A pregnant woman’s body undergoes a lot of changes. The demands placed upon it by the relaxin and progesterone, the hormones responsible for opening up the body in preparation for birth and hence the reason why so many women see increased flexibility, can place joints in danger of destabilization and muscles as risk of imbalance. An extreme example of such things happening is a woman who has never been particularly flexible in the past going into a yoga class and discovering that she can bend and twist herself into any shape her heart desires, only to find postpartum that she needs physical therapy because the ligament structures around her joints have overstretched. (Ligaments do not shorten back up like muscles do.)
With that said, there are ways of maintaining strength around the joint capsule to balance the increased range of motion that accompanies pregnancy hormones. Here are a few that I used while pregnant. Try to do at least 10 per day. The more, the merrier!
Abdominal Scoops: Sit in a chair or on a stability ball with feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Slowly hollow out the belly on an exhale as though you were trying to scoop ice cream out of the cavity, or trying to pull on pants that are extremely tight. Release on the inhale. NOTE: This is not like a crunch, which can exacerbate the stretching and/or separation (in extreme cases) of the linea alba (the tendon that runs down the middle of the rectus abdominus) potentially leading to a hernia; nor will it harm the baby if done gently and with control. The idea is to lift the pelvic floor, zipper the abs and lower ribs closed, and feel supported throughout the lower back and pelvis, areas into which we crunch when we are carrying added weight. (With pregnancy, the pelvis will shift, increasing the pressure.) Also, ensure that you are sitting as tall as possible, with shoulders lined up directly over the hips.
Planks: From an all-fours position, place elbows directly beneath the shoulder girdles and step one foot at a time out into plank. If in need of a modification, once feet are in place, drop the knees to the floor to prevent sinking into the lower back. Push into the heels (if on the feet), lift through the abs (again, think “scoop”) while lengthening the tailbone toward the back wall, and open the collarbones by rolling the shoulder blades back and down the spine, thereby giving space for the neck. Keep the gaze slightly forward rather than down. Hold for 30 seconds per plank, doing as many as is comfortable (up to 10). Rest in Child’s Pose. NOTE: If you feel pressure in the lower back come out of the exercise and rest before trying again. The focus should be on supporting the back and pelvis rather than holding for expended periods of time. If you need someone to help you get into the correct position, ask a trusted friend or gym trainer to help with corrections. The goal is to look like a table upon which you could serve your favorite meal without sagging or peaking at the hips and low back.
Open-legged squats, also known as moonflowers: Stepping wide and pointing the toes toward the corners of the room (about 45 degrees), reach the arms up into a high-V, fingers spread. Take an inhale. On an exhale, sit into a squat, making sure you can see your big toes, coming no lower than a 90 degree angle with the knee. Inhale return to standing. Do as many as you like. NOTE: think of yourself as an elevator, sliding up and down a building. Try to maintain a nice neutral spine while doing so, without the bottom sticking out or the chest collapsing forward. Also try to keep the knees from caving inward past the big toes. This will put huge stress loads on the medial ligaments supporting the joint and can eventually lead to repetitive use injuries. Contract the gluts slightly and feel the thighs wrap around the outside of the leg in order to prevent this.
Close-legged squats, also known as flowing chair: With feet slightly wider than hip-width for balance support, exhaling and reach the hands out in front of you (or keep them at the heart, pressed together) and sit back into the heels as though you were going to sit into a chair. Perhaps you start by using a chair until you feel capable of doing it without it. Inhale back to standing. Do as many as you like. This exercise is great for the pelvic floor. See if you can feel a gentle lift in the perineum muscles. NOTE: Knee collapsing is also a problem in this exercise; to avoid this, make sure the toes are in line with the ankle and knees in line with the toes. Again try to also keep the chest lifted.
Chest lifts, also known as flowing half forward bend: With feet far enough apart to supply room for your growing belly, bend the knees and place hands on the shins, a pair of yoga blocks or anything that will support you in this low position so you aren’t loading the spine. Inhale deeply. Exhale and use the back muscles only to lift the chest away from the floor, letting arms dangle for added weight or resting hands lightly on the thighs (above the knees) for support while ensuring that they do not assist in the lift. Inhale and return to starting position. This exercise is great for correcting poor posture resulting from pregnancy and breastfeeding, as well as the daily slouching we do while sitting. NOTE: At the initiation of the lift, feel as though the shoulder blades are sliding down the back into your back pants pockets, and from there the muscles of the upper and middle spine will work. Also, there is a great temptation to look forward toward a wall rather than keeping the gaze on the floor. Try to avoid this, as the head is a natural weight that challenges and strengthens your back muscles without putting too much strain on them. Keeping the neck in a neutral position will also avoid straining its muscles and crunching into the delicate cervical vertebrae.