The 3 Best Upper Body Strength Training Exercises for Pregnancy

By Jessie Mundell

While there are endless variations of upper body exercises you could perform, your best bet during pregnancy (and most other times) is to stick to the basics. The following three moves offer the biggest bang for your buck through your pregnancy and postpartum recovery.

You’ll soon notice that the exercises below follow a common theme: they all train the back side of the body, and focus in on the back muscles themselves. Training your back muscles and muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades is essential in supporting optimal posture through your pregnancy, which is a top priority.

You won’t need to forgo pushing and pressing exercises as soon as you become pregnant, but I do recommend doubling your pulling to pushing exercises, especially as you move further into your second and third trimester.

At this point, the extra weight on the front side of your body will be pulling your upper back into a more kyphotic position (rounded upper back), and your lower back into a more lordotic or hyperextended position (excessive arching). These exercises will help you to reduce these pregnancy by-products and keep you in the best posture possible.

Why is it so important to focus on posture during pregnancy? For a few big reasons:

  • Keeps your spine properly aligned and will reduce the incidence and severity of back pain (lower and upper)
  • Helps keep your shoulder blades from rounding far forward
  • Keeps your head in good alignment with your neck, isntead of jutting out in front of your body (forward head posture)
  • Allows your baby more space to grow and get into position properly in your pelvis
  • Allows for a potentially much smoother labour and delivery if your baby is well positioned
  • Helps reduce the size of your Diastasis Recti (abdominal separation) and helps you to heal it postpartum

The following three exercises are fantastic for giving your body the support it needs during your pregnancy. As a bonus, you will get great core activation, which will also keep your body (and baby) properly aligned.

Band Pull Aparts

BandPullaparts-337x340This exercise will mainly train the rhomboids, trapezius, and lats. It’s a sneaky one, and is not as easy as it looks to execute!

Note: Play around with the resistance of the band you’re using. If the band is too tight, you can extend through the spine to compensate through the pull, which is not what we want.

Band Pull-Apart Cues:

  • Keep the chest up, with the rib cage gently pulled down.
  • Develop lots of tension through the arms, raising them to shoulder height. Tighten the triceps and root the shoulder blades down your back.
  • Make sure your pelvis is in a neutral position, not arching hard or tucked under. Keep the scapula stable and gently squeeze the shoulder blades together, while pulling the band across the middle of the chest. Return to the starting position.
  • Check out this video from Molly Galbraith for some more pointers.

Lat Pull Down Or Pull Ups

Pulldowns-or-pullups-337x340The lats are a major back muscle that span a huge portion of the spine. This makes the lat pull down and/or pull-ups important exercises for spinal stability and shoulder mobility, both things that we need to keep training during pregnancy.

Note: Performing these exercise with proper technique is really important for getting the lats to fire with as much tension as possible, and not relying on other muscle groups to take over the pull. Take your time with each rep. If you’ve been training chin-up/pull-up variations, keep it up! If not, you might want to start with the lat pulldown or inverted rows.

Lat Pull-Down or Pull-Up Cues:

  • Grab the bar with a strong grip, and keep the chest lifted up with the rib cage drawn down.
  • Squeeze the shoulder blades down and pull the bar down into the chest (to the middle of the sternum).
  • Drive the elbows down in towards the ribs, and control the bar or your body back to the starting position.

Split Stance Cable Row

This exercise fills a couple different roles for us: more great back strengthening, plus the split stance position will involve glute activation, hip flexor lengthening, and core stability — all which are extremely important in pregnancy and for keeping the pelvis in a neutral position. Win-win!

Note: This exercise is a single arm movement, known as a unilateral exercise. It is important for you to train bilaterally (both arms together) and unilaterally (one arm at a time) in order to even out potential weaknesses and correct differences in your movement patterns.

Split Stance Low Cable Row Cues:

  • Grab the cable attachment and set up in a split stance position.
  • Your front foot is opposite to the arm you are pulling with.
  • Squeeze your back leg glute and slightly tuck the tail bone down.
  • Lift the chest up and roll the shoulder blade back and down, as you pull your elbow down towards your rib cage.
  • Keep the abs braced with the hips and shoulder square to the front.

For best results,  perform 3–4 sets of 8–12 reps each. Perform each of these exercises two times per week, and you'll be well on your way to a healthy and strong back.

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About the author:  Jessie Mundell

Jessie Mundell is a certified kinesiologist and a Precision Nutrition Level 1 coach, as well as an author and mother. She specializes in pre- and postnatal exercise and corrective exercise. Learn more about Jessie on her website and connect with her on Twitter.

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