Exercise during pregnancy: to lift or not to lift... that is the question!
Or is it?
I was having a conversation with a postnatal client recently, and she asked me how a young, childless woman like myself got so interested in pre/postnatal training.
She became a mom a year ago and until then had never really considered all the changes the body undergoes during pregnancy. She didn’t realize how much specific care her body needed during that time, until she was living through it.
She didn’t strength train or exercise much during her pregnancy because there was a such a lack of quality information regarding weight training for her to draw on, and even more conflicting information to confuse her, that she didn’t know what to do.
So guess what she did? Nothing. At. All.
Guess how she felt? Crappy, cranky, and crunchy.
That is exactly why I love training this population of women, and why they have stolen my heart. Although I don’t know what it feels like to be pregnant, I am fascinated by watching the transitions these women experience physically, mentally, and emotionally. There are so many facets to supporting the body through pregnancy and preparing it for labor and delivery.
My role is to offer women the guidance through strength training to keep their changing bodies as strong, stable, and comfortable as possible — for as long as possible. Best of all, prenatal exercise sets them up for a speedy postpartum recovery and gets them back to feeling strong and powerful in the gym and in their brand new life as a Mom.
If you’ve done any amount of research on the internet about the best ways to exercise in pregnancy, you know there are some seriously “out there” recommendations.
A quick search will tell you not to lift anything heavier than your purse, only do prenatal yoga, absolutely do not start any new exercise program in pregnancy, and — the most outrageous one I’ve heard so far — stop all abdominal exercises.
How’s a girl supposed to navigate her way through this and stay strong? Let’s go ahead and set the record straight regarding exercise during pregnancy, ladies.
*Disclaimer: Of course, your doctor’s permission for exercise is essential, as there can be contraindications to exercise during pregnancy. Additionally, the most important thing you can do is tune in to your body and give yourself some grace. Be aware of what your body is telling you—does that exercise feel good? Keep it up. Doesn’t feel so good? Probably best to stop and adjust.
Just the opposite is true, it seems. The outcomes for moms and babies are better with prenatal exercise. The research shows that fitter moms have shorter labors, less chance of preterm labor, fewer complications, and shorter hospital stays. Get your hands on the book “Exercising Through Your Pregnancy” by James Clapp for study after study proving the case for more strenuous exercise in pregnancy.
Also of note is that women who exercise during pregnancy report lower rates of perceived exertion during labor than women who did not exercise. If that doesn’t convince you...
Concerned about your baby’s health? Even better news is that fit moms have healthier babies. This study showed that exercise during pregnancy might program a baby’s heart to resist cardiovascular problems later in life because they have stronger blood vessels.
Another study found that the brains of babies born to women who exercised moderately throughout pregnancy appear to mature faster. Plus, it’s well documented that babies show higher APGAR scores and better handle the stress of labor when moms have exercised.
Yes, your body is going to be more unstable. There are a whole bunch of hormonal changes going on, one of which is the major increase of the hormone relaxin.
As the name suggests, relaxin promotes soft tissues such as ligaments and tendons to become more lax and flexible, which is necessary to carry a baby full term and prepare for labor/delivery. However, this alone might be the greatest argument for strength training in pregnancy.
Strength training = increased stability. A properly planned strength training program will help decrease aches and pains that are common in pregnancy, such as lower and upper back pain, by keeping your posture in more optimal alignment.
And yes, if you’re new to strength training, you can absolutely start during pregnancy. Focus on the basics: learn to squat, hinge, lunge, push, and pull. Work with a coach who can teach you solid movement patterns and progress you appropriately.
One of the main points of focus in my prenatal strength training programming is to avoid excessive arching through the lower back. A C-curve through the lumbar spine is necessary to get your baby into an optimal alignment for labor and delivery. However, if it becomes too pronounced it can become incredibly uncomfortable for mom during pregnancy and actually hinder the movement of the baby moving down during labor.
Movements like squats, glute bridges, and hip thrusts can be excellent for encouraging movement through the pelvis, while helping to increase the stability through your lower back. Win, win.
I love when my prenatal clients wear heart rate monitors during their training sessions, and we can test this principle firsthand. Most of the time, they’re hitting 140 bpm near the end of their warm-up. Breathing has deepened, they’re keeping conversation, just starting to sweat, and most importantly, feeling fab.
The cause for concern with too high a heart rate has to do with the muscles pulling all the oxygen and not enough going to the fetus. This is a legitimate concern. However, the 140 bpm guidelines come from outdated research, which was understandably cautious.
We now know the heart rate can be pushed higher than this without worry. I recommend using your Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and the "Talk Test" to guide you. If you’re feeling great, being appropriately challenged, breathing harder but not out of breath, and allowing ample recovery during and between your workouts — perfect.
Think about aiming for a RPE of 4–6 on our Perceived Effort Scale
Keep in mind that your body and your baby are going to go through stressful periods during labor and delivery. Think of your strength and interval training as test runs for the impending contractions of labor. You work hard for 30–60 seconds, rest, and repeat. This is what prenatal training is all about. Prepare yourself for the main event!
Emily doing inverted rows while training with a heart rate monitor on. In this workout, her max was around 160 bpm during her strength training circuit.
I’ve read articles that advise you to let your abdominals get “nice and soft” before and during pregnancy. To even stop abdominal training while you’re trying to become pregnant, just so you don’t risk abdominal separation. If you want to be terribly uncomfortable and have debilitating back pain, then yes, this is sound advice. Not what we’re going for though, are we?
Proper abdominal and core training is so important during pregnancy because of your changing posture and additional weight being added to the anterior (front) side of the body. As we talked about under Myth #2, strength training can help to minimize the hyperextension of your lower back to keep your pelvis in a better position.
Abdominal separation is a real thing that many women in pregnancy experience. It’s called diastasis recti (DR). DR occurs because of the growing fetus pressing onto your abdominal wall. Your rectus abdominals, the “6-pack” muscles, will stretch because of this, and the connective tissue holding them together can get very thin and soft.
The good news? A stronger core can help reduce the size and severity of your DR and set you up for a speedier recovery postpartum. There are specific core exercises that you should not do that can increase the DR — for example, sit-ups, crunches, and front planks.
What can you do? Half and tall kneeling positions, Pallof presses, dead bugs, farmer's carries, diaphragmatic breathing exercises, and pelvic floor exercises. This Girls Gone Strong article on core training has some great recommendations that are pregnancy-friendly (leave out #2 if there’s a DR present).
I guarantee you will be grateful for those abs (even if you feel like they’ve temporarily left your body) once your babe is born and you’re carrying that weight around for hours a day. Remember, they’re only going to get heavier!
Refer to Myths #1–4. I love yoga, and I love walking. They are fabulous activities to have as part of your prenatal exercise routine. That being said, you just can’t beat the benefits of a strength training program added to this.
You need to be strong to:
Just as your body will experience a multitude of changes as you progress through pregnancy, your program will need to go on a journey too.
What you did in your first trimester might not be working for you in the third. Have to lower your intensity? Decrease your weights? That is totally necessary and normal. You will absolutely get back to where you were and, likely, an even stronger version of your new mama self.
Keep lifting, or even start lifting, throughout your pregnancies. If strength training isn’t your thing, just keep that bod moving as much as you can, doing what you love.
85% of women will have a baby at some point in their life. If you work with women, you work with pre- and postnatal women.
Whether your clients are currently pregnant or have already had their baby, they’ll have questions about everything — how to exercise safely in each trimester, which foods they should and shouldn’t eat, how to exercise the right way post-pregnancy.
And they’ll look to you for the answers.
That’s why we created our Pre- & Postnatal Coaching Certification: So current and aspiring professionals have the tools, knowledge, and confidence they need to help their pre- and postnatal clients navigate their health and fitness — both during and after pregnancy.
With the industry’s most extensive pre- and postnatal exercise, nutrition, and coaching certification available anywhere, you’ll learn exactly how to:
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