more stretching than we want.

Here are a few symptoms to watch for (and for a broader dive into exercise considerations in pregnancy and learning what to listen for, check out THIS blog post):

  • ANY amount of unintentional leaking (urine or feces)

  • Pelvic pain or pressure

  • Heaviness or a bulge feeling in the vagina

  • Coning or doming along the midline of the abdomen

  • Pulling sensations in the abdomen

  • Rib or belly discomfort

  • Pain during or after exercise (back, hips, pelvic, belly)

*If you notice any of these things while doing a core-specific (or really any) exercise, you should stop. You can try using a different strategy (some examples of how to do this HERE and HERE), but if it doesn’t improve, it means it’s time to choose a different movement that doesn’t elicit symptoms.

It’s really quite difficult to give a specific timeline of when to stop certain exercises because it needs to be approached individually, however, most women would benefit from putting a pause on many of the core exercise examples listed above sometime by the early second trimester.

This can vary greatly from one woman to the next-one woman may benefit from stopping in the first trimester because she noticed some coning or pulling sensations in her abs while the next woman may be fine doing them a couple of weeks into the second trimester. So each woman needs to make adjustments specifically for herself and what she is experiencing.

Now, to answer the “are core exercises safe in pregnancy?” question, the short answer is YES! Although there are some exercises that may not be the most appropriate exercises to do at a certain point in pregnancy, there are many exercises that can be good options.