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Pilates. It’s something I always imagined myself doing throughout my twenties, but never really quite got the hang of. It was also one of those things that I believed required a strong core and lots of floor work while tuning into the right muscles. Add to the mix, being six months pregnant and the idea of me on a floor never quite fit together.
Although I always felt I started my pregnancy off on the right foot — eating healthy and maintaining regular exercise in the form of boxing sessions (despite severe morning sickness in my first trimester) — I found that by week 16 my state of wellbeing didn’t quite feel right. I’ve tried several things over the past nine weeks with nothing really making an impact.
Until I met Dan, from Pilates with Dan, one Saturday afternoon at his quiet studio in Scullin and discovered that Pilates isn’t just about what you can do on the floor but what you can do with machines too.
Let’s be honest, it’s hard to feel comfortable the further into your pregnancy you go. Whether it’s those deep stretches you miss, the ability to climb stairs without becoming breathless or just sleeping soundlessly on your back – there are many changes that occur to both your body and wellbeing, which is why Pilates is one of the best forms of exercise you can do while pregnant.
As Dan explains, “It’s about understanding the importance of exercising while pregnant and how it can ease and assist your birth. It’s not just about keeping fit and active like some people believe.”
“It’s also about movement, lengthening the body and creating stability in those pivotal areas that it [your body] relies on both during and after pregnancy.”
Be it a private session or a group class with three to four women, every exercise is about helping you prepare for motherhood and is tailored to suit your body. It might be a tweak in the resistance on the Reformer or a slight adjustment to the angle you’re sitting at on the Exo Chair – whatever it is Dan understands that every woman and every pregnancy is different, and therefore the exercise should be too.
“This might sound clichéd but every pregnancy is a journey both physically and emotionally,” says Dan. “It may be a woman’s first pregnancy and everything is a bit uncertain. Or it may be her second, third or fourth pregnancy and she may be very comfortable with all the changes happening to her body, but this time around she may be more fatigued and needs different exercises to help cope with not just this pregnancy, but the other kids demanding her attention too.
Adds Dan, the workout needs to reflect this journey. Even in a group setting the exercises are designed to be flexible to respond to each woman’s needs.
From strengthening and activating your pelvic floor muscles to assist with managing contractions and the delivery of baby, to building up strength in your shoulders and back for all that lifting and cuddling you’ll soon be doing once baby is here – the benefits of Pilates are endless.
The idea, says Dan, is to be a fitter version of yourself once you deliver baby and prepare for that with Pilates throughout your pregnancy.
“Prenatal Pilates is great because it moves the body in a supportive way – the various Pilates apparatus guide and challenge you in a way that is truly unique,” he explains.
Using machines and balancing techniques, Dan works with you to develop crucial muscles that you’re likely to call on throughout any and every stage of your pre and post-natal journey.
Dan’s wife Elizabeth knows all too well about how Pilates can help you to tune in to certain muscles and says that even now with her third pregnancy, her experiences have been vastly different.
“I had been doing Pilates for several years to help with my dodgy back, so when I fell pregnant I knew a bit about activating pelvic floor muscles and the basics of Pilates,” shares Elizabeth.
“During my first pregnancy I knew which weak areas I needed to focus on and was able to target and strengthen them, which helped with both the delivery and my recovery.
“Second time around the focus shifted to a more general workout, because my body had changed since the first pregnancy.Third time round it’s been really valuable to help deal with the aches and pains associated with the pregnancy hormones, which I’m noticing a bit more this time.”
At 25 weeks pregnant and in three private sessions over the past two weeks, I learnt more about my body and how each part plays an important role in pregnancy than any book could possibly tell me. And the changes between each session have been surprisingly subtle yet blatantly obvious, particularly once Dan explains why.
From a twist in my back from sleeping funny to tight traps and muscles across my shoulders from carrying my handbag the wrong way, by the end of each 40-minute session I was walking lighter and had lengthened my spine after just a handful of gentle yet challenging machine-assisted exercises.
Warm ups vary from session to session, but mine begins with three sets of 10 calf raises on the floor that vary from quick pulses to long holds, all the while activating my pelvic floor muscles and focusing on my breathing. And trust me, your breathing matters.
When exhaling try not to puff or blow out candles, just gentle long sighs as if you’re fogging up a window – doing this you should feel a subtle difference. The aim is to use the deeper muscles of the abdomen – it sounds funny but at first you have to soften your breath to relax the outer layer of muscles.
The machines used in Dan’s studio — the Exo Chair, Reformer and Cadillac — fast become your friends as you learn to trust your body and tune in to specific muscles for activation. What I love about the machines is that they offer assistance to better support deeper movement and stretches, so you don’t at all feel like you’re overworking or over-stretching.
A machine that can really only be described as a stool with pedals, the Exo Chair is where you’ll build strength and stretch your calves while simultaneously lengthening your spine and developing your stability. I certainly felt a burn each time I did this exercise but in a good way. But if at any point it becomes too much, Dan is there to help you ease out of the exercise and adapt it to suit your needs and comfort, while still maintaining the challenge.
The Reformer is where I felt my first decent stretch in months and where I learn that movement is your friend while pregnant. After a run through of how to approach and manoeuvre myself onto the machine safely, Dan guides me through two exercises – one standing and one on my knees.
The first requires me to lift my toes up while keeping my heels firmly planted and pushing backwards using a range of muscles including pelvic floor, calf muscles and deep abdominals as well as activating groin muscles, quads, the spine and many more. For such a simple exercise, there is a lot of engagement required from the body. And all while keeping my upper body still. It requires some initial coordination and with relatively tight calf muscles, I struggle to do this smoothly.
The second sees me on my knees, almost in a yoga-like position, again to activate my pelvic floor muscles, and pulling baby up and under (tucking your pelvis in). It feels a little weird with a baby bump as you feel you might squish it, but I can assure you won’t.
Dan explains that different exercises all activate pelvic floor muscles whether you’re consciously or passively working them in an exercise. One important exercise that all women should be doing every day throughout pregnancy is simple Kegels – the squeezing and lifting (two very different things) of pelvic floor muscles.
“It cannot be overstated how important the pelvic floor is for everyone, especially during pregnancy,” explains Dan. “The pelvic floor helps keep what is inside us, inside us. It also has vital role to play in posture, continence, sex and delivery of a baby.
“As a result it is important to keep your pelvic floor active during your pregnancy regardless of the type of delivery you end up having. The prenatal classes help women increase their awareness of their pelvic floor and how to recruit these muscles effectively.
From the lower body, we move to actively working my upper body and in engage in three more exercises using a range of arm springs on the Cadillac. The exercises focus on shoulders and lats (the muscles that run down your back and your shoulder blades) because once baby comes you’ll be doing a lot of lifting. However, these exercises are also great for correcting rounded shoulders as your breasts become bigger and prepare for breastfeeding. The exercises appear simple in movement, but once you start to tune in to the muscles themselves, you begin to see just how complex a Pilates workout can be.
While Dan welcomes women of all stages in their pregnancy, he does advise that there are still things to be considered before joining a prenatal Pilates class and understands that with pregnancy comes uncertainty and unexpected surprises.
“My goal is to make Pilates as accessible as possible. Things pop-up in pregnancy (morning sickness) that mean you may have to skip a class. But how I run my studio is to provide my clients with the opportunity to make-up missed classes, where possible, to maximise the full benefit of a five-week term,” says Dan.
“Women can take part in Pilates at any stage during their pregnancy, however I recommend that newly pregnant women should exercise with caution and avoid deep abdominal work for at least the first 10-12 weeks. But if ever in doubt discuss your exercise plans with you doctor or midwife.”
The best part about Dan’s classes? He can also tailor a program with your specific goals in mind just like you would with a personal trainer, whether it’s to have an active birth or to simply build shoulder strength for all those cuddles.
So think about everything your body requires from you now and everything that baby will require from you once here, and decide how you will become a fitter version of yourself in preparation for motherhood. You might just find that Pilates with Dan becomes your thing too.
What: Prenatal Circuit Pilates with Dan
Where: 1 Mcginness Street, Scullin
When: Five week term begins 21 July with classes available on Tuesdays at 6.30pm and Saturdays 1pm.
How much: $100 for five classes. Private classes are $90 each with classes for two also available at $55 each.
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Feature image of The Cadillac and courtesy of Pilates with Dan.