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Safe Exercises During Pregnancy

The Benefits of Exercise During Pregnancy

Now that you know you are pregnant, you have probably wondered whether exercise during pregnancy is safe. The good news is, that assuming you have no contraindications, that answer is a very enthusiastic, “YES!

In a broad sense, exercising during pregnancy offers all the benefits of exercise prior to pregnancy. In addition to making your body stronger and improving your mood, engaging in regular movement and exercise during pregnancy enhances your ability to deal with the physical changes taking place in your body, as well as the psychological experiences that go along with being pregnant.

Exercise helps manage the weight gain and decreases the likelihood of developing common conditions such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and depression. A strong body is better equipped to deal with the experience of labor, delivery, and recovery.

In working with our clients, we have found that following a very specific exercise protocol:

  • Improves posture and alignment
  • Reduces discomfort of pregnancy weight gain
  • Helps maintain baby in a good sitting position
  • Eases labor, delivery, and recovery
  • Improves stability, strength, and movement
  • Disperses body stress throughout the body and minimizes strain on lower back

Are There “Safe Exercises While Pregnant?”

As the saying goes, “Just keep doing what you were doing before you were pregnant, but don’t start anything new.”  Not exactly words to live by. Sure, if you were serious about working out before you got pregnant, then you can certainly continue now that you are. However, common sense should tell you that adjustments will have to be made along the way.

On the other hand, pregnancy is a great time for even a newcomer to the gym to begin an exercise regimen. Girls Gone Strong advises women to continue strength training, or even start strength training, throughout your pregnancies.

When it comes to doing safe exercises while pregnant, there aren’t many resources, and guidelines can be vague. Some sources make it sound like there are no safe pregnancy exercises at all, and even the guidelines published by the National Institute of Health and  the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists leave a lot to be desired.9-10 Most websites tell you what to avoid, and give general recommendations of 30 minutes, five days per week of moderate intensity exercise.  While this isn’t bad advice per se, we believe we can do a lot better in giving more specific, actionable steps to exercise safely and effectively in pregnancy.

Listening to your body is key, as is remembering that there will always be exceptions. Women have had perfectly healthy babies while running regularly up until delivery, but generally all decrease the volume and intensity. Thus, individual results will vary, and seem to depend largely on your pre-pregnancy fitness levels and regimen. Before beginning exercise, or assuming you can continue to exercise at the same intensity or type, you must speak to your doctor for clearance.

Here’s What We Think Are “The Best Pregnancy Workouts”

Now that we’ve discussed if and when it is safe to exercise during pregnancy, you may be wondering, “what are the best pregnancy workouts?”

What is “best” depends upon your goal:

  • Are you interested in attenuating weight gain?
  • Keeping your core strong and the tone of your pelvic floor balanced?
  • Want to improve, or maintain your cardiovascular fitness?

The good news is, with proper exercise and good nutrition, all of these things are attainable!  But you have to make sure you’re choosing the correct training modalities to achieve those goals.

For example, you can’t just walk and expect to strengthen your core and to achieve balanced tone in your pelvic floor.  Just as you can’t expect to only do core and pelvic floor exercises and improve your cardiovascular fitness. You must choose the right exercise for your specific goals.

A really popular misconception is that women should just walk and do yoga during their pregnancy.  For many years, doctors erred on the side of caution, advising women to “put their feet up” as much as possible. It wasn’t too long ago after all that when someone had a heart attack, we put them on bed rest! While we think walking and yoga can be great exercises to have as part of your prenatal exercise routine, you just can’t beat the benefits of a cardiovascular and strength training program added to this.

You need to be strong to support your changing body, maintain your strength as you carry extra weight, help your postpartum recovery process, and to prepare yourself and your baby for intense moments of labor and delivery. You also need aerobic exercise to improve your endurance, help control your weight, and reap the benefits of improved glucose control and blood pressure control.

Are There Safe And Easy Workouts for Pregnant Women?

One of the most common questions we receive from our community is regarding safe and easy workouts for pregnant women. We are thrilled they are concerned with staying active and safe, but we should be clear: unless you’ve been told to take it easy by your doctor, your pregnancy workouts don’t necessarily have to feel easy.

Safe pregnancy exercise? Yes. Easy? Not necessarily…

Women who were working out at high intensities before getting pregnant can continue to work out at moderate to high intensities throughout their pregnancy, as long as they feel OK.  Of course, what feels “intense” when you’re 32 weeks pregnant might be different than what felt intense before pregnancy, but that’s OK.

If you weren’t active before pregnancy, you can absolutely start working out in pregnancy, but you should be exercising at a low to moderate intensity throughout.

Below are a few of our favorite exercises for pregnant women. As you read and watch, notice there are no front loaded exercises as you move further through your pregnancy and posture becomes more and more emphasized. This is no accident, as the exercises are designed to help you carry your body weight around 16 to 18 hours per day as it grows and your center of gravity shifts. This will truly make the greatest difference in preventing a large diastasis and an achy body.

The 3 Best Upper Body Exercises To Do While Pregnant

While there are endless variations of upper body exercises to do while pregnant, your best bet during pregnancy (and most other times) is to stick to the basics. The following three moves are big “bang for your buck” exercises and will offer you tons of benefits 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 specifically on the back muscles themselves. Training the back muscles and muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades are essential in supporting optimal posture through your pregnancy, which is a top priority.

Not to worry—you don’t need to forgo pushing and pressing exercises as soon as you become pregnant. A good rule of thumb is to perform twice the amount of pulling exercises to pushing exercises, especially as you get further into your second and third trimester.

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

Why is posture so important during pregnancy? A few big reasons:

  • Will help keep your spine properly aligned and may reduce incidence and severity of back pain and discomfort (lower and upper)
  • Will keep the head over top of your neck, not jutting out in front of your body (forward head posture)
  • Will allow your baby more space to grow and properly position themselves in your pelvis
  • Will allow for a potentially much smoother labour and delivery if your baby is well positioned
  • Will help reduce the size of your Diastasis Recti (abdominal separation) and help 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

Band pull-aparts will mainly train the rhomboids, trapezius, and lats. And just to forewarn you, 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 may arch through your lower back to compensate through the pull, which is not what we want.

Cues:

  • Keep the chest up, with the rib cage gently pulled down toward the pelvis.
  • Develop lots of tension through the arms, raising them to shoulder height. Tighten the triceps and root the shoulder blades down your back, while keeping your elbows soft.
  • Make sure your pelvis is in a neutral position, not arching hard or tucked under. Keep the scapulae stable and gently squeeze the shoulder blades together, while pulling the band across the middle of the chest. Return to the starting position.

 

Lat Pulldown Or Pull-Ups

The lats are a major back muscle that span a huge portion of the spine. Exercises like lat pull downs and pull-ups are important for spinal stability and shoulder mobility—necessary things in order 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.

Cues:

  • Grab the bar with a strong grip, and keep the chest lifted up with the ribcage 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 Low Cable Row

The split stance low cable row fills a couple different roles for us: more great back strengthening, plus the split stance position will give us 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 to train bilaterally (both arms together) and unilaterally (one arm at a time) to even out potential weaknesses and correct differences in our movement patterns.

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 tailbone 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.

The 3 Best Lower Body Pregnancy Exercises

The best upper body strength training exercises during pregnancy all involve strengthening the upper back, and with good reason.  It’s vital for maintaining good posture and spinal alignment throughout your pregnancy.  Same with lower body exercises.  More “backside of the body training” (i.e. your posterior chain), and more specifically, more training of your backside!

The glute muscles should be a main focus throughout your pregnancy training (and postpartum, too!).

Here’s why you want strong glutes:

  • Strong glutes will help support your lower back and give you stability through this area.
  • Strong glutes will help align your pelvis into a good position for baby’s development. Your baby being in good pelvic position during pregnancy is a great thing for when delivery time comes around.
  • Strong glutes may help reduce pregnancy-related back pain, per the reasons above.
  • Strong glutes just look amazing, don’t they?

So what do I recommend for strong glutes?  Read on…

Hip Thrusts

Hip thrusts are arguably one of the best glute activation exercises you can do. They’re great for any level of exercise experience, making pregnancy a great time to start working on them even if you’ve never done them before.

Note: Barbell hip thrusts might not be a comfortable or safe option as you get further along in your pregnancy. You could switch to using chains or bands across the hip flexors or thighs, higher reps of bodyweight versions, and single leg hip thrusts.

Cues:

  • Set up on a bench with your shoulder blades hooked onto the edge, arms reaching out to the sides, and knees bent to a 90 degree angle.
  • Raise the hips up so you have a straight line from your knees to shoulders, by squeezing your glutes as tight as you can.
  • Lower the hips down towards the floor as you raise your upper body up, and return to the starting position.

Note: Be very careful not to hyper-extend your lower back in this position.  Think about keeping your ribcage and your pelvis tucked towards one another the entire time.

 

Reverse Lunges

This lunge variation is fantastic for glute activation, balance, and single leg stability. You can begin practicing this exercise by just using your bodyweight, or for more advanced exercisers, raise the difficulty level by loading it will dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells.

Note: Watch that your ribcage doesn’t flare up on this exercise and you don’t crunch through your lower back to gain stability through the movement.

Cues:

  • Take a “medium” distance step backwards (not too short or long) while keeping your front knee tracking over the same ankle, in order to get the glute working hard to control the movement.
  • Lunge down, bending deeply through both knees, with the back knee reaching towards the floor.
  • Try to maintain a square pelvis, as if you had headlights coming out if your hipbones, and you wanted them facing straight ahead.
  • Pull yourself up by squeezing your front leg glute and hamstring strongly to return to standing.

 

Goblet Squat

Squatting exercises are some of the best exercises you can do in pregnancy to improve your posture and support the pelvis. The goblet squat is excellent for developing awareness around your lumbar spine (lower back). It will teach you what it feels like to be in a neutral position, which is a gentle curve through your low back, not rounded or excessively arching.

Note: Squats in pregnancy serve another important purpose, and that is activation of your pelvic floor muscles. On the way up from the bottom of your squat, give a gentle pelvic floor contraction (e.g. kegel). Fully relax your pelvic floor muscles at the top of your squat.

Cues:

  • Stand tall holding the dumbbell at your chest, with the chin tucked down slightly.
  • Sit backwards and down into your hips, keeping that great neutral spine position as you get to the bottom of your range of motion.
  • Tighten your glutes (and your pelvic floor) and return to standing.
  • As you come out of the bottom of your squat, feel like you are trying to ‘spread the floor’ apart with your feet – major glute activation!

Our Recommendations For “The Best Core Exercises During Pregnancy”

Core training can be a confusing thing to navigate during your pregnancy when you’re not sure what exercises to do or how to modify them as your body changes. With a few guidelines you’ll be on your way to a strong, stable core through all three trimesters.

Below, you’ll find specific core exercise suggestions for the first, second, and third trimesters. These exercises are designed to give you rock solid posture, to keep you moving well, and to keep your body pain-free.

The exercises are separated into four categories:

  • anti-rotation (resist twisting)
  • anti-extension (resist arching your back)
  • anti-lateral flexion (resist side-bending)
  • neutral spine with hip flexion (maintain a neutral spine as you flex your hip)

But before we dive into specific core exercises to perform in pregnancy, there are a few things you should think about.

 

Diastasis Recti

Diastasis Recti (DR) is the common and necessary abdominal separation that many women experience in pregnancy and postpartum. Because your belly is growing to accompany your baby, your abdominal muscles stretch and expand. The 2 bellies of your rectus abdominis, the “six-pack muscle”, can begin to pull apart from the midline of the body, most notably around, above, and below your belly button.

Totally normal and treatable with focused rehab. That being said, there are absolutely exercises that can exacerbate the problem. If you have a DR you need to just say NO to crunches, sit-ups, and front loaded exercises (such as front planks and pushups) where your belly is hanging towards the ground.

 

Practice Breathing

Proper breathing patterns are essential for balanced pressure in your core and for preventing DR and pelvic floor issues. These are not mentioned as specific exercises below, but it will be extremely beneficial in all trimesters to practice your diaphragmatic breathing.

 

Pelvic Floor Physiotherapy

As the name alludes to, this specialty of physiotherapy deals specifically with pelvic floor concerns, that may be manifesting itself in many ways, such as incontinence, urgency, low back and hip pain, etc. I definitely recommend finding a PF physio in your area and going for an assessment in pregnancy and once the babe is born.

The Best Core First Trimester Exercises

  1. Anti-rotation
    1/2 Kneeling Cable Lift. Cues: squeeze your back leg glute, lift chest up tall, pull the cable attachment up and then push out.
  1. Anti-lateral flexion
    Side Plank. Cues: stack shoulder over elbow, press hips up, squeeze your bottom glute hard.
  1. Anti-extension
    Front Plank. Cues: engage the abdominals, keep a small curve through lower back, tighten the glutes, pull your elbows to toes and toes to elbows.
  1. Hip flexion with neutral spine
    Stability Ball Knee Tuck/Jacknife. Cues: keep a slight curve in the low back, draw the knees into the chest by tightening the abs.

Notes for first trimester exercises: You’ll probably be able to do all the things you would normally do for non-pregnant core training. This is where you want to set a really solid foundation: develop great posture, work on neutral spine positions with the ribs down, and get the pelvis in proper alignment.

The Best Core Second Trimester Exercises

  1. Anti-rotation
    Tall Kneeling Pallof Press. Cues: squeeze your glutes, tuck your tailbone down, press straight out from your sternum.
  1. Anti-lateral flexion
    Overhead or Rack Position Farmer’s Walk/Carry. Cues: ribs down, abs engaged, walk tall.
  1. Anti-extension
    Band Supported Leg Lowering. Cues: pin your lower back to the ground, slowly lower the leg feeling tension in the abs, only take the leg down as far as you can without the belly bulging up or low back lifting off.
  1. Hip flexion with neutral spine
    Slow Mountain Climbers. Cues: keep a slight curve in the low back, belly drawing up away from the floor, don’t touch foot to floor as you pull in. You may find as you advance in your second trimester and your belly grows that you need to move to an incline so your belly isn’t hanging.  Go by how you feel, and if your core feels unsupported in a push-up position on the ground, elevate your hands.

Notes for second trimester exercises: Start being aware of signs of DR. Place one hand on your belly when doing abdominal exercises (where you can) and notice if the abdominals feel like they’re bulging or popping up. Modify the exercise to make it less challenging so this doesn’t happen.

The Best Core Third Trimester Exercises

  1. Anti-rotation
    1/2 Kneeling Pallof Press Cues: squeeze your back leg glute hard, tuck your tailbone down, press straight out from your sternum.
  1. Anti-lateral flexion
    Offset Farmer’s Walks/Suitcase Carry. Cues: hold the kettlebell or dumbbell slightly away from the side of the body, walk tall, ribs down.
  1. Anti-extension
    Dead Bug Variations. Cues: slight tension on the abs in the starting position, maintain the low back to the floor, exhale as you extend.
  1. Neutral Spine with Hip Flexion
    Straight Arm Pulldown + Single Leg Stance. Cues: stand in tall posture, keep shoulders tucked down through the pull, as you pull hands down toward your hips, use the abs to pull knee up, keep slight curve in low back. See image below.

Notes for third trimester exercises: Even if you might feel like your abs have jumped ship at this point, I promise you they’re still in there. Watch your posture throughout the day; try to make sure you’re not pushing your hips forward and swaying through the low back.

You’re Pregnant. Choose the Pregnancy Workout Plan That Makes You Feel Good!

Now, what if all of this sounds boring, or you feel you don’t have the time, money or motivation to strength train?

While we strongly recommend you give the exercises a try for a few weeks, we recognize that individuals tastes vary. If strength training isn’t your thing, just keep that body moving as much as you can, doing what you love.

No matter what exercise you choose, it is most important to be consistent with your chosen pregnancy workout plan, listen to your body, and adjust your program as your pregnancy progresses. 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. While exercising in pregnancy is important, a safe workout should always be your priority, and any amount of exercise will have positive benefits.

 

Whenever you’re ready for more evidence-based, body-positive pregnancy and postpartum health and fitness information, Moms Gone Strong is here for you. Moms Gone Strong is the most comprehensive, well-designed, pre- and postnatal program ever created. It’s purpose:

1. Help pregnant women learn how to be their strongest, healthiest you throughout your pregnancy.
2. Show moms how to feel confident that they’re doing the absolute best thing to recover from birth, even if their kids were born years ago.
3. Teach health and fitness professionals exactly how to train their pregnant and postpartum clients as safely and effectively as possible.

Get Moms Gone Strong Now

Additional Safe Workout Resources for Pregnant Women:

  1. Hakstad O and Bo K (2011). Effect of regular exercise on prevention of excessive weight gain in pregnancy. The European Journal of Contraception & Reproductive Health Care 16(2).  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21417561
  2. Zavorsky G and Longo L (2012). Exercise Guidelines in Pregnancy. Sports Medicine 41(5).  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21510713
  3. Barakat R et al (2013). Exercise During Pregnancy and Gestational Diabetes-related Adverse Effects: a Randomized Controlled Trial. British Journal of Sports Medicine.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23365418
  4. Stafne S et al (2012). Does regular exercise during pregnancy influence lumbopelvic pain? A randomized controlled trial. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, 91(5).  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22364387
  5. Tarkan L. All About the Third Trimester.  http://www.fitpregnancy.com/pregnancy/pregnancy-health/all-about-third-trimester?page=5
  6. Sizensky V (2013, July 26). Cardio Workouts for the Third Trimester.  http://www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/third-trimester-cardio-workout
  7. Tenforde A et al (2014). Running Habits of Competitive Runners During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach.  http://www.experts.umich.edu/pubDetail.asp?id=84923874427&o_id=1&t=pm
  8. Price B, Amini S and Kappler K (2012). Exercise in Pregnancy: Effects on Fitness and Obstretric Outcomes: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc, 44(12): 2263–2269.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22843114
  9. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/magazine/issues/winter08/articles/winter08pg26.html
  10. http://www.fitpregnancy.com/exercise/prenatal-workouts/exercise-guidelines