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Exercising and Pregnancy: How to Plan Your Strength Training Workouts

In part one of this series, we concluded that exercise and strength training in pregnancy is a fantastic thing for you and your growing baby (with doctor’s clearance for exercise). Strength training will support your changing body, boost your energy, and have a variety of benefits for baby.

For me, women lifting weights in pregnancy is one of the most bad-ass things to watch. Pregnancy is such a powerful experience in and of itself.  Add in lifting, which conjures up feelings of empowerment, self-confidence, positive body image, strength building (physically, mentally, and emotionally), and it’s hard not be inspired by ladies who lift in pregnancy.

OK, so now you know going to the gym is OK, but what do you do there?

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There are a few areas you’re definitely going to want to focus on and “spend your reps” on. One of the most important aspects of prenatal strength training is preparing the body to be able to carry a lot of additional weight through pregnancy, especially through the latter half. There’s going to be a lot more belly and boobs than one might be accustomed to, which is a significant amount of force being placed on the front side of the body. Your training will go on a journey just as you are.

Here are the most commonly asked questions I get regarding strength training in pregnancy:

1. How should I warm up?

In prenatal warm-ups I put major emphasis on stretching the hip flexors, opening the chest, working mobility through the hips and upper back, and activating the glutes and core. I’ve put together a total body warm-up that will prep you for your strength training workout and will take 10 minutes or less. You’ll move better, be physically and mentally ready to lift and be able to get into your workout with no time wasted. Find the full warm-up, with videos included, here.

Also, if you don’t normally foam roll or use other means of myofascial release, you must. This might be one of your saving graces in pregnancy. Working out trigger points (tight, cranky bits of muscle and fascia) in your glutes, upper/lower back, and in your hip flexors will really make a difference in decreasing your overall aches and pains. This article will tell you exactly how and why to do it.

2. What are the must-do exercises in pregnancy to prepare for labour/delivery?

pregnancy-strength-training-squat-with-band-350x350During your pregnancy journey, the pelvis will be pulled into a more anterior or forward tilt. The posture becomes more kyphotic or rounded through the upper back, the abdominal muscles are overstretched, and the hip flexors can get very tight. To fight this, we need to do a ton of posterior chain work, or exercises that build strength through the backside of the body. My must do’s include:

  • Squats: variations – bodyweight, goblet, dumbbell, barbell. Tip: think about spreading the floor with your feet to bump up the effort from the glutes.
  • Deadlifts: variations – Romanian deadlifts, kettlebell, sumo stance, conventional, rack pulls Tip: Deadlifts will likely get uncomfortable further on in the second and third trimester, so drop them or switch to a wider sumo stance then.
  • Glute bridging: variations – standard (2-leg) glute bridge, sinlgle-leg glute bridge, hip thrusts (1- or 2-leg). Tip: make sure the movement is coming from the glutes to press you up, not through the low back arching to gain the range of motion. You’ll want to exhale as you squeeze the glutes to lift the hips up.

Photo #2- Andrea prenatal lawnmower row

  • Pulling: variations – dumbbell bent over rows (1- or 2-arm), cable rows from a variety of heights (1- or 2-arm), lat pull downs, TRX incline pull-ups, chin-ups and pull-ups (assisted or unassisted). Tip: try to keep the ribcage pulling down gently and the abdominals engaged, so you’re not flaring the ribs upwards and letting the belly hang.
  • pregnancy-strength-training-core-450x300Body positions: variations – include split stance positions, 1/2 and tall kneeling positions. Tip: In split stance or half kneeling, tighten the glute of your back leg to feel a stretch through the front of your hip and thigh.
  • Core training: cat/cow, connection breathing, farmer’s carries, pallof presses, and other exercises that keep the spine in a neutral alignment. Tip: In your core exercises, avoid letting the belly bulge out, which will exacerbate the diastasis recti.

3. What exercises are no-no’s?

There are exercises that can do more harm than good in pregnancy. One typical “don’t” you’ve probably heard is to not lie supine (on your back) after the first trimester because the blood supply to the fetus might be compromised. This is not so strict of a rule anymore. Generally, you can follow the principle that if you feel ok on your back and are not in that position for more than a couple minutes at a time, it is probably just fine to do your exercises from that position. If you do feel a bit light headed, just roll to your side, sit up and breathe normally.

You want to avoid all exercises that put unnecessary pressure on the diastasis. Even if it’s not present now, you don’t want to help your body create it. This means you need to stop crunching or doing sit-ups, and further on in the second and third trimester being in pushup or front plank position. These movements will put undue stress on the DR. Be careful of trunk rotation work (wood chopping) if there is a DR, as that can worsen it too.

Be cautious of high-impact work, such as running, jumping or bounding. This is mainly because it will be highly uncomfortable as the pregnancy progresses, but also because of hypermobility concerns. As well, your balance might not be so spot-on and you might feel a bit out of control with movements that require you to react and move quickly.

4. Can I do “cardio”? Can I keep running?

Absolutely, you can keep up with, or add in, “cardio” — whatever that means to you.  To me, that means what Jen Sinkler coined as “lifting weights faster.”  Basically, it’s not my thing to hang out on a machine and do 1000’s of repetitive foot strikes, ellipses, or pedals. If it is your thing, that’s totally cool. Keep it up!

Note from GGS: This is a great article on cardio from Jill Coleman of JillFit Physiques.  Check it out!

That being said, let’s talk about the “R” word: running. Running is not directly dangerous to your or your baby, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe. Hear me out. The issue with running during later stages of pregnancy is that it can be incredibly difficult on your pelvic floor to support that much weight of baby through repetitive pounding, especially on a body that is lacking stability or proper postural alignment.

Photo #5- Prenatal incline walking treadmillRemember how we talked about your changing posture and the core muscles being unable to support the body as they once did? That, combined with additional weight gained, means the pressure of the fetus in the bowl of the pelvic floor muscles, doesn’t make for an optimal running experience. Those pelvic floor muscles are essential for supporting your body’s organs, namely the uterus and bladder. This is a serious issue, as pelvic organ prolapse is more common than we tend to think.

And seriously, won’t it be totally annoying to have to plan your run to make frequent bathroom breaks along the way? Walk a ton, use metabolic resistance training, spin it out, and come back to the running postpartum with adequate recovery time (we’ll save that talk for another time).

5. How much weight should I use? What is “too heavy”?

Your mum and grandma might have been told not to lift weights or anything heavy at all in pregnancy or if they did, definitely no more than 15 pounds total. Times, they are a changin’!

This is completely dependent on you and your training experience with particular exercises. Generally speaking, the last 3-4 reps should be difficult but still allow for good form. Your strength levels will dictate this. There is no upper limit if you’re comfortably and safely lifting heavy. If you’ve been deadlifting your bodyweight, can engage your core and pelvic floor, all while keeping great posture, kudos to you, lady!

You’ll likely have to reduce your loading for some exercises as pregnancy progresses. The belly might get in the way, you just can’t get a solid abdominal contraction to lift too heavy, or carrying the additional weight of the baby will be more than enough. This is your body’s way of protecting you. Respect that.

And with that…happy lifting in pregnancy!

Exercises To Do And Avoid During And After Pregnancy

There are so many myths about exercising during and after pregnancy, it can be hard to know if you’re doing the “right” thing. Our education materials are carefully vetted by OB/GYNs, PhDs, Registered Dietitians, Women’s Health Physiotherapists, and Pre and Postnatal Exercise Experts, and we have put together this FREE handbook where you’ll learn:

  • The best exercises to do during and after pregnancy
  • Exercises to avoid during and after pregnancy

Whether you’re a mom (or a mom-to-be), or a trainer (who may also be a mom), we have you covered. Select from these options below to receive your free handbook to help you or your clients choose the right exercises for healthy moms and healthy babies.

1. Select Your Handbook
2. Enter Your Information
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 Facebook and Twitter.

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