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6 Exercises to Prepare Your Body for Labor

Six specific exercises can help you prepare for labor and they only take a few minutes every day to do. Read on to learn about the benefits they provide and how to do each one.

the butterfly exercise to prepare for labor

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When I transferred my prenatal care from an OBGYN to a midwife, lots of things changed. One of those changes that was unexpected was the exercises and stretches my midwife encouraged me to do daily. 

As part of The Bradley Method, which my midwife taught (and which I highly recommend), women are supposed to prepare their bodies for labor by doing a few simple exercises daily. These aren’t exclusive to The Bradley Method though. They are widely recommended by medical institutions and pregnancy blogs all over.

Why These Exercises Matter

Obviously, giving birth requires a lot from your body. The more you can do to help it be ready, the better. 

Part of that preparation is about helping your muscles be ready — specifically the muscles of your legs and hips that will be called upon during labor to help get your baby out.

The goals of the six exercises we’re going to cover in this blog post are mainly 1) to strengthen or tone and 2) to stretch.

Strength is important during pregnancy because as your belly gets bigger you’ll need more strength to stay balanced and to keep moving in the ways you want to.

During labor, strength is important for endurance (labor can be long) and for helping you get into and stay in positions that are helpful, especially during the second stage of labor. The toning part of this first goal comes into play when we talk about the pelvic floor, which we’ll cover a little later on.

Stretching is important because it can ease some of the aches and pains that often come with pregnancy, especially in your legs and back.

Flexibility will make labor easier, too, because you’ll be able to get into whatever position you need to to help your baby make his or her way down and out. Plus, flexible muscles are muscles that know how to get out of the way of when a baby needs to come through. 

Of course, any workout that safely strengthens your legs and core or that helps you stretch and maintain flexibility will be beneficial. The 6 exercises in this blog post simply add an extra push in the right direction, especially on days when you don’t have the energy or time to get in a full workout.

6 Exercises to Prepare Your Body for Labor

The six exercises and stretches most commonly recommended during late pregnancy are:

  • Squats, 
  • Kegels, 
  • Pelvic tilts, 
  • Butterflies,
  • Tailor sitting, and
  • Walking.

Each one takes only a minute or two a day (aside from walking). Let’s look at each and why it’s beneficial for you during pregnancy and during labor and birth.

Squats

Squatting is something most Americans don’t do regularly. We sit most of the time, working, eating, watching TV, or just relaxing. We now know that sitting is actually not great for our bodies.

Our bodies weren’t designed to sit.

They were designed to squat.

Our joints, like our hips and knees, need to move in their full range of movement regularly in order to continue functioning properly.  If we never move our joints past 90 degrees, we’re causing unseen problems for ourselves.

Now add to that situation pregnancy and childbirth. If a woman hasn’t squatted since she was a child, her hips and pelvis are probably not ready to effectively birth a baby.

Why Squat?

Aside from general health benefits, practicing your squats can be helpful because squatting is a common position during the second stage of labor.

Squatting is effective during pushing because it can shorten the birth canal and increase the width of the opening of the pelvis. It can also decrease the length of your labor.

Another benefit of squatting during labor is that it gets you upright and allows gravity to help your baby descend.

Even if you don’t end up squatting during labor (maybe you’re lunging or on hands and knees), practicing squats throughout pregnancy stretches and tones your perineum and may help you avoid tearing as your baby is born.

(The perineum is the muscle and tissue between the vaginal opening and the anus. It’s the tissue that moves and stretches to accommodate a baby’s head.)

Squatting often during pregnancy can also relieve strain in the lower back.

What Kind of Squats Should I Be Doing?

“Squats” is a pretty broad category of movement, so which ones are helpful during pregnancy? Really any squat can help you strengthen and stretch in good ways. 

When The Bradley Method teaches squats, what they mean is a deep squat – one where you go almost all the way to the ground, like a yogi squat, and hold it.

While normal squats strengthen your legs and glutes, holding a deep squat stretches the backs of your legs and feet, improves flexibility, tones your core, and conditions your perineum to be ready to open up as your baby is born.

In its fullest expression, a deep yogi squat is done with your feet flat on the ground and your back straight, with your spine in normal upright alignment. If you can’t achieve that yet, don’t worry. You can work your way toward being able to get your feet flat and until then, you still reap the benefits. 

One way I practiced getting my feet flat on the ground was by holding my husband’s hands. He pulled me forward just enough to keep me upright while still letting my weight stretch my heels and ankles down and pull my feet to the floor.

Another option is to put a yoga block or a rolled up blanket under your backside so you’re sitting but in a squat position.

How Often Should I Be Squatting?

I was taught to hold a squat for 2 minutes per day. That doesn’t have to be all at once though. Maybe try holding a deep squat for 30 seconds (or as long as you can) and then move up to a normal sumo squat for another 30 seconds and do that twice per day.

Another good practice is to squat whenever you’re bending over or picking something up throughout your day.

Picking up your toddler? Squat then stand back up. Unloading the dishwasher? Squat every time you get a new dish out. Cleaning the floor, getting something off a low shelf, or moving a box? Squat, squat, squat.

Kegels

Pronounced “kay-gulls,” these exercises are named after American gynecologist Arnold Kegel who published a study in 1948 showing that strengthening the pelvic floor muscles improved incontinence (not being able to control when you pee, poop, or pass gas).

The pelvic floor muscles are the base of your core. They are like a hammock that spans from your pubic bone back to your spine. Your pelvic floor muscles are what give you the ability to hold it in when you need to go to the bathroom or pass gas.

These muscles also play a role in sexual satisfaction, but that’s not the only reason to make sure they’re working properly. For women, the pelvic floor is a big part of labor and birth. As your baby descends through your pelvis and exits the birth canal, the pelvic floor is what your baby’s head slides across.

To understand why that matters, let me share the analogy that was shared with me. You can try this at home if you have the supplies!

Imagine you have a crew sock with the toe end cut off in one hand and an empty paper towel tube in the other. If someone were to drop a bouncy ball down each at the same time, which would the ball pass through easier?

The paper towel tube! Because the sock is soft and floppy, there’s more friction and the ball has a harder time sliding through.

That’s how your pelvic floor is during birth. If those muscles are weak, they’ll be more like a cushion than a nice springboard for your baby to push off of.

That’s where kegels come in.

Where is the Pelvic Floor + How to Do Kegels

Kegels are tricky to understand if you’ve never paid attention to your pelvic floor before. To figure out how to flex your pelvic muscles, pretend like you’re trying to avoid passing gas or try to stop the flow of urine next time you go to the bathroom (just don’t do this often because it can lead to UTIs).

Make sure you’re not just flexing your glutes or your inner thighs – those are totally different muscles. If you put one hand on your inner thigh and another on your backside, you shouldn’t feel any movement when you flex your pelvic floor. If you don’t feel anything, you’ve just successfully done a kegel!

Recommendations on how many to do and how often (and even in what position) vary greatly. As a happy medium, shoot for doing your kegels in sets, about 10 at a time, about 5 times per day. You can do them standing, sitting, lying down, or even walking.

Three Kinds of Kegels

Now that you know where your pelvic floor is and how to flex those muscles, it’s good to know that there are actually three different ways to do kegels. It’s important to do each kind to get the full benefit. Each one contributes to a well-toned pelvic floor.

The three kinds of kegels are:

  1. A fast flex and release;
  2. A slower flex, hold, and release; and
  3. The “elevator.”

First, you want to be able to quickly contract and relax your pelvic floor.

Second, you want to be able to quickly and fully contract your pelvic floor, hold for a few seconds, and then quickly release.

Third – this is the trickiest one – you want to be able to slowly contract your pelvic floor, hold for a few seconds, and then slowly release. This third way is often called an elevator kegel.

How to Do an Elevator Kegel

I cannot, for the life of me, find the YouTube video I once watched that explains elevator kegels the way I like but here’s how it goes:

Imagine your pelvic floor is an elevator with three floors. At each floor, people are going to get on and off before you go to the next floor. 

To start, contract your pelvic floor a little, about a third of a full contraction. You’ve gone up one floor. Hold while the people get on and off.

Now flex a little more to go up the second floor. Hold while the people get on and off.

Finally, contract your pelvic floor muscles as much as you can. You’ve reached the top floor. Hold while the people get on and off.

And then you go back down, stopping at each floor again. Let the muscles out, about a third of the way. You’ve gone back to the second floor. Let the people get on and off while you hold.

Let it out a little more. You’re back to the first floor. Hold a little more. Now let the muscles out completely.

Finally, try to relax your pelvic floor as much as possible, as if going down to a floor zero. This last step is important too. Just like all muscles, your pelvic floor muscles need to be able to fully contract AND fully relax. 

And that’s it! Now you know how to do kegels!

Kegels can make birth easier for you and your baby. They can even make it safer, because they minimize the likelihood of damage to your pelvic floor.

Pelvic Tilts

Pelvic tilts are one of my favorite things to do for my lower back even when I’m not pregnant. They’re like a cat-cow stretch but less about moving your spine and more about moving your pelvis. It feels amazing, especially with a big baby belly pulling on your back all day.

Pelvic tilts are also really good for helping your uterus and your baby stay in the right position.

Positions that remove the downward pull of your uterus into your pelvis can help realign things making you more comfortable and allowing for better circulation. Positions that get your pelvis in a forward-tilted position (as compared to a reclined position) can help keep your baby in a good position to make birth easier.

Pelvic tilts achieve both of those things.

How to Do Pelvic Tilts

Pelvic tilts are one of the easiest exercises on the list. To do one:

  1. Get on your hands and knees, with your shoulders directly over your wrists and your hips directly over your knees.
  2. Start with a flat, neutral spine. This is your home base and the pregnancy-friendly version of the “cow” part of cat-cow.
    • You also want to make sure your core is engaged – not so much that you’re flexing hard, but enough that your belly isn’t just hanging out with no support for your back. Imagine pulling your belly button toward your spine.
  3. Breathe in. 
  4. From there, exhale as you pull your abs in and round your back upwards. Your pelvis will naturally turn upward, too. Try to pay attention to it; try to pull your tailbone towards your chest.
  5. Hold for a few seconds then inhale and return your spine to a neutral position. You can tilt your pelvis slightly downward if it feels good but be sure not to push your belly out or round your back too much.

You can do pelvic tilts as often as you like. Try to do several every day. A good amount may be doing 10-20 pelvic tilts 2-3 times per day.

You can also a use a birthing ball to do your pelvic tilts.

Butterflies

If you’ve ever done a butterfly pose during yoga or after a workout, you already know what I’m talking about. Sometimes this stretch is called “cobbler’s pose,” too.

This is when you sit on the ground with the soles of your feet pressed together and you let your knees fall as close to the ground as you can. 

The butterfly stretch alone is good for improving flexibility in your hips and pelvis, which can get tight during pregnancy but need to be loose for labor. Try to do it a few times throughout the day.

More Than a Stretch

There’s a variation of the butterfly stretch that adds another benefit, though. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Start in a butterfly position, with the soles of your feet together and your knees falling to the sides, however close to the floor is comfortable.
  2. Have your husband or partner sit facing you and have them place their hands just above your knees on your thighs, with open palms.
  3. Now, have your husband press gently down on your knees while you lift your knees up and bring them together, working against the pressure of their hands. (The pressure should be enough that you have to work to get your knees upright, but not so much that you can’t move them or that you have to use your hands to give you extra leverage.)
  4. Then reverse: have your husband press gently on the outside of your legs as you press down and return to a butterfly position, working against the pressure of their hands.
  5. Repeat 3-10 times, depending on your flexibility and strength.

This butterfly exercise conditions the muscles and ligaments of your upper legs and hips. The more toned these muscles and ligaments are, the less likely it is that they’ll get tired or hurt during labor, no matter what position you choose to labor and push in.

Tailor Sitting 

Next, it’s recommended that pregnant women spend part of every day “tailor sitting.” Tailor sitting is just a fancy name for sitting cross legged on the floor. 

How could sitting cross-legged on the floor have anything to do with getting your body ready for labor? Good question.

First, like the butterfly stretch, tailor sitting helps stretch and lengthen the muscles of your upper legs, as well as those in your back and pelvis. Everything around there is under a lot of pressure during pregnancy, so any relief you can give yourself will be good.

The Bradley Method teaches that sitting cross-legged also encourages good circulation and can help prevent varicose veins.

Beyond that, sitting cross-legged, like pelvic tilts, tips your pelvis forward, which keeps your uterus in alignment and makes it more likely that your baby will be in a good position for birth.

Walking

Finally, walking regularly is a great way to prepare your body for labor. Walking can strengthen your leg muscles. It also helps you develop stamina so labor doesn’t wear you out too fast.

Walking during the last trimester of pregnancy is especially good for helping your baby get into a good position for birth.

Another big benefit of walking during pregnancy is that it can reduce your risk of complications (like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia) and labor interventions (like induction and c-section).

As a bonus, any prolonged exercise can boost your mental health as well as your physical.

Though any walking is good (even the walking you do in the grocery store and around your house), brisk walking is best. Try to walk fast enough that your heart is beating faster than it normally does.

If you are healthy, you can walk as much as feels good to you. Just avoid spending too much time in the heat and make sure you bring water!

Conclusion: Your Body is Amazing

There you have it — six simple exercises to do daily to prepare for labor and hopefully make it just a little easier for yourself.

Squat regularly to stretch and strengthen your legs and to prepare your perineum to open.

Practice kegels to tone your pelvic floor. Do pelvic tilts to encourage alignment and find relief. Condition your legs with butterflies.

Keep blood flowing and your baby in a good position with tailor sitting. And walk, walk, walk!

Through it all, with these and other types of movement, remember to be grateful for your body, have compassion for yourself amidst all the changes, and keep marveling at the miracle of creating life that is happening inside of you. 

Until next time,

Allison

READ MORE:

The Best At-Home Pregnancy Workouts

9 Exercises to Prevent Tearing During Birth

The Brewer Diet: What, Why, and How (+ free checklist)

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