Expectant mothers, at any stage of pregnancy, are often curious as to what forms of exercise will be both safe and effective to sustain the wellbeing of themselves and that of their unborn child. In recent times, Pilates has become a popular and much talked-about exercise choice for pregnant women. The method boasts a holistic, mind-body approach that is perfectly suited to support a mother through all the changes she will experience in the nine months of pregnancy.
The exercises taught in a Pilates session, both on the Mat and the broader Pilates apparatus (Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda Chair) can vary in intensity, and are adaptable – they can be modified to suit a woman’s changing physical body, energy levels and emotional needs through all three trimesters. Pilates also helps to maintain muscular strength and stability, which can alleviate discomfort and symptoms of joint pain, whilst regular exercise lowers the risk of gestational diabetes.
Pilates during pregnancy should emphasize “feel good” exercise, over progression; it is not the time to up the intensity or work on executing advanced movements, but instead to listen to your body and move at your own pace. For those engaged in a Pilates practice already, it may be possible to continue at the same level, but for pregnant women with no Pilates experience, it is recommended to attend beginner level or Prenatal sessions only.
Guidance for each trimester:
First Trimester – 0-12 weeks
- It is considered safe to continue a regular workout practice during this time. Always consult your doctor if in doubt, or before beginning a new type of exercise, particularly if you experience any underlying conditions.
- Women are likely to experience nausea and fatigue – sessions may need to be shorter in duration and gentler in nature.
- The NHS recommends that “As a general rule, you should be able to hold a conversation as you exercise when pregnant. If you become breathless as you talk, then you’re probably exercising too strenuously.”
- Go back to basics – focus on really understanding and appreciating the fundamentals of Pilates, such as breathing and neutral pelvis.
- The Reformer is a perfect piece of equipment for pregnant women to continue whole body strengthening and conditioning in a balanced manner. Make conservative choices, using the adjustable spring tension, to help support the changing weight of the body against gravity. Choose heavier springs for exercises challenging stability, and lighter springs for exercises challenging strength in the arms and legs.
- Educate yourself on some of the modifications that you may have to make to your practice in the later trimesters.
- No overexertion and no overheating (hot Pilates is not appropriate during pregnancy).
- Focus on connecting to the transverse abdominals (deepest layer of abdominal muscles), which work to stabilize the trunk.
- Learn to both gently contract and release the pelvic floor muscles. A Gymball can be a fantastic tool to provide feedback during pelvic floor exercises. Be careful not to overwork the pelvic floor muscles during pregnancy, although an awareness of pelvic floor control will serve you well through pregnancy, labor and post-natal recovery.
Second Trimester – 13-27 weeks
- Although expectant mothers may feel more energetic in the second trimester, modifications may need to be made - listen to the body on a day-by-day basis.
- Relaxant hormones, peaking at 14 weeks, mean that the ligaments loosen and the body is more flexible. Work in a smaller range and be careful not to overstretch, particularly in rotational movements.
- From now onwards, limit supine work (exercises done laying on back), as the uterus can put pressure on the inferior vena cava and aorta, restricting blood flow and leading to feelings of dizziness. The Jump Board can be placed at an angle so that it forms a slope, or the Spine Corrector can be used to support the trunk in a reclined position, where the mother’s head is elevated, so that this restriction of blood flow does not occur.
- Limit forward flexion (such as the Hundred and Roll-Ups), as this can contribute to diastasis recti – when the rectus abdominals separate.
- Some women prefer not to lie on top of their baby bump, therefore prone work (exercises lying face down) may also need to be excluded.
- Prioritize work in side-lying, seated, or standing positions. As a woman’s posture and center of gravity alter to accommodate a baby, standing work on the Wunda Chair can be great for developing balance, with the addition of a weighted pedal and removable handles to aid stability. A Foam Roller or Wooden Pole can be used to minimize any fall risk whilst the balance is otherwise challenged.
Third Trimester – 28-41 weeks
- Exhaustion and some anxiety are likely to set in at this time, so it is all the more important to listen to your body and exercise as much or as little as feels right.
- Focus on breathing techniques and the mind-body connection that is integral to Pilates can boost the emotional wellbeing of the mother and baby, as well as serving well through labor and into motherhood.
- The weight and expansion of bump and breasts create postural changes that are most exaggerated towards the end of pregnancy. The curve in the lower back (lordosis) increases as the pelvis tilts forwards, whilst the chest can feel tight and the upper back rounds (kyphosis). The Arm Chair Barrel Set offers a supportive setting to counteract these changes, with F2 System springs for developing strength in the shoulders and upper back, and a ladder to hold during stretches for the muscles surrounding the lower back and hips.
- Accommodate a growing bump in seated positions by using a Sitting Box to raise the pelvis so that the legs are not obstructed. It may also be necessary to work in a widened stance and turned-out position of the legs for this reason; The BASI Systems Reformer features an extra wide foot-bar, as well as a longer, wider carriage with plenty of room for a mum and a bump.
- Women often find it more difficult to change positions during this phase. The raised surface of the Trapeze Table (Cadillac) and Reformer make it easy to get up and down, especially for those experiencing dizziness. The stable Cadillac is also a safe place to conduct conditioning throughout pregnancy - where a broad selection of Springs, the Roll-up Bar and Push-Through Bar present a multitude of options for keeping all muscle groups strong, supple and well-functioning.
- Release expectations or judgements surrounding the intensity of your workout. Some exercises will no longer be appropriate as the body at this time is adapting in exactly the way it will need to in order to deliver a baby. Utilize mindful exercise for the deep relaxation that it can provide, and the opportunity to connect to the body, and the life within it.
Pilates can indeed be carried out appropriately from beginning to end of pregnancy, in the care of an instructor with specific training in Prenatal Pilates. This consistency can be incredibly comforting through the possible ups and downs that a pregnancy may present. The myriad physical benefits of Prenatal Pilates are complemented by the fostering of a calm, mindful approach and enhanced sense of wellbeing that can positively impact both mother and baby through pregnancy, labor and beyond.
Rika Brixie qualified as a Pilates instructor through Pilates Therapy and BASI Pilates CTTC. She is proud to be BASI Pilates Faculty, teaching the BASI Pilates Global Comprehensive Program, and her own BASI workshop ‘Pilates for Scoliosis’. Rika’s first and enduring passion in life is movement, which carried her through a career as a professional ballet dancer. Her personal experience of living with scoliosis has given Rika a unique insight into the deep workings of the body and ultimately lead to her specialising in scoliosis. She is based in London, where she teaches alongside the phenomenal BASI UK team at The Pilates Clinic (Wimbledon).