I began the second trimester feeling appalling, a result of two months of non-stop carbohydrates and a kidney infection. But happily, once I started exercising again, I began to feel a hundred times better. After a few weeks of regular pilates my strength returned – as did just a little definition in my upper arms – and I felt far more ready for the demands of late pregnancy and birth.
Living in London, I was able to access the incredible Ten Pilates (tenpilates.com), which offers precise and expert antenatal instruction. The results were so fantastic that I persuaded lead trainer Luke Meessmann to divulge his 8 Superhero Exercises, stretches and exercises that should be a cornerstone of any maternal fitness regime.
1. Chest / anterior shoulder stretch
This is a three part stretch designed to release the major muscles that contribute to overly rounded shoulders.
Stand in a doorway with your arms in an L shape (elbows level with your shoulders) supported by the door frame. Lean into the doorway until you feel a stretch across your chest and shoulders. Hold for 20 seconds.
Repeat twice more, once with your elbows slightly above your shoulders and once with your elbows slightly below.
2. Neck / Upper shoulder stretch
Another three part stretch designed to release the muscles that contribute to shoulder and neck tension.
Sit with the back of one hand positioned on the opposite side of your lower back (e.g. right hand positioned just above your bottom on the left side of your lower back). This will aid you in anchoring your shoulder away from your ear. Now draw your head towards the same side (left ear to left shoulder in this case) and you will feel a stretch across the upper shoulder and into the side of the neck. Hold for 20 seconds and return to the start position.
Now turn your head and look at your left knee and allow your chin to fall towards your chest. Use your free hand to gently increase the stretch. You will feel a stretch between the top your shoulder blade and the back of your neck. Hold for 20 seconds and return to the start position.
Last but not least, draw your left ear towards your left shoulder and elevate your chin (basically the opposite of stretch number 2). You will feel a stretch from the base your jaw, down into the top of your collar bone. Hold for 20 seconds and return to the start position. Repeat these three stretches on the other side.
3. Thoracic rotation
This is a great exercise for maintaining the mobility in your upper back and activating your shoulder stabilisers.
Start in a seated position with your arms stretched out to the side, hands just in front of your chest and soft elbows. Slowly rotate your torso to the right hand side until you feel some muscle activation under your right armpit and between your right shoulder blade and your spine. Ensure you remain seated upright; your arm remains just in front of your chest and keep your shoulder gently drawn away from your ear to achieve this. Return to the start position and then rotate to the left. Hold each rotation for 3-5 seconds before switching to the other side.
4. Wall press up
This is brilliant for maintaining some strength in your arms and upper body as well as targeting your serratus anterior muscle which is a key shoulder stabiliser.
Position yourself about 2-3 feet in front of a wall (or so that you can place your palms flat into the wall without having to lock your elbows). Slowly lower yourself towards the wall, bending your elbows out to the side and maintaining a good sense of width across your collar bones and return back to the start position. As you lower yourself towards the wall, try to avoid your shoulder blades pinching together – this will ensure the correct activation of your serratus anterior.
5. Hip flexor stretch
This is a great stretch for keeping anterior hip pain at bay (especially as the little one grows, as the front of your hips will become increasingly tighter).
Begin in a kneeling lunge position (for example with your left foot forward and your left knee slightly behind your ankle). Lean forward until you feel a stretch down the front of your right hip (you can place your left hand on your knee for balance as you do this). Hold for 20 seconds and repeat twice on each leg.
To progress the stretch you can raise the same arm as the hip you are stretching (the right arm in this case) and also side bend and slightly rotate your body to the left as you stretch. This will increase the hip stretch and also stretch the side of your back and open up rib cage.
6. Quadriceps stretch
Your quads will also be prone to over activity to this stretch is a great one to keep them from overly tightening.
This stretch can be performed standing (holding onto something for balance purposes) or sidelying (ideal before performing the clam exercise – keep reading and all will be revealed).
Take a hold of your ankle or lower leg (if you struggle to reach your ankle, wear long baggy trousers and hold onto these) and draw your heel up towards your bottom until you feel a stretch down the front of your thigh. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat twice on each leg.
This is one of the original and still one of the best exercises (when performed correctly) for isolating and strengthening your gluteus medius muscle. This muscle is hugely important for keeping your hips and lower back stable.
Lie on your side with your head supported by a pillow or folded towel (as your pregnancy progresses you may also need a towel or 2 to support your bump). Ensure you are resting on the outside of your bottom shoulder and your hip, aim to keep a small gap or at least a sense of lightness under your waist to avoid your spine flexing to the side. Your feet should be level with your bottom, your knees bent at 90 degrees and your hips should be open (knees about 45 degrees away from your hips).
Firstly, place your hand on your top hip and slightly roll it forward towards the floor (this helps with avoiding the front of your hip interfering with the activation of your glute.) Next place your hand on your bottom as if you were putting your hand into the back pocket of your jeans and where your first 2 fingers are is more or less where you can feel your gluteus medius muscle working. Now concentrate on this area and gently squeeze your heels together and squeeze your bum, this helps to wake up the neural pathways and allow your glute to activate. Perform this a few times and then follow your activation by raising your top knee away from your bottom one, up to hip height and slowly return. Repeat until you feel your glute fatiguing and then repeat on the other side.
8. Single leg extensions
This is a great exercise for strengthening your deep abdominal muscles. Note this can be performed either lying on your back (feet flat on the floor and knees bent) or seated (on a Swiss ball is best) if you are uncomfortable lying down. In either position ensure that you maintain the natural curve of your lower back and avoid slumping.
Once you are in your desired position, take a moment to focus on your deeper abdominals and try to activate them. Place your first two fingers quite low on your abdomen (about an inch inwards and downwards from the bony point at the front of your hips). Now draw the space between your fingertips gently in towards your spine (good images to help with this are imagining doing up a belt around your hips a few notches or trying to squeeze into a tight pair of jeans). You will feel a slight tightening against your fingers as you do this.
Now aim to maintain this contraction and keep your hips still and slowly raise one leg off the floor, extend it away from your body and return. Alternate legs and repeat until you feel you are unable to maintain the contraction between your fingers.