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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.

Here are a few of my favorite exercises that I like to use all of the time, but especially as substitutes during pregnancy for when ab-specific exercises are programmed in workouts:

  • Ball slams

  • Kettlebell swings

  • Palloff presses (ALL variations!)

  • Wood chops

  • Carries-farmer’s, front-loaded, suitcase (unilateral carries can be a great way to indirectly work that core!), etc.

  • Incline plank or quadruped shoulder taps

  • Sled pushes or pulls

*It’s important to note that when you are substituting one exercise for another in a workout, it does NOT necessarily have to mimic the movement you are replacing. For example, if toes-to-bar are programmed in a workout, you don’t have to do something hanging from the bar; you could do a completely different movement. During pregnancy and postpartum, we sometimes need to elicit a different response than what was originally intended in a programmed workout (that is likely programmed for a non-pregnant athlete).

Let’s take this workout for example and make it a bit more pregnancy-friendly in each trimester. You walk into the gym and you see this workout programmed for the day:

4 Rounds

25 ring rows

50 air squats

25 sit-ups

Early first trimester:

You may be fine performing the workout as prescribed, but take into account how you are feeling that day-are you nauseous? How are your energy levels? Getting out of breath quickly? Use some of these questions to help you determine if and how much you should scale the workout.

If you are feeling great, you would likely be okay doing the full workout, but being mindful of the symptoms listed earlier in this post and backing off if needed. If you just aren’t feeling 100%, you could decrease the reps (maybe a 15, 35, 15 rep scheme instead?), doing 2-3 rounds instead of 4, or substituting the sit-ups (and other movements as needed) with something that doesn’t cause issues or symptoms.

Second trimester:

You may be fine performing the volume prescribed, but you can always drop the reps or rounds lower if needed. Instead of the sit-ups and putting quite a bit of stress on the abdomen and growing belly, ball slams may feel better for you.

The workout may look like this instead:

4 Rounds

25 ring rows

50 squats

25 ball slams

Third trimester:

You may or may not feel okay doing the volume (rounds and reps), so going in and being flexible; meaning if you feel like 2 rounds is plenty once you get going (but you were hoping for 3), it’s okay to stop there.

The workout may look like this:

2-3 Rounds (not for time)

15-25 ring rows

25-50 squats

15-25 steps of farmer’s carry

These options can serve as great substitutes for traditional abdominal exercises because they typically don’t generate quite as much pressure and are often a bit easier to manage pressure on than some of the other ab exercises I discussed above.

As always, some of these exercises may work great for one woman, but not the next, so looking at each woman and her experiences, symptoms, goals, and how she is feeling is very important in deciding what is appropriate for her and her evolving body that will support her long term health and performance goals.

Remember that exercises should not be a black and white list of what to do and avoid during pregnancy; some of these options may be great substitutes for one woman, but they may elicit symptoms or not feel great for another woman.

It’s not forever, just for now to set you up for long term athleticism, function, and strength.

Want more info on what strategies will be best for you and your journey? Fill out this form to schedule a FREE call with me to discuss how you can best navigate exercise in pregnancy!

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