If you’re expecting a little one, it can be challenging to find exercises that are catered to your changing body, or devoted to preparing you for birth. At a certain point, your favorite HIIT or Bikram yoga class may no longer be recommended by your healthcare provider, let alone be physically comfortable or feasible to do. This is why prenatal yoga classes are a popular fitness option for soon-to-be-mamas. But as much as we love a chill child’s pose, it can sometimes feel like prenatal yoga is the only option.
There are, however, other exercise methods tailored to pregnancy that just aren’t as well-known as prenatal yoga. (After all, yoga has been around for thousands of years — it’s hard to compete). For example, take prenatal Pilates. We sat down with Ashlee Johnson, a certified Pilates instructor who teaches public and private prenatal classes at The Pad Studios in San Francisco, to learn more.
Pilates is a type of exercise that focuses on building strength, flexibility, and balance. Though it may sound or look intimidating, it’s really just about strengthening the muscles you use to perform everyday actions — like picking up a grocery bag or typing on a laptop — so you can do them more safely (not to mention feel strong and look great, too).
“Pilates is a way of moving the body that incorporates pieces of equipment, like a reformer, tower, or chair, and body weight exercises to help reinforce functional movement patterns,” says Johnson. “Functional movement patterns are movements that you can relate back to everyday movements, like sitting down in a chair or opening a door. If you’re not strong in the muscles required to perform these actions, you may not be able to perform them or injure yourself.” However, for prenatal Pilates, the intention is to prepare your body for the natural yet athletic event that is childbirth.
Johnson explains that Pilates, both regular and prenatal, focuses on strengthening muscles that offer stability, then builds up to strengthening muscles enabling movement. The pelvic floor and transverse abdominals (a deep layer of muscle that forms the innermost layer of the abdomen) are examples of stabilizing muscles, while the external obliques and rectus abdominus (what we typically refer to as “abs”) are movement-oriented muscles. “It’s important to make sure the stabilizer muscles are strong — you have to do the groundwork,” adds Johnson. “You’d never want to build a house on a poor foundation.”
The 3 benefits of prenatal Pilates
To get even more specific, Johnson walks us through some additional perks, both physical and emotional, to signing up for a prenatal Pilates class or private session. First, Johnson says there’s a benefit in simply moving your body during pregnancy. “During pregnancy, your organs shift and your joints experience change. A lot of pregnant people find sitting down or not moving creates more discomfort, so moving your body and settling into these physical shifts is helpful and feels good.”
There is also enormous value in attending exercise classes that are catered to future mamas. “Going to a class specifically geared towards the pregnant body is important because it’s targeted to your goals — having a safe, happy, and healthy pregnancy, and to have a birth that’s as easy as possible,” says Johnson. “Going to a class that’s not geared towards these goals could potentially detract from these objectives or even injure you. Essentially, it’s useful to go to a class and have everyone onboard for the same cause: to move, feel strong, and deliver a healthy child.”
Lastly, Johnson believes her classes off clients a sense of community, which can be especially comforting during pregnancy. “The clients who come to my prenatal classes chat about what stage of pregnancy they’re in, what doctor they’re seeing, what products they’re registering for, and how they’re generally feeling,” says Johnson. “This not only fosters a sense of community, but also helps first-time mothers learn from the moms who have already been through pregnancy and childbirth before.”
What to expect during class
“We focus on strengthening the entire muscular system, so no matter how you end up giving birth, vaginally, in a certain position, or via C-section, you’re able to get through it feeling strong and your recovery will be as expedient as possible,” says Johnson.
For example, expect to focus on glute strength and hip flexibility to accommodate birthing positions like squatting. Johnson spends a lot of time working with clients to strengthen their deep transverse abdominal muscles, so the rectus abdominal muscles can relax. This, in turn, can help prevent diastasis recti. While some stretching and separation of the rectus abdominal muscles is expected during pregnancy, diastasis recti is diagnosed when this stretching and separation is more extreme. Prenatal Pilates helps to strengthen the transverse abs so the rectus abs aren’t getting unnecessarily overworked.
Additionally, to accommodate the weight of a growing belly and prepare moms to eventually cradle and hold a baby (not to mention a purse and diaper bag), Johnson focuses on strengthening her clients’ backs and arms through rowing and bicep curl exercises.
How to select a studio or instructor
In addition to making sure that you’re selecting a studio or instructor with a strong reputation, Johnson emphasizes finding an instructor that you intuitively feel has you and your baby’s best interest at heart. “I always suggest finding instructors that listen to you and make you feel comfortable during class,” she adds.
Take Johnson, for example, who loves her job because pregnancy uniquely and beautifully encompasses three time periods at once. “My clients are connected to past because they’re doing something evolutionary that we’ve done since the beginning of time,” she says. “They’re also aware of the present and how their body is changing on a day-to-day basis. But then, they’re also growing the future. It’s such a special, exciting time. It’s a privilege to help and share in this experience in a small way.”