Back Off

Ease your aches and pains with these great upper-body moves.

Carrying a baby takes more strength and endurance than you might think, both before and after you give birth. As a result, strong “mommy” arms aren’t enough. If you want to prevent some of the aches that moms-to-be and new mothers experience, you must target the muscles of your upper back, chest and shoulders in your training. “There’s a tendency to curl the upper back and shoulders during pregnancy,” says Chanteil Miller, C.P.T., a physical therapist, martial-arts teacher and personal trainer in Los Angeles who designed the workout that follows. This rounded posture — caused first by the additional weight in your belly during pregnancy, then by the postpartum armload of baby plus diaper bag et al. — puts the lower back at risk for injury. Strengthening your upper back, neck and shoulders will help you support the increasing forward weight, thus reducing lower-back problems.

Stability and Balance Miller, who works with many pregnant women, designed these exercises to increase the endurance of upper-back muscles, achieve muscular balance between upper back and chest muscles (“Any time you’re working your back, you’re also working your pecs,” she says), and improve the stability of the shoulder joint and its surrounding muscles. The alternating pullover helps stabilize your torso; the raise and row adds a challenge for your biceps, and the wall push-up is a great overall upper-body strengthener. All you need to get started are a few dumbbells, some pillows, a wall and your own body weight. For total back care, you also can incorporate postural exercises into your everyday activities. For example, relax your shoulders and pull your shoulder blades down and together, even when you’re not exercising. This eventually should become a habit; you won’t have to concentrate on doing it. When you’re walking, squeeze your buttocks with each heel-toe stride. This forces you to lead with your legs, not your belly, and prevents you from rounding your shoulders forward. If you follow an effective workout regimen during and after pregnancy — and these three exercises are a great addition to your regular routine — the motherhood experience should be that much more comfortable for all concerned. “When mom feels good,” Miller says, “everybody feels good.”

The exercises Do these in order 4 times a week, along with your regular prenatal workout. Do 1 set of 12–20 repetitions for each exercise. When you can do 20 reps comfortably, progress to 2 sets, keeping the weight the same. Because these are postural exercises, it’s not necessary to exceed the suggested weights.

1. Alternating pullover Sit on the floor with knees bent and feet flat, then lean back against several firm pillows. (Your head should be higher than your belly, but in your first trimester, you can lie flat on your back if you’re comfortable.) Hold a 3- to 5-pound dumbbell in each hand, resting the head of the dumbbells against your thighs. Your arms should be extended, palms facing in and elbows slightly bent. (If you’re lying flat, hold the dumbbells above your abdomen.) Contract the abdominals to bring your back down toward the floor. Keeping your torso motionless and your rib cage and shoulders relaxed, slowly lift your right arm overhead, bringing the top of the dumbbell toward the floor in an arc. Using your back and upper-chest muscles, pull arm back up and over your body, in an arc, to the starting position. Repeat with the left arm, and continue to alternate arms until you do all reps (1 rep equals doing the move with both arms). For variation, do the exercise with both arms moving together. Strengthens middle back, upper chest and shoulders; improves torso stability, particularly as pregnancy progresses.

2. Raise and row Stand with feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent. Contract abdominals and bring spine into a neutral position. Hold a 1- to 3-pound dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging by your sides, palms facing in. Squeeze shoulder blades together, then lift arms in front of you to shoulder height. Don’t rock your torso backward. Turn your palms upward and bend elbows in toward your waist until they are slightly behind you. Straighten arms downward, turn palms in and return to starting position; repeat the entire sequence. Strengthens upper and middle back, shoulders and biceps.

3. Wall push-up Stand at arm’s length from a wall and place your hands on it at about chest height, fingers spread. Separate your feet to hip-width apart and slightly bend your knees. Contract abdominals so your head, neck, back and hips are aligned. Squeeze shoulder blades together and relax shoulders, then bend elbows without flaring them outward, and bring chest toward wall. Without rounding your upper back, return to starting position by using your chest muscles, then repeat. To make the exercise more difficult, use a kitchen counter or bathroom sink instead of a wall. Strengthens chest and shoulders; increases stabilization of upper-back muscles.