Becoming pregnant seems to bring up dozens of new questions pertaining to every facet of your life. You may already know, for example, that getting regular exercise throughout a healthy pregnancy delivers many benefits to both you and your developing baby. But what type of exercise is safest? Could flexibility training, or stretching -- which is generally considered an easy, harmless and therapeutic workout -- pose any hidden risks during pregnancy?
Stretching throughout the course of a healthy pregnancy -- with your health-care provider's approval -- can help you maintain proper alignment as your body changes and your center of gravity shifts. Maintaining or increasing your flexibility offsets the common aches and pains of pregnancy, including lower back pain and shoulder tension. Reducing or eliminating tightness in your muscles can also contribute to a reduction in psychological stress, making you feel more relaxed in general. Continuing to stretch after delivery helps you better cope with postpartum changes, such as tighter chest muscles and internally rotated shoulders brought on by heavier breasts and long periods of time spent holding your baby.
From the first trimester onward, your stretching routine should focus on a few key groups of muscles, especially if you're short on time and can't properly stretch every muscle in one session. Key muscle groups to stretch during pregnancy include your lower back, chest, neck, upper back, shoulder rotators, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and hip flexors. If a muscle or group of muscles is overly tight, it can create a functional imbalance where the opposing muscles are overly stretched, or weak. For example, as your belly stretches to accommodate your growing womb, your lower back muscles tend to become tight and less flexible because they must compensate for weak abdominal muscles to maintain posture.
To stretch your lower back in any trimester, perform the cat-cow stretch on your hands and knees, alternating between rounding and arching your lumbar spine. Child's pose, a classic yoga exercise, offers a way to stretch your entire back. To accommodate your belly, perform child's pose with your knees open, rather than together, or place your hands on top of a stability ball. Pelvic tilts are pregnancy-specific exercises that also target your lower back. Stand against a wall with a neutral spine. Tilt your pelvis forward and upward to press your lower back into the wall. Shoulder circles, both forward and back, can help you open your chest.
During pregnancy, your body produces a hormone called relaxin, which increases the pliability and flexibility of your ligaments and cartilage -- allowing your belly to grow and aiding in the process of childbirth. The presence of relaxin also increases the risk that you could more easily overstretch your muscles. To avoid overdoing it, make sure your stretches are comfortable, not painful. Breathe deeply throughout each exercise. Hold stretches for at least 30 seconds. Ease into each one, performing them with control from start to finish. Avoid bouncing, and don't stretch your joints or ligaments. Instead, stretch the widest part of each muscle. Always consult with your health care provider before beginning any new exercises during pregnancy.