to plank or not to plank

Posted by on Nov 12, 2013 in Pre/Post-natal Yoga | Comments Off on to plank or not to plank

In a non-prenatal yoga flow practice there are many poses which focus on abdominal strengthening, and many of us instructors often add in additional bursts of abs work throughout.  In the prenatal class, however, the focal area of the flow changes, generally, down to the legs and hips (to boost circulation, create softness and openness and to build strength in supportive muscle groups).  Why not a continuation of strengthening abdominal work into pregnancy?  Why do we stop the planks?  Let’s go there…

There are different sets of abdominal muscles, each working in different ways to support you.  The transversus abdominis muscles that run deep and low are important stability muscles.  They provide a “corset” of sorts to hold you strong and supported.  They also help to protect your lower back from strain and, in labor and delivery, are important muscles for pushing the baby downward.  Together, the transversus abdominis, the pelvic floor, deep muscles of the back body, and the psoas (which connects the spine to the pelvis), create the true “core”.   There are also more superficial abdominal muscles such as the rectus abdominis which many of us mistakenly assume provide “core” strength as they are the ones that create the elusive 6-pack formation.

There is no debating that a well-toned core (note, I am talking “core” not “abs”) is beneficial to a pregnant woman.  Her spine will be better supported, her posture will hold despite the shifts taking place along the spine, she will have less issue with low back pain and inner groin pain, and will also have an easier time pushing out the baby.  Pelvic tilts are a great way to continue with the safe toning of the transversus abdominis muscles, and should be done continuously through the pregnancy to keep the integration of the core and to help prevent or reduce the splitting of the rectus abdominis, or diastasis recti.

Diastasis is when the meeting point of the rectus abdominis muscles begin to move apart as the baby begins to grow bigger in the second trimester and beyond (or, if it’s not the first pregnancy, it can happen even sooner).  There is debate as to whether it’s due to an overly soft core or overly tight one that increases the chances of diastasis.  Anecdotally, however, I can personally vouch for many fit women with active lifestyles who developed diastasis.  And I know that in my own case, I had continued with a full vinyasa practice into my 7th month.  After moving through a strong practice and (completely unaware of any risk) holding long reps of abs-intense navasana (boat pose), I went to bed and awoke the next morning feeling like my middle had been kicked by a horse.  I looked down to see a gap running down the middle of my baby belly.  We do know that is that it is very typical for most women to experience at least a very small parting of the abdominals along the midline in pregnancy as baby grows.  And we also know that a continued strengthening (which also means shortening and contracting) of the rectus abdominis can lead to a further pulling away from the midline, or a worsening case of diastasis.

Plank pose, or uttita chaturanga dandasana, is a fantastic core stabilizer outside of pregnancy.  It simultaneously strengthens the erector spinae, the transversus abdominis… and the rectus abdominis.  So if we know that abdominal parting is so common, and if we know that focussing on strengthening the rectus abdominis will only exacerbate the situation, we must agree that during pregnancy is not the time to plank.  If you are interested in the benefits of the strong shoulders, try push-ups against the wall or free weights, or even seated arm raises (try it for minutes on end!).  And if it’s the true “core” strengthening you’re looking for, again, make friends with the pelvic tilts or cat/cow with deep exhales as you curve the back body and hug the belly in toward the spine.

If you are pregnant, it is time to let go of the leg raises, the crunches, navasana, plank… basically any abdominal movement that targets the creation of “6-pack abs”.  Align yourself with the true definition of core and tone till the cows come home.  Begin with the pelvic floor- kegels are you new best friend!  In malasana (low squat), begin engaging the pelvic floor and working to contain your core support from below.  Make friends with your psoas and know whether you need toning or softening.  Roll through your pelvic tilts, deeply aligned with the breath, to prepare the transversus abdominis for labor/delivery and to help limit diastasis.  Try modified upward dog/cobra with your knees and lower thighs on the floor and shoulders rolled back and down to open and strengthen the back body.  Support the health of your spine for these 9 months, and set aside the limited definition of core strength at least in the interim.  The above movements are also recommended for post-partum rehabilitation, after being given clearance by your healthcare provider (if you have diastasis post-partum, you can also try twist-centered oblique strong movements that help draw the sides back together- think jathara parivartanasana with bent knees and a strong exhale to lead the movement).  Kegels will speed healing if there are any tears, and will also help reduce stress incontinence, working the transversus abs will provide a solid foundation for when you do decide to move back into crunches/leg lifts, etc.  And back body strengthening work will help to keep you balanced in your posture and gait.  Be sure that your deep core has knitted together (or has not parted) before resuming your outer abs protocol.

As women we often feel the pressure to have a tight middle, and many of us work very hard for “abs of steel”.  Think about what happens during pregnancy, however.  The baby grows, the baby needs room to grow.  Focus on supporting your spine with a truly toned core and you just may have less healing and reintegration to worry about post-partum.

 

 

All content by Lisa Veronese. Please do not publish or copy my material without my consent.