Expert / 28 November, 2019 / David Kingsbury
9 Exercises to Relieve Back Tension Throughout Pregnancy (and How to Perform Them Safely)
Back pain is a common problem throughout pregnancy, and in this article I hope to give you some methods of mobilising your spine, to manage or even eradicate your aches and pains.
There are two main culprits for gestational back pain, (a) postural change bought about by a growing bump, and (b) a hormone called relaxin. As a result of the growing bump, your centre of mass alters, and the muscles around the shoulders, neck and back are asked to compensate to maintain equilibrium, causing stiffness and tension. Relaxin is produced from the start of pregnancy for the purpose of loosening ligaments and joints, to prepare your body for the eventual birth. The negative side of relaxin is that the ligaments supporting your back and hips can also become more lax, leading to greater instability through some of your vital joints.
Three benefits of exercising during pregnancy
Below I have laid out nine back exercises and stretches with three key benefits:
- relieve back pain
- increase mobility around your back and shoulders
- build strength
All of the exercises are safe for any Mum to be, through all stages of pregnancy. Having said that, always take care, move slow and listen to your body!
This is a great exercise to lengthen your spine, whilst also working on your back, deep core, and posterior chain muscles.
- Begin on all fours stacking your shoulders directly over your wrists, and hips over your knees. Take a deep inhale to prepare.
- On an exhale, extend one arm out long in front of you and extend the opposite leg out behind you. Think about creating an oppositional pull through your body to find as much length as you can. Be mindful to keep your shoulders down from your ears, and to use the back of the legs for the lift and not your lower back.
- Hold for a second or two seconds, and then slowly lower the arm and leg back down to the starting position. Repeat alternating sides for 10 reps altogether.
Squat wall angel
A squat is great way to strengthen your lower body. Adding in wall angels will increase shoulder and upper back mobility.
- Lean your back against the wall, with your lumbar spine flat against the wall and knees bent into a squat. Tuck your chin slightly to create length in the back of your neck and lengthen the crown of your head to the ceiling.
- Holding the squat for the duration of the exercise, bring your arms up like a goal post, making two 90-degree angles at your elbows, palms facing forward. It is important that your wrists lay flat against the wall and your elbows also make contact.
- When you’re ready, exhale and move your elbows up towards the ceiling, trying to keep all points of your arm in contact with the wall.
- On your inhale, slowly return to the start position, lowering your elbows down toward your hips. If your wrists break contact with the wall, reduce the range of motion so that this doesn’t happen. Repeat this cycle for 5 reps/breaths.
Pelvic tilts are a great way to subtly mobilise your lower back, and can be done in a couple of different ways. 1. Supine (lying on your back with your knees bent,) and 2. The all fours position, where you’re supported by both hands and knees and your spine is parallel to the floor.
Doing pelvic tilts in the supine position is the least challenging of all, which makes it the best variation for prenatal mothers if you are happy to lay on your back (recommended only for very short periods of time). This position also gives your spine some much needed release from the weight of the bump.
- Lie on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. On an exhale gently hug your ribs and bump inwards towards the floor, as you do this, allow the bottom of your pelvis to tilt up towards the sky. This will likely result in your low back gently stretching and reaching towards or even softening into the floor.
- On your inhale allow the spine and pelvis to return to their original position, with a neutral spine and your pelvis back into alignment
- Repeat 5-10 times through
External rotation of shoulders
During pregnancy, the upper spine can hunch over and the shoulders can round forward.
Simple exercises that focus on external rotation of the shoulders can create space across the front of the body, alleviating tension and pain.
- Stand up tall or take a seat on the floor cross legged. Bring your elbows in tight towards your waist and bend your arms by your sides at 90 degrees with your palms facing upwards.
- Depress your shoulders down your back, and on an exhale, twist your arms in an outward direction, and find a small pinch between your shoulder blades (opening your chest).
- On an inhale, gently rotate your arms back in front of you, keeping your arms bent at 90 degrees, palms facing up.
- Repeat 10 times through
Doorway pectoral stretch
As the shoulders round and hunch during pregnancy this can create tension and tightness in your pectorals (chest muscles).
One way to stretch these muscles out and help with tension both in the chest and the shoulders, is the doorway/wall stretch.
- Standing in a doorway, or against a wall, raise your arm(s) to 90° (just like goal post arms) with your arms against each side of the doorframe. Stagger your stance, stepping your right foot forward and your left foot back. Roll your shoulder blades down your back and tighten your core, then lean your weight forward until you feel a stretch in your chest and the front of your shoulders.
- Hold for 1 minute to feel the benefits of the expansion and stretch
This stretch will help to increase spinal mobility, decrease back pain, and hopefully go some way to getting you BACK on track.
- Begin on all fours stacking your shoulders directly over your wrists, and hips over your knees.
- Take an inhale filling your lungs and drop your belly gently towards the floor, letting your back arch. Keep your shoulders pulled back, chest open and raise your gaze slowly to the sky.
- On the exhale, press the floor away with your hands as you round your upper and mid back up to the sky. Slowly lower your gaze down and look towards your belly button.
- Continue this cycle on the breath for 5-10 reps
Cross leg torso rotation stretch
Twists are great for releasing tension in the back. However, it’s important to give your tummy space so that you don’t disrupt the uterus and the important processes its undergoing. During pregnancy, you should modify your twists to their more open counterparts.
Focus on leaving room for the belly, and twisting from the upper back, shoulders, and neck while the belly and the hips remain facing forward. As always listen to your body, trust the signals it gives you, move slow and go gentle. This simple twist allows you to leave the stomach area alone, and focus purely on the twist through the mid and upper back.
- Start by sitting cross-legged, with your shoulders engaged down your back away from your ears and a long-lengthened spine, inhale your arms up to the sky
- on an exhale bring your right arm behind you, and your left arm on your right leg. Twist gently to your right, focusing on twisting from the ribcage, shoulders and neck, leaving the belly pointing forward together with your hips. Stay for 5-6 breaths, and repeat on the other side.
- Repeat this once on both sides
Tightness in the Thoracic spine is a common side effect of pregnancy. The “Open Book” stretch is a good way to increase mobility and relieve tension in your back.
- Lay on your side with your knees bent at 90 degrees and stacked one on top of the other. (Alternatively, for more comfort you can lay on your side with your bottom leg extended out long beneath you and top leg bend to 90 degrees, using a cushion or roller to support the knee) Reach our arms out straight in front of you resting on the ground in line with your shoulders.
- On an exhale slowly sweep your top arm up to the sky, and across to the opposite side to rest on the floor (or as far as you can towards the ground). Keep the twist through your body gentle, and make sure the rotation is coming from the chest and shoulders, with the belly button still facing the original direction. Hold for a few breaths or even a few minutes depending on how you are feeling.
- Repeat on the other side
Hip hinge reverse flies
This exercise is great for working the muscles in the posterior chain. Reverse flies will target the muscles in your shoulders, upper back and arms.
- Stand with your feet hip distance apart, with a soft bend in your knees and your arms down by your sides directly beneath your shoulders (you can use a dumbbell for added weigh and more resistance if you wish) Hinge at the hips and deepen the bend in your knees as you lean forward, bringing your torso to roughly 45 degrees.
- Holding the hip hinge, keep your core lightly engaged and maintain a neutral spine. On an exhale raise your arms up laterally, keeping a soft bend at the elbow, until they reach shoulder height. Focusing on a squeeze between your shoulder blades as you lift.
- Inhale at the top and slowly lower your arms back down, resisting the weight and gravity as you do so
- Repeat for 10 reps
Amber Ellis, OPUS Fitness
NB: Please consult your GP or health practitioner before embarking on any new fitness regime, especially when pregnant.