Squats are a functional exercise that allows you to both strengthen and stretch muscles whilst also opening up the hips. This makes them the ideal prenatal exercise for the lower body. They can be carried out with varying ranges of motion to suit your level of strength and flexibility and at varying levels of pace, with or without external resistance, to suit your conditioning goals. Hence they are a highly versatile, beneficial exercise.
You will find that you naturally have to squat numerous times in daily life and especially once your baby is born e.g. to pick up your bundle of joy, tidy up toys or pull things out of the bottom of a pushchair basket etc. This is why squats are classed as functional exercise- they form a part of everyday movements that directly translate into how you move in real life on a regular basis.
Adopting the correct technique for squatting, especially whilst lifting external loads, will not only prepare you for pregnancy, labour and birth but will also condition your body for general living and help to reduce the risk of developing a back injury later in life.
Strength training with squats
Squatting regularly will increase the strength in the major muscle groups of your lower body and core. In particular the muscles of your thighs: glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings will benefit as you support your body weight through the descent of the downward phase and the ascent of the upwards phase. You can choose to further increase your strength by adding external resistance in the form of resistance bands, dumbbells, a barbell, a Kettlebell, weighted ball, VIPR etc.
During pregnancy if you continue to squat you will naturally increase the strength of your legs as your body adapts to lifting the increasing weight of your growing uterus, baby and breasts. So you may find that reducing, rather than increasing, the external load is a more comfortable way to continue to squat as the weeks and trimesters progress. This is known as regressive exercise programming and is the normal format for prenatal exercise programming so as to not over-exert yourself during pregnancy.
Cardiovascular (CV) training with squats
The speed and range of motion (ROM) with which you carry out your squat will vary the intensity and the exertion rate that your cardiovascular and respiratory systems have to work e.g. 15-25 moderate repetitions with a smaller range of motion will promote muscular and aerobic endurance whilst 6-12 slower repetitions with a deeper range of motion will promote aerobic endurance, muscular strength and flexibility.
Traveling with a squat and changing direction can increase cardiorespiratory output as well as working muscle groups in more varied and functional planes of motion.
Squats can also be layered with upper body exercises to increase intensity, this will also improve coordination and work the myofascial lines more thoroughly along their full length.
Pelvic Floor Muscle (PFM) Integration with squats
Squats are also an integrated movement that does wonders for your pelvic floor. With the correct technique they will train the pelvic floor muscles in beneficial opposing ways: allowing you to relax and stretch the pelvic floor as you descend –important for the opening of the PFM during dilation of the birth canal and then to engage the PFM to contract and tighten on the ascent as you return to standing- important for maintaining the strength of the PF to support your uterus, growing weight of baby and internal organs and maintain internal pressure as part of your intrinsic core synergy.
Having a correctly functioning pelvic floor will also help to promote post natal healing and prevent or even reduce/reverse persistant incontinence issues. So it’s an added bonus to regularly perform any exercise that integrates the PFM muscles and helps to keep them healthy, toned & pliable.
Research also indicates that the PFM are more actively engaged during a squat than during kegels so though kegels certainly have their worth, you get more bang for your buck to spend your time doing squats.
Hip opening with squats
Squats are a wonderful hip opening exercise and depending on how wide a starting stance you adopt the deeper the stretch and opening will be. All squats will warm up the muscles surrounding the hips: hip flexors, PFM, Glutes etc. but deep squats, sumo or goddess squats will provide the most opportunity for stretching and opening up the hips. If your flexibility and strength allows it is worth adding some of these progressive squats to your exercise programme. They can be carried out unsupported or supported using a suspension training device, handle of a stable door, back of a chair or barre for support.
Birthing with squats
Static squat poses can help you to prepare for particular postures that you may adopt during labour. Not only will squats allow you to keep mobile, flexible and active during labour but they will open up your hips and provide an opportunity to find a position that you can hold for a few minutes to help baby descend and even to give birth if choosing to birth in a gravity assisted position such as sitting on a birthing stool or in a deep squat position. Even a semi-upright seated position will benefit from the conditioning of previous squat technique as your hips will be more flexible and able to open, you will have more strength in your legs with which to brace against and push in a seated squat-like position.
Exertion levels during squats
However you chose to vary your prenatal training with squats it is important to not over-exert yourself. Pregnancy is the time for maintaining fitness levels or bringing previously inactive/sedentary women up to manageable and safe fitness levels. It is not the time to go for a personal best or try to radically progress your fitness goals.
Hence it is best to monitor your exertion levels throughout your exercise sessions and an easy way to do this is to exercise to an intensity based on your rate of perceived exertion. During pregnancy, on a scale of 1-10, you should aim to exercise at a difficulty level of 4-6 and be able to carry out a conversation using the ‘talk test’; wherein you can carry out a conversation whilst exercising and ensures that you are not over exerting yourself and depleting yourself of oxygen.
It is also worth remembering that correct form wins out over speed, so a focus on performing movements with mindful consideration and correct alignment is always a priority for safe exercise. Also be aware of how your body is responding and make adjustments as required.
How to squat safely
Correct technique is paramount to preventing injury and reaping the intended benefits not only during pregnancy, labour and birth but also beyond into motherhood and the years ahead. However it is important to remember that your squat may look very different as your pregnancy progresses and your comfortable ROM changes. It may also feel different as your centre of gravity shifts forwards and your posture changes. Keep this in mind when you squat and remember that each persons body is unique and hence a correct, comfortable squat will look slightly different from one pregnant woman to the next.
It will serve to you well to aim for the following key points:
Keep your stance wide to provide stability and space for your belly to descend
Ground your feet with a slight turn out position to provide stability
Bend your knees and hips simultaneously and stick your bottom out to keep the load on your glutes and thighs (not your lower back)
Keep a neutral back with natural curve (neither excessively flat nor rounded) to help transfer load naturally
Keep your chest lifted and facing forwards
Keep the back of your neck long and in line with your spine to protect your cervical vertebrae
Keep your knees behind your toes (in line with your ankles if possible) to protect your knees
Keep your knees pressed outwards (to prevent them caving in as you ascend).
Breath out (through pursed lips) on the lifting (concentric) phase when rising to manage internal pressure
Squat holding the back of a chair or over a chair if it helps with balance
Only descend to a ROM that is comfortable for you
Try to use this technique for everyday life as well as when exercising as it will protect your back.
So you can see, there are, indeed, many reasons as to why squats are so fundamental to a prenatal training programme- they are accessible, adaptable and the functional benefits can be huge for pregnancy, labour, birth and motherhood. So if you are not already squatting through your pregnancy you should seriously consider adding them to your exercise programme.