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Optimal and Detrimental Exercises during the Final Stage of Pregnancy

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

If you’ve ever departed a prenatal yoga class feeling, well, underwhelmed — or departed a workout class wondering if you really should be performing a particular exercise with a baby on the way — that’s only natural. Figuring out what a third-trimester workout should look like can be challenging.

“There has been an excess amount of caution regarding pre- and postnatal exercise recommendations,” says certified strength and conditioning specialist Carolyn Appel, C.S.C.S., director of education for PROnatal Fitness, a fitness company aimed at preparing pregnant individuals for childbirth and parenthood. “Up until recently, the commonly dispensed advice from doctors to pregnant women has been to take it easy and minimize exertion,” she states.

But now, that’s changing. Professional athletes and celebrities have drawn attention to exercising, even intensely, during the nine months of pregnancy, and research indicates that movement provides significant benefits for both parent and baby (woo!).

One reason why continuing to exercise into your third trimester can be so advantageous? “When you consistently challenge yourself, you become better able to tolerate greater amounts of stress,” says Appel. “Therefore, persisting with the efforts when the going gets tougher in the third trimester will actually cultivate a more resilient body that will be better equipped to handle daily activities,” she adds. Even more: You don’t have to lift heavy weights to reap the rewards. “Simply performing bodyweight or lightly weighted squats will likely feel laborious,” notes Appel.

However, during the third trimester, exercise also becomes more challenging. You carry more weight. You’re likely dealing with heartburn. You constantly need to urinate. What once felt enjoyable (e.g., running) no longer does. And as it turns out, certain exercises are more advantageous than others during this critical time period. So what should you do — and what should you avoid?

In particular, concentrating on deep core strength — which is vital for resisting the alignment and pressure changes associated with a heavier bodyweight, says Appel — and pelvic floor relaxation are crucial for a third-trimester workout. Alternatively, certain movement patterns (such as plyometrics) might be best postponed until after giving birth.

Here, five exercises for the third trimester that prepare parents-to-be for childbirth, parenthood, and beyond — and five movement patterns you might want to consider postponing, outlined by Appel. Her general guidelines for pregnant individuals in the final stretch: (A) if it doesn’t feel pleasant, refrain from doing it; (B) if you can’t execute an exercise with proper form, avoid it; and (C) if you experience leakage while performing a certain exercise, set it aside.

And remember: Before engaging in physical activity during pregnancy, always ensure that your doctor has given you clearance.

5 Top Exercises for the Third Trimester of Pregnancy

Preparing for Pushing

In order to optimize the body’s rhythms and strengths while pushing and during labor, the goal is to exhale while maintaining a relaxed pelvic floor as the baby moves through the birth canal, according to Appel. This exercise helps you practice achieving that. “Any tension in the pelvic floor will create extra resistance for the body and the baby’s efforts,” she explains. Practice this pushing preparation at the beginning of a workout, during rest breaks, or even during the stretching at the end of a workout.

A. Take a deep breath, expanding the ribcage in every direction, and then exhale a steady stream of air through pursed lips.

B. After a few breaths like this, recreate the feeling as if urinating. The release necessary to pass urine or stool is the relaxation of the pelvic floor, which is the sensation to aim for and maintain while breathing in and out.

Single-Arm Supported Fly

“Most of early motherhood is spent in a constantly hunched-forward posture with the upper body,” says Appel. “Due to the hours spent feeding, holding, and carrying a newborn, the shoulders, elbows, and wrists are in a bent position,” she explains. Extension-based movements like flys counteract these forces, she adds.

A. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your knees slightly bent, holding a light dumbbell in one hand. Hinge at the hips with a soft bend in the knees, keeping your back flat and your neck neutral, and lean your torso forward at about a 45-degree angle. Place your other hand on a chair or assume a split squat stance with your hand on your front leg. Let the hand with the weight hang down directly below your shoulder, with the palm facing inward to start.

B. While keeping a slight bend in the elbow of the arm holding the weight, exhale as you lift the arm out to the side in a wide arching motion, stopping when the arm reaches shoulder height. Lower the arm back down to complete the repetition.

C. Exhale as you lift the weight and inhale as you lower it. Point your thumb upward to increase focus on external rotation of the shoulder. Switch sides and repeat.

Birthing Squat

“During labor, women often seek out specific positions that help alleviate the pain of contractions and facilitate the descent of the baby,” says Appel. “The deep squat is one of those positions that often feels good to adopt – and the more women practice it leading up to the big day, the more pain management options they will have when they need them most,” she explains.

A. Start on your hands and knees and transition into a squat position by pushing your hips back.

B. Hold the squat position while incorporating twists, lifting one arm straight up in the air, or perform standing deep squats by starting in a standing position and lowering yourself into the squat.

Bathtime Kneel

“One of the tasks that new moms will be doing frequently is bathing their little ones. In order to minimize stress on a body that has already experienced the trauma of childbirth, practicing this hinge-based movement pattern during pregnancy will establish good habits,” says Appel.

A. Sit upright on your knees, holding a medium-resistance weight.

B. Take a deep breath and hinge at the hips, shifting your hips back, then reach your arms forward and downward. Exhale as you come back up.

C. Add variety by incorporating a rotation with the reach.

Maintain the arm elongation for a moment or two to enhance the level of challenge in executing the motion.

Squat

“Squats are fantastic exercises for strengthening the lower body, especially since lifting objects from the ground becomes more challenging as women gain more weight during pregnancy,” states Appel.

A. Using a moderate-resistance weight, breathe in and push your hips back to initiate the movement and bend forward while keeping your spine in a neutral position.

B. Breathe out as you stand back up and repeat.

5 Exercises or Movements to Avoid During the Final Stages of Pregnancy

Breath Holding

To prevent intra-abdominal pressure, which contributes to both diastasis recti (DR) and pelvic floor dysfunction, make sure to exhale during exertion, advises Appel. (For instance, you would inhale while squatting down).

Rapid Changes of Direction

“One of the hormones of pregnancy, relaxin, loosens soft tissue, which can result in a decrease in stability, especially during single-leg activities,” explains Appel. Stick to movements that are slower and more controlled, she suggests.

Inverted Positions

“As the belly enlarges, there is increased pressure on the front of the abdominal wall,” notes Appel. “We don’t want to exacerbate that by spending time in inverted positions (such as planks and push-ups),” she emphasizes. Modify by kneeling, elevating your hands, or substituting these exercises altogether.

Abdominal Work

Crunches, sit-ups, and leg lifts are examples of traditional exercises targeting the abdominal muscles that should be avoided during the third trimester, according to Appel. These exercises increase intra-abdominal pressure through flexion, she explains. “Furthermore, these movements can contribute to DR,” she adds. A telltale sign of DR to watch out for is a doming or protrusion in the middle of the abdomen while performing strenuous abdominal exercises.

High-Impact Exercises

Even if you were enthusiastic about high-impact exercises earlier in your pregnancy, it’s advisable to reduce them at this stage, advises Appel. “The pelvic floor, a group of muscles at the base of the pelvis that support the pelvic organs and prevent urinary incontinence, is being stretched and weakened due to the extra body weight,” she explains. Asking the pelvic floor to handle high-impact activities on top of that can increase the pressure, cautions Appel. “Continuing to run or do plyometrics in the later stages of pregnancy might feel tolerable, but it may also lead to a longer postpartum recovery,” she cautions.