Building Core Strength

At the risk of sounding redundant, it bears repeating that proper core training is more important than ever during and after pregnancy.  A strong and properly functioning core is essential for preventing pregnancy-induced pains and injuries, improving fetal growth environment, facilitating an easier and more efficient labor, and expediting your postpartum recovery.  The keyword though is “proper,” which is quite different than the traditional crunches and planks you might be envisioning when you think of core training. Read on for the key steps to building a strong core.

First Thing’s First: Establish a Foundation

Just as building a house requires starting with a solid foundation, the same is true for your core.  There are two steps to establishing that foundation, which apply to ANY individual regardless of whether you are pregnant or not.

  1. Eliminate excess tension: It’s difficult to strengthen muscles when they are being faced with unnecessary stress and tension. When your body is out of neutral alignment, unnecessary stress is placed on your muscles, especially your core muscles. Unfortunately, the growing belly and breasts during pregnancy — combined with the physical activities of motherhood — tend to pull your body out of neutral alignment.  So, the first step is to get rid of that excess tension by getting your body into proper neutral alignment.
  2. Activate your “Core Canister.” With the excess tension cleared, you’re ready to begin laying the foundation, which — when it comes to your core — means learning how to activate your critical Core Canister muscles (shown below). This is accomplished by mastering proper 360° Breathing mechanics.  Proper breathing (and breath-to-movement coordination) is essential for getting the most out of any exercise, and improper breathing could actually lead to a weaker core. For more info, check out Core Training: Start Here

Increase Strength with “Anti-Core” Exercises

With your body in alignment and your Core Canister muscles firing properly, you’re ready to focus on increasing your core strength. We do this by creating conditions that force your core muscles to work harder, which causes them to adapt to meet the demands by growing stronger.  One great we can do this is through movements that attempt to pull your torso in different directions out of neutral alignment — forward, backward, sideways, or into rotation — forcing your core muscles to work against that resistance to keep your body in neutral. These are known as “anti” core exercises because they involve resisting the pull toward a certain direction.  The easiest way to explain this is with some examples.

NOTE: for all the movement examples below, we show 2-3 repetitions with the correct form, then switch to show a few repetitions with the common errors.  You’ll usually see a pause right before the incorrect versions. In all the movements remember the following two very IMPORTANT technique points:

Anti-Extension Moves

We begin with this category because one of the most widely recognized examples of an anti-core movement is a plank.  A plank is an anti-extension exercise because the body must resist being pulled into extension (or an excessive arch of the spine).  In other words, think of doing a plank.  If you completely relaxed, your hips would sink toward the floor, resulting in spinal extension of your lower back. Therefore, a plank requires you to recruit your core muscles to resist this pull and keep your body in a straight line.  Anti-extension movements tax the muscles in the front of your core because they must work hard to help you resist going into that excessive spinal extension (or arch).

IMPORTANT: Since these moves tax the front of your core — which obviously has a lot of stress on it already from your growing belly during pregnancy — anti-extension movements should be regressed, beginning in the second trimester, when you begin to develop a belly.  Below are some examples that are more appropriate for pregnancy (and early postpartum when the core muscles are still weak). Click on the link for each to watch the video.

  • Incline PlankNotice how the incline is higher here. This is important during the later stages of pregnancy and early postpartum period to avoid placing excess stress on the external abdominal wall. Focus on a lighter inhale and stronger exhale as you hold.
  • Incline Push-UpsFor the breath-to-movement coordination, you can inhale on the way down, then exhale as you push-up. Alternatively, you can inhale before beginning, then — all in one exhale — lower down and push back up. Do whatever feels natural and easier to you.
  • Back Squat: The heavy bar will pull you backward, like you see at the end of this video.  Resist that pull to keep your trunk neutral (no arching). Inhale on the way down. Exhale on the way up.

Doing these movements will help your body grow stronger to resist everyday stresses that attempt to pull you into extension.  For example, wearing a heavy backpack on your back can pull you into extension just like that bar in the back squat.  So, practicing the back squat could help you avoid the aches and pains that may otherwise be associated with heavy backpack wearing.

Anti-Flexion Moves

These movements are opposite from anti-extension in that they attempt to pull your body forward into flexion. Anti-flexion movements tax the muscles in the back of your body, as they have to work hard to keep you from collapsing forward.  Some examples include:

  • Goblet Squats: Be sure the weight you are holding is heavy enough that you really have to work hard to resist its pull forward. Holding a light weight for this will not have the same anti-flexion benefit.  Inhale on the way down, exhale as you push back up.
  • Deadlifts: It’s quite common to see people doing this movement with a rounded spine as they lean down.  Be sure to initiate the movement by sending your hips backward and keeping your spine in neutral (shoulders down and back).  Only lower as far down as you can go while keeping your spine in neutral.  Don’t try to lower down further by rounding at your spine like you see at the end here.
  • Crib Reach: This movement is similar to a deadlift, but it involves hinging over a barrier.  Initiate the movement by sending your hips backward (keeping your shoulders pulled down and back) instead of reaching your arms forward with your spine rounded and shoulders raised like you see at the end here. Inhale as you lower down. Exhale as you stand back up.

If you’re a mother (or soon to be), anti-flexion movements are even more important than anti-extension moves because there are a greater number of daily tasks that you’ll face that tend to pull you forward into flexion, like baby wearing, lifting and lowering baby out of crib/stroller/car seat, picking heavy objects up from the ground, etc. Doing anti-flexion movements can help you grow stronger to resist the forward pull of these frequent activities, while helping you avoid the aches and pains that can result from them.

Anti-Lateral Flexion Moves

This is probably the most important for new and expecting moms.  These are moves that attempt to pull your body into a side bend, like holding a heavy car seat, diaper bag, or bag of groceries. Practicing anti-lateral flexion moves, like the ones below, train your body to resist the many forces throughout your day that attempt to pull you into lateral flexion:

  • Carries: Specifically, single-sided (or asymmetrical) carries. You can do a low carry, like you see here (holding the weight down by your side). Or, you can do it racked (at your shoulder) or holding it high above your head. The point is to resist being pulled into a side-bend – either in the direction of the heavy weight, or toward the opposite side as you attempt to counterbalance (like you see here at the end).
  • Suitcase squat: Just as you can add some anti-flexion work into your squat by holding a weight in front for a goblet squat, you could also add in anti-lateral flexion work by holding that weight down by one side instead. Notice how you have to work to keep your trunk your trunk from falling toward the side of the weight like you see at the end here.  Inhale as you lower down. Exhale as you stand back up.
  • Lunge with single-sided hold: Just as you can add some anti-lateral flexion work to your squats, you can do the same with lunges.  You can hold the weight low (like you see here), or racked, or high.  Inhale stepping into the lunge, and exhale as you stand back up.

Anti-Rotation Moves

These are moves that attempt to pull your body into rotation. Allowing your body to rotate isn’t inherently problematic (rotating is a fundamental human movement pattern).  However, if you are pregnant or recovering from pregnancy, you want to avoid rotation with disassociation of hips and shoulders (or twisting).  In other words, we want to keep our trunk in neutral — hips and shoulders moving together — during rotation. The movements below will help you practice.

  • Pallof Press: If you have access to a cable machine, this is a great movement.  With the cable to your side, it will try to pull your torso toward it into rotation, so you will have to work hard to resist this rotation, especially when your arms are extended further away from your body.  You can also do this move with a resistance band.  Just tie the band to an anchor point or have someone else hold the other end of the band.
  • Bird-Dog: This highly beneficial core exercise is an anti-rotation movement because you have to resist tipping toward the direction of the extended arm, as shown at the end.  It’s also a bit of an anti-extension movement, as you have to resist sinking into the lower back arch as you extend you extend your arm and leg. Inhale before beginning, then do the entire movement on the exhale.  Once you master this, you can work on holding the extended position for a few breath cycles.
  • Open Door: Horizontal pulls are highly beneficial upper body moves that help improve posture, but doing them single-sided like this Open Door also adds in some anti-rotation core work. Notice how when the arm extends forward on the release, the body wants to get pulled into rotation (as shown at the end).  Therefore, the core muscles must work to maintain a stiff trunk to avoid this twisting motion.

Summary

Incorporate a blend of “anti” core exercises into your training (especially anti-flexion and anti-lateral flexion).  The more you practice them, the stronger your core gets, and the more you are able to resist the everyday forces that pull your body out of neutral alignment.  This means easier and more efficient movement, fewer pains and injuries, and yes…even a flatter tummy post-baby.

Interested in learning more?  Work with one of our expert personal trainers or take our professional education to become one.