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Planks are a great way to maintain core strength, but if you happen to have a bun in the oven, you may want to proceed with caution. From moderation to modifications and variations, there are many ways to keep up with your fitness and grow a healthy baby at the same time.
"Plank exercises are an excellent workout for strengthening the core, back, and hips. However, if you have never done a plank before, it's not recommended to start when you are pregnant," said Nadia Murdock of Nadia Murdock Fit and a celebrity personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and fitness expert. "You can continue performing this exercise if you did it regularly before and within the first trimester. Very few workouts are off limits if you have maintained an active lifestyle beforehand. I performed plank workouts my entire pregnancy and started to modify toward the end of my third trimester," Murdock said.
Maintaining core strength
Keeping your core strong during pregnancy is key to having an easy delivery. "Pushing a baby out is one of the most intensive experiences you will have, and you will use all of your core muscles to help deliver your new baby," said Dr. Alyse Kelly-Jones of Mintview OB/GYN.
When your belly gets bigger, side planks are a great idea. "If you aren't strong enough for traditional planks, consider side planks with a knee down. Or better yet, use the wall or a countertop to increase the angle of the plank, which should be easier," she said.
Stick with what works
"Direct core exercises and planks have never been a part of my exercise routine to keep ab strength and definition," said Anna Brodetsky-Lubischer, co-owner and personal trainer at Lubischer's Burn and Blast Training in Long Branch, NJ. "However, I am currently 36 weeks pregnant and still do indirect core exercises, the same as I did before I was pregnant," she said.
Brodetsky-Lubischer said she has been able to keep the maximum amount of muscle definition while growing a healthy baby. "I've continued to utilize my core to barbell and smith squat, deadlift, do bent-over rows, and push-ups. I've lightened the weights slightly, but have still kept it challenging. There is no 'maxing out' or any jerky movement. I'm doing 12-15 reps for 5-6 sets as heavy as I can comfortably finish. Squeezing my core during all of these exercises has allowed me to maintain relatively good definition throughout," she said.
Modifications and moderation
Know your body, and be prepared to make changes if necessary. "Extensive planking can cause too much pressure on the abdominal wall, which can result in a diastasis recti. If you are shaking or feeling like you can't keep the abdominal wall closed, it is definitely too much. As your belly grows, you can also tell by looking at your belly. You should not see any coning or doming. This is a big sign that you are putting too much pressure on the abdominal walls and probably also a sign that you might not be recruiting all the right muscles, specifically your transverse abdominals, which again can result in the abs separating too much (diastasis recti)," said Sara Haley, pre- and postnatal exercise specialist and mother of three based in Santa Monica.
Image Source: Sara Haley
Diastasis recti is when the tissue (the linea alba) that holds your abdominals together stretches and thins too much so that the right and left sides of your abdominals separate. "It often results in looking pregnant (when you are not)," Haley said. That's why planking too much may be a risky idea. "During pregnancy, you do not want to fight the process. When you're pregnant, you need your belly and baby to grow. When you continue to try to tighten the abdominals, you are essentially fighting a natural process," she added. The abs need to separate to a certain extent to allow room for the baby.
We just don't want to exasperate the process by continuing to put extensive pressure on the abdominals (possibly causing them to separate more than they should). "Your best option is to strengthen the supporting core muscles rather than focusing specifically on your abdominals all the time — obliques, back, glutes, chest. If you see the coning, it probably means you're doing too much. The last thing you want to have happen is for coning to go from a diastasis recti to a hernia," Haley said. The risky signs to look out for that something is going wrong are simple. "Rather than your belly being round, it will look more pointy, like the end of a football," Haley said.
Modifications, Haley said, include a plank on your knees, a plank on an incline — so something elevated like a box, table, or chair — or planks against a wall on an incline, or, of course, a side plank.
A good rule is that the more your baby grows, the shorter your planks should become. "I would much rather see a pregnant woman hold three 20-second planks with breaks than push through a 1-minute plank," Haley said.
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Shortening the plank lever or decreasing the angle of work is easy to achieve. "A long lever would be a full plank or extended plank — the support is a greater distance from the center of gravity: the core. So by shortening that distance, aka modifying to knees, the strain on the core becomes less. Modifying to a plank or push-up on the knees, or taking them up to a bench or wall, places less stress on the linea alba," said Lina Midla, a Fit For Birth Prenatal & Postnatal Corrective Exercise Specialist and chief training officer at The Barre Code.
"The linea alba is the tendinous insertion that runs vertically through the center of your core connecting the left and right sides of your abdominals. As the baby grows and the uterus expands more and more, pressure is placed across the abdominals, and the "weak point" is the linea alba. If too much stress is placed on it, there is a great risk of increased abdominal separation or tearing (diastasis recti). Clients should work to ensure they are not bracing outward and that the shape of the belly doesn't change throughout the movement. Shape of the belly can change through movement because of proper breathing, but it shouldn't take on a coned or football-like shape throughout any of the movement," Midla said.
Side planks are pretty much where it's at during pregnancy, though! "Side planks are not only great for increasing core, oblique, and hip strength and stability, but they are critical for stabilizing the spine. Balance becomes an issue further along in pregnancy, so feel free to modify to ensure you feel stable and deeply engaged in your core muscles. Modifications include dropping down to your bottom knee or staggering your feet with your top foot in front of the back foot. Side planks can be performed with a straight arm or on the forearm," Midla said.