Fiona Farrell

While general fitness is great during pregnancy, there are three specific exercises you can do to prevent some of pregnancy’s niggles, help prepare for labour and ensure a quicker recovery after the birth.

Improve your posture

Backache is one of the most common pregnancy niggles

Backache is one of the most common pregnancy niggles. There are many causes, but one of the main ones is bad posture caused primarily by the weight of your bump. This exercise should get you in good habits.

Stand with your feet hip-distance apart, making sure your knees are soft. Feel the weight of your feet on the floor and feel your trunk lifted and open.

Tilt your pelvis forward, your tailbone down towards the floor, and pull your baby up and in towards your spine. Make sure you have a natural curve in your back – it shouldn’t be arched. Lengthen through the spine and aim for a nice straight back. Keep your shoulders back and down, and imagine you have a string pulling your head upright.

Work your deep abdominals

Strong abdominals will also help you to maintain good posture. Before starting this exercise, though, you need to know what you’re working and why. The deep abdominals refer to the transverse abdominal muscles, which come around from your back and act like a corset. It’s these muscles that will help to give your stomach a flatter appearance after the baby is born.

Even though you’re not directly working the rectus abdominals (the muscles that run down the front of your abdomen) as you would when you do a sit-up (which shouldn’t be attempted during pregnancy), don’t worry; this exercise still works these muscles. When they’re strong they also contribute to core stability and good posture.

Breathe in and as you breathe out again, pull in your pelvic floor and the deep abdominal muscles. Lift the baby up and in towards your spine, drawing the navel to the back, then lift your pelvic floor muscles to deepen the contraction. Hold this position.

You can do this exercise standing or on all fours. If you’re standing, check your posture. If you’re on all fours, make sure your hands are in line with your shoulders and your hips are in line with your knees. In both cases, make sure you have a natural curve in your back. You may need to tilt the pelvis to align your back correctly.

Advanced versions of this exercise that you can do after the birth include the plank. Ask an instructor to show you how to do these exercises.

Work your pelvic floor

A strong pelvic floor will improve your sex life

The pelvic floor describes the sling of muscles at the base of the abdomen that keeps all your internal organs, including your uterus, in place. Pregnancy puts pressure on these muscles, while during birth they are stretched to allow the baby through. You should do these exercises every day of your life, to avoid problems such as urinary incontinence and prolapse. A strong pelvic floor will improve your sex life, too.

Breathe in and as you breathe out again, close up your back passage as if you were trying to prevent a bowel movement. At the same time, close up the front passage and draw the muscles up and in, as if you were trying to stop a flow of urine (but never do this when you’re actually on the toilet as it could increase the possibility of infection). Contract the muscles to a count of three – imagine a lift going up, one floor, two floors, three floors.

When you get to the top, hold and squeeze, making sure you keep breathing. Hold the contraction for five to ten seconds, then slowly and gently release the contraction. Repeat as often as you can (at least ten times a day).

Try to link the exercise routine to an activity such as washing your hands after you use the toilet, so you don’t forget. Start with slow contractions; as you feel the muscles getting stronger you can speed them up.

This exercise may seem simple, but it does work. Norwegian researchers found that women who had followed an eight-week pelvic floor strengthening programme had less urine leakage a year after the birth than women in the control group. If you’re one of the 20 to 30 per cent of new mothers who still suffer from stress incontinence three months after delivery, ask your doctor to refer you to a specialist obstetric physiotherapist.

This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks in September 2005.
First published in May 2001.