Pregnancy is an amazing, challenging, beautiful, overwhelming, special time! There is so much anticipation and preparation that happens in those months and it seems like a never ending list of do’s and don’ts. We all know one of the big do’s of pregnancy is exercise - the benefits are countless for both mama and baby! Even though expecting mothers are told to exercise regularly and given some basic guidelines of what is generally good or not good, there is not enough guidance and information on what is arguably the most important aspect of exercise during pregnancy - core + pelvic floor health.
A weak Pelvic Floor leads to health challenges
During my first pregnancy I was active right up until the end and I felt great! I had no doubts my body would bounce back after. So I was really thrown a curve ball when I started my postpartum exercise routine and I couldn’t do one jumping jack without peeing my pants, my core felt like a big bowl of jello- no sensation, no connection, no muscle engagement, and I had a constant nagging lower back ache. As the months progressed and those symptoms worsened, I knew something was wrong.
Diastasis recti diagnosis
That intuition led me on a two-year journey. I finally discovered what was wrong - a severe diastasis recti (I had no clue what that was or that it was something that could happen!) and I felt frustrated with the lack of information and help I could find as I searched for answers and solutions.
I finally found some help and understanding that, after months and months of work, allowed me to heal my diastasis recti + weak pelvic floor. This experience made me want to help and prevent other women from going through what I went through. I became certified as a prenatal + postpartum personal trainer and MuTu Pro, and now I work with and educate women all about core + pelvic floor health. I am here to tell you what I wish I knew during my first pregnancy - to stay connected to my core + pelvic floor and, most importantly, why it matters!
Pelvic Floor Anatomy 101
Proper core and pelvic floor strengthening during pregnancy is so vital because this is where all the action is happening! This is where the changes are primarily occurring and these muscles need to be ready to handle all that action. Anatomy was never my cup of tea in school, but having a basic understanding of our bodies sure comes in handy.
How can we effectively train and strengthen muscles if we don’t know what or where they are? So here is our very basic core + pelvic floor anatomy lesson:
(Photo via mutusystem.com)
The core is made up of different muscles and layers that all work together to provide stability, strength, endurance, flexibility, motor control, and function. For our purposes, the most important core muscles to understand are the rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis (TVA), as well as the linea alba (connective tissue), and the pelvic floor which acts as the “bottom” of the core.
- Rectus Abdominis: This is the most superficial layer of the core. It is also called the “6-pack muscle” because when you see definition in the core it is the definition of the rectus abdominis.
- Transverse Addominis (TVA): This is the deepest layer of our core and the most important muscle to learn to activate and engage correctly. This muscle is our deep core stabilizer and its role is crucial. The transverse also acts as a “corset” for the body. When you strengthen and work this muscle it has a cinching effect, giving the core a flat and toned appearnce.
- Linea Alba: This is connective tissue that runs vertically down the core and connects the two halves of the rectus abdominis.
- Pelvic Floor: This is a very complex structure of the body with many roles and functions. The pelvic floor is made up of the bladder, uterus, and bowel which are all supported by the pelvic floor muscles. These pelvic muscles are what help control the bladder and bowel as well as play a role in sexual function. Keeping the pelvic floor muscles strong and functional is crucial.
How To Properly Activate Core and Pelvic Floor
Some things are easier to show and explain so watch this video to learn all about proper core + pelvic floor activation. It is so important to know how to properly activate them, because without proper activation there is not proper strengthening or core recruitment happening!
*Note: It is helpful to find a visual or analogy that makes sense to you and that helps you find and activate the proper muscles, especially for the pelvic floor! If the string analogy I described in the video above didn’t connect with you, maybe one of these will! Remember your pelvic floor muscles extend to support from vagina to anus, so you want to focus the contraction happening that full length!
That is the proper way to activate the pelvic floor and you will create a strong and functional pelvic floor when you activate the entire length of the pelvic floor. That is why a kegel isn’t the most effective way to train the pelvic floor, this movement is isolated in the front of the pelvic floor and leaves out the rest of the muscles that should be working as well.
- Straw + smoothie: Imagine your pelvic floor (vagina to anus) is a straw and it is sucking up a smoothie. As you exhale your breathe and begin to contract the pelvic floor imagine you are sucking up the smoothie through your straw, sucking it all the way up to the top slowly! You should feel that gentle and gradual lift of the pelvic floor
- Picking up a tissue: Imagine you are picking up a tissue that is laying on a table. Your pelvic floor muscles (vagina to anus) are what is doing the lifting of the tissue. As you exhale feel the lift of your pelvic floor and imagine that tissue starting to lift off the table, (make sure you feel the contraction happening all along your pelvic floor). Continue to lift the “tissue” (pelvic floor) all the way up until it is no longer resting on the table at all. You should feel that gentle and gradual lift of the pelvic floor
Why is strengthening our core and pelvic floor so important during pregnancy?
It is easy to neglect our core and pelvic floor during pregnancy because, well, they are kind of busy growing a baby (or two or more)! But think of all the weight and pressure your core must adapt to and support during pregnancy and all the work your pelvic floor does during labor and delivery, don’t you want them to be up for the task?! Yes, yes you do! Also, think about postpartum. Don’t you want your body to bounce back quickly? And I am NOT talking about your appearance, I am talking about function! When you take the time to stay connected to your body during pregnancy, you will be better connected to yourself after pregnancy.
Your core will be able to support you lifting your baby, carrying the car seat, vacuuming, walking up the stairs, and eventually returning to an exercise routine. As you properly activate, train, and strengthen your core + pelvic floor during pregnancy you will also reduce your risk of postpartum injuries such as diastasis recti, general core + pelvic floor weakness, prolapses, and hernias. If there is only one thing you do for exercise during pregnancy let it be connecting to, training, and strengthening your core + pelvic floor.
I want you to spend the next few days becoming aware of how you activate and recruit your core + pelvic floor muscles, both during exercise and daily activities. A great way to start to become more connected to your core + pelvic floor is to spend 5-10 minutes a day somewhere quiet doing those activation breaths. I showed you in the core activation video.
Even taking just these few minutes to disconnect from distractions and reconnect to self will be so beneficial. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!
Join me in my next post, Pelvic Floor Alignment, where we will be talking about the importance of alignment during pregnancy!
About the Author:
Hey, I’m Nicole Atwood! I am a wife to my love and a mother to the sweetest little girl + one on the way! I am a prenatal and postpartum personal trainer with a true passion to help women feel connected + confident in their bodies. I focus on educating about proper core + pelvic floor health during pregnancy, after pregnancy, and beyond! I also have a deep love for milkshakes, Harry Potter, and autumn time when the leaves are changing colors and falling! Let’s be friends and connect on social media! You can find me on instagram and facebook where I share fitness tips, core + pelvic floor information, and little bits of my personal journey through this second pregnancy! You can also find me on www.abeautyblooming.com/blog