As you enter your third trimester, it’s time to focus your workout efforts on getting prepared for the physical challenges of childbirth. I like to think of labor as a marathon—you will need stamina, muscle endurance, strength, and mind-control like nobody’s business!
Like for any marathon, you’ll need to train, so here are my top five moves to get you race ready for childbirth.
Neutral Spine. This refers to the natural anatomical state of the spine, when all three curves are present and in correct alignment. The three curves are the cervical (neck), thoracic (ribcage), and lumbar (lower back). Neutral spine can be found while standing, seated, or lying on your back, stomach, or side. When the spine is neutral, it is strongest and most supported.
Neutral Pelvis. This refers to the anatomical position of the pelvis when your hips bones are on the same plane as your pubic bone. You can find neutral pelvis by placing the heels of your hands on your hip bones so that your thumbs are reaching toward your navel. Then create a triangle with your pointer fingers. The connection of the two pointers will rest on your pubic bone. You can find this standing, seated, or lying on your back, stomach, or side.
1. Pelvic Floor Stretching
If you are planning a natural childbirth, you will need to start stretching out the pelvic floor.
Up until now you have hopefully been dedicating lots of time to strengthening the pelvic floor system to help support your uterus and baby; but in labor, you need to be able to fully release and stretch these muscles to let the baby come out.
I did loads of pelvic floor stretching for both of my pregnancies as I approached my due dates. I recommend you include pelvic floor stretching at the end of all your third-trimester workouts—even daily as you get closer to your due date. You’ll thank me, I promise!
- Place a yoga block or stack of pillows against a wall. Stand with your back to the wall and your feet out in front of you.
- Slowly slide down the wall, your pelvic floor fully releasing as you go. Keep going down and begin to feel the pelvic floor stretch until you reach the yoga block/pillows.
- Once you are down, slowly butterfly the knees open and gently apply pressure just above the knees to get an additional stretch.
- Hold the stretch for 90 seconds.
- Close the knees and then repeat.
- Do five reps.
2. Hug Your Baby
During your pregnancy, “hug your baby” is one of the most important exercises for helping to support your spine, your pelvis, and the growing baby.
There is nothing more important than core control and strength as you approach labor, when your baby is at his or her biggest. The muscle this exercise strengthens is called the transverse abdominis or TVA, which wraps around the midsection of the body like a pair of Spanx. When activated correctly, it cinches, lengthens, and, importantly during childbirth, compresses. During labor, your strong TVA will help the uterus as it ramps up its final contractions to push and move the baby down the birth canal and out.
- Get seated comfortably with a neutral pelvis and spine, on a physioball, yoga block or bolster, or household chair—just make sure you are positioned evenly on your sitting bones.
- Inhale through your nose and allow your belly to fill up with air and your stomach muscles to completely relax.
- Exhale a long, slow, and even breath through your mouth as you imagine your TVA wrapping around your baby and hugging him or her into your spine.
- Do 10 reps.
Squats are my favorite prenatal exercise—there are so many variations and challenges you can do. And as your due date approaches, squats continue to be an accessible and functional exercise.
Importantly, as you approach labor, they are an excellent way to strengthen the muscles of the legs and buttocks. If you plan on going for a natural childbirth, you will need a strong lower body to hold certain recommended birthing positions—in fact, the squatting position is an awesome way to give birth. The birth canal is in better alignment and there is the added bonus of gravity to help the baby move down and out.
- Stand with both feet evenly on the ground, hip width apart.
- Inhale through your nose as you hinge at the hips, bend at the knee and ankle, and sit down into a squat. Imagine your sitting bones reaching back behind you like you are lowering onto a chair.
- Exhale a long, slow, and even breath through your mouth as you imagine your TVA wrapping around your baby and hugging it into your spine. Then push through your feet, lifting your pelvic floor to stand back up.
- Do 10 reps.
4. Reverse Breathing
When exercising during your pregnancy, the usual breath pattern is to use the exhale to stabilize and activate the muscles of the body. For example, when you target the pelvic floor muscles, you feel them release on the inhale, and on the exhale you squeeze and lift them.
However, during labor you will need the power of the exhale to instead fully release the pelvic floor muscles and get your baby out. This is called reverse breathing.
- Get seated comfortably in a neutral position on a physioball, yoga block or bolster, or household chair. Make sure you are positioned evenly on your sitting bones.
- Inhale through your nose and feel your pelvic floor lift. As you inhale, the diaphragm will push down.
- Exhale and make a “sss” sound through your mouth and imagine fully releasing, letting go of the pelvic floor muscles completely. The “sss” sound activates your TVA to help the uterus during its final contractions.
- Do 10 reps.
5. Standing Swan
The standing swan is the mac daddy of exercises. It combines core strength, lower body endurance, spinal mobility, and pelvic floor stretching, and it gives you the opportunity to practice the reverse breathing technique. It’s the ultimate exercise to help get you ready for childbirth.
- Stand with legs apart and externally rotated, with the physioball just in front of your legs.
- Inhale through your nose, lower your chin, and begin to roll-down. As you do, place your hands on the ball and start to push the ball out in front of you.
- Exhale a long, slow, and even breath through your mouth as you continue to push the ball, folding at the hips, bending the knees, and reaching your sitting bones out behind you until your arms are straight and your body is almost parallel to the mat.
- Inhale through your nose and hold the position.
- Exhale a long, slow, and even breath through your mouth as you hug your baby to your spine and lift your pelvic floor, rounding your low back into a C curve and pushing through your feet to slowly stand back up. Be sure to articulate the spine the same way you did on the way down.
- Do 10 reps.
I think every woman should get a physioball! It is a wonderful prop for doing all your deep core work. You can use it to stretch and to strengthen your upper and lower body, and in labor it is a wonderful tool to help you get through contractions.
Ali Handley is a New York-based Pilates instructor, mother of two young children, and founder of BodyLove Pilates, a dedicated online studio with 200+ video workouts for pregnant and postnatal women to ensure they work out smarter, safer, and more effectively during this important time in their lives. BodyLove-Pilates.com