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If you were planning to run a 10k, you’d probably prepare for it by gradually increasing your mileage. So, too, should you train for labor. “During labor, you often have to stay in the same position for a long time,” says Dawn Braud, director of the Woman’s Fitness Center at Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, La. “If you haven’t prepared your muscles, labor can take an uncomfortable toll on your body.”
Braud designed the following exercises to target the muscles you’ll need most during the final hours of pregnancy. The moves strengthen and improve flexibility in the quadriceps, lower and upper back, hips and pelvic floor.
Strengthening your back helps you support the ever-increasing weight of your belly, which also tends to pull your shoulders forward. Strong quadriceps will serve you well if you squat during labor and delivery, as well as afterward, when you’ll constantly be lifting baby, car seat, diaper bag, etc. Finally, a regular regimen of Kegels tightens your pelvic-floor muscles and may prevent incontinence, which you’ll appreciate in the waning days of pregnancy and postpartum. So, start this pre-labor training as soon as possible to get ready for the Big Day and the days after.
Do these exercises 3–4 times a week, with a day of rest between each workout. Warm up with 5 minutes of brisk walking or marching in place. Next, stand with feet shoulder-width apart and do a few pelvic rocks (simply rocking your pelvis back and forth) and some hip circles (like using a Hula- Hoop, sans hoop).
1. Labor squats Place a chair against the wall, and rest your hands on the back of it. Stand with feet slightly farther than hip-width apart, knees slightly turned out [A]. With weight on heels and feet flat, bend knees so lower hips and buttocks are as close to the floor as is comfortable [B]. Don’t allow knees to drift beyond toes. Hold for 10–15 seconds. Slowly tilt yourself forward on your toes; then stand, using chair for support. Repeat 2–3 times. Each week, add 15 seconds to the “hold” position until you can squat for 3 minutes. Increases flexibility and strength in the hips, knees and buttocks.
2. Upper-hip and lower-back stretch Begin by sitting on the floor and propping yourself up with several large pillows so your head and shoulders are raised higher than your belly. Lie back onto the pillows, with both knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place a towel behind your right thigh and hold one end in each hand. Cross your left ankle over your right thigh and turn your left knee outward as far as you comfortably can. Use the towel to help you slowly lift your right foot off the floor, bringing your right knee toward your chest until you feel a gentle stretch in your left hip. Hold this position for 5–10 seconds. Do 3 sets of 5 reps for each leg. Improves flexibility in the hips and back to reduce sciatic pain.
3. All-fours lift Get on hands and knees, arms under shoulders, knees under hips. Keep arms straight without locking elbows, with back in neutral position [A]. Inhale on a 5-count, expanding your belly; then exhale on a 5-count, pulling navel in and back toward spine [B]. Hold for 5 seconds; then slowly release without letting back sag. (If this exercise becomes uncomfortable, replace with exercise 5, below.) First trimester: Do 1 set of 5 reps; during the second, increase to 10; third, increase to 15. Improves abdominal muscle tone, which helps relieve back pain.
4. Kegels Contract the muscles around the vagina (as if stopping the flow of urine). Hold for 10 seconds; slowly release. Work up to 25 reps a day. Strengthens pelvic-floor muscles.
5. Belly breathing Sit cross-legged with back against a wall and place hands on navel. Inhale, expanding belly; then exhale and pull belly in. First trimester: Do 1 set of 5 reps; second, increase to 10; third, aim for 15. Improves abdominal muscle tone, which helps relieve back pain.