By Sara Haley, MYX Pre/Postnatal Exercise Specialist
"My doctor just told me not to do crunches."
I’ve heard that time and again from both pregnant and postpartum moms, which is usually followed by the question "But what ab exercises CAN I do?" I hope this post helps you understand why crunches aren’t ideal for pregnancy, and what you can do instead.
Crunches and Diastasis Recti
During pregnancy, you are trying to allow your baby and uterus to grow without separating your abdominals too much. They will and need to separate some, but when the tissue that holds your abs together stretches and thins too much, you can end up with a condition called diastasis recti. Research shows that diastasis recti occurs in 40-60% of women after giving birth, so it’s very common.
Diastasis recti won’t really bother you during pregnancy (and is difficult to diagnose in pregnancy), but it can often make postpartum recovery challenging and frustrating - resulting in back pain and/or a protruding belly (and by the way, I’m telling you this not only as a pre/postnatal exercise specialist who has helped women heal diastasis recti, but also first-hand as a mom of four who has healed her own diastasis a few times).
Avoiding traditional crunches can help prevent a diastasis recti from occurring or getting worse. There are other factors that can also cause diastasis recti, such as the size of your baby, having twins (or more), and having multiple children. You should do what you can to prevent it but also know that it is a condition you can heal.
Stay Off Your Back
There are other reasons to avoid traditional crunches too. After 20 weeks gestation, it’s recommended to avoid spending a lot of time on your back to make sure you’re not putting too much pressure on the inferior vena cava, a big blood vessel that carries blood back to the heart and could potentially affect the blood flow to the baby. This is the same reason your doctor tells you not to sleep on your back.
Work Other Core Muscles
Instead of focusing on traditional crunches and your abdominals, I recommend working more on the other core muscles that support the abdominals: the obliques, lower back, glutes, and pelvic floor. And don’t worry, your abs are still working too- you’re just taking a little bit of the pressure off of them.
Here are three ways I recommend working the core muscles during pregnancy and postpartum recovery. You can find examples of all of these exercises in prenatal and postnatal workouts I developed for MYX.
Balancing on one leg is a great way to test ALL of your core muscles, whether it’s a yoga pose like Warrior 3 or just picking one leg up off the floor while doing biceps curls. Use a chair while exercising so you can test your balance but also have something to hold on to when you need it. As much as I want you to work your core muscles I also do not want you to put yourself at risk of falling, especially during pregnancy. A chair is a great tool to allow for both. We use a chair in many of the pre and postnatal MYX workouts.
Rotate instead of twisting.
Think of rotating as moving your body as one unit. When your feet rotate, your knees, hips, shoulders, etc. would all follow - think of a chopping motion. Move your body as one unit as much as you want. While there is a baby inside of you and during postpartum when your abs are healing, avoid twisting at the torso as you would during a Russian Twist.
Move side to side.
Moving your body laterally is great for pregnancy and postpartum recovery (and feels really good too). Everything from side reaches overhead to side planks (I recommend modifying them on your knees), and even side-lying crunches give you the opportunity to move laterally. And yes, you can do side crunches because you are not on your back and you’re working obliques. You can find lateral exercises like these in my MYX workouts "Prenatal Upper Body & Core" and "Postnatal Cardio Flow."
I hope this helps you feel more comfortable with how to still work the core during pregnancy! Remember, say "no" to crunches, take good care of yourself, and stay strong!
Sara Haley is a MYX coach and celebrity pre/postnatal fitness coach. She is a mom of four and a former Reebok Master Trainer. She has 15 pre and postnatal workouts on the MYX app for both pregnant and new moms. The workouts range from cardio, strength, stretch, core, and more. All prenatal workouts are safe for any trimester so you can have peace of mind knowing that you’re challenging yourself at an appropriate level. You can follow Sara @sarahaleyfit on Instagram.