Once the adverse effects of pregnancy — tiredness, queasiness, body soreness, and other delights — start to appear, it’s completely understandable if all you want to do is envelop yourself in a blanket cocoon and relax on the sofa until you give birth. After all, your body is undergoing some significant alterations to accommodate the growth of a tiny human.
While you should certainly pay attention to your body and rest when needed, be aware that dedicating time to physical activity during pregnancy has numerous advantages for both you and your baby.
Here, trainers share all the advantages of exercising while pregnant, tips and safety instructions to bear in mind while you perspire, and a prenatal workout that’s specially designed to strengthen your spine and core, helping to prevent discomfort and abdominal separation.
The Advantages of Prenatal Workouts
To be precise, engaging in physical exercise during pregnancy is associated with minimal risks and has been found to be beneficial for most expectant parents, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In fact, individuals who exercise during pregnancy — whether it’s by means of walking, indoor cycling, aerobic activities, or strength training — have been shown to have a lower risk of cesarean delivery and preeclampsia (also known as high blood pressure), as well as a shorter recovery time after giving birth, according to the ACOG.
Regularly breaking a sweat while you’re expecting can also help make those approximately 40 weeks pass by a little more smoothly, says Emily Skye, a personal trainer and the creator of the Emily Skye FIT Pregnancy program. “Consider the things that seem challenging during pregnancy: the sore back, swelling, and disrupted sleep,” she remarks.
Consistent physical activity can aid in diminishing back pain by sustaining muscle strength and reducing inflammation by maintaining your blood flow. Engaging in a fitness session will also assist in enhancing the quality of your sleep.
How Much Should You Engage in Physical Activity During Pregnancy?
All those physical training sessions can also contribute to a smoother process of giving birth, emphasizes Caitlin Ritt, a specialist in pre and postnatal exercises and the creator and CEO of The Lotus Method. “The process of labor demands physical exertion, and you wouldn’t just transition from being sedentary to suddenly participating in a marathon race,” she explains. “You may manage to complete the marathon, but most likely not with optimal timing or outcomes. It’s about establishing a foundation for a hopefully better labor and a significantly improved postpartum recuperation.”
Naturally, it is imperative to receive approval from your physician before commencing any exercise routine during pregnancy, and to continue consulting with them as the weeks progress. According to the ACOG, your doctor may advise limiting physical activity if you have particular heart or lung conditions, preeclampsia, severe anemia, or placenta previa (a condition where the placenta covers the opening of the uterus), if you have undergone cervical cerclage (a procedure where the cervix is stitched closed to prevent or delay preterm birth), or if you are carrying twins or triplets and are at risk of preterm labor.
Once you have obtained their approval, the intensity of your gym sessions generally depends on your level of fitness prior to pregnancy. Individuals who regularly engaged in exercise before becoming pregnant should be able to continue with their high-intensity activities as long as their pregnancies are uncomplicated and healthy, as advised by the ACOG. However, people who did not frequently exercise before pregnancy should gradually incorporate low-intensity exercise into their routine, according to the ACOG. “This is a period to maintain fitness, rather than striving for new fitness goals,” Skye emphasizes. In other words, if you have never even run a 5K before becoming pregnant, don’t start training for a triathlon now.
How Much Should You Engage in Physical Activity During Pregnancy?
Once again, only your physician will be aware of the suitable exercise routine for both you and your unborn child. However, generally speaking, similar to individuals who are not pregnant, expecting individuals should strive to complete a minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic activity with moderate intensity on a weekly basis, as recommended by the ACOG. For instance, a secure and effective prenatal workout plan could involve 30 to 60 minutes of activity with moderate intensity three to four days per week, according to the ACOG.
To monitor the intensity of your workout, the ACOG suggests using ratings of perceived exertion or the “talk test” – a moderate-intensity activity would correspond to a 13 or 14 (or “somewhat hard”) on the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion scale, and you would be capable of talking but not singing while exercising.
What to Remember When Attempting Prenatal Workouts
Emphasize important muscle groups.
In addition to aerobic activity, it is advisable to incorporate strength training into your pregnancy workouts in order to avoid complications and prepare your body for parenthood. During your prenatal workouts, consider focusing your efforts on these muscle groups.
Of all the muscle groups to concentrate on during prenatal workouts, both Ritt and Skye concur that the core is one of the most crucial. During pregnancy, “you have your uterus and the baby pushing out on your abdominal wall, so if you don’t maintain some form of core activation, that can result in…aches and pain, abdominal separation [aka diastasis recti], and pelvic floor dysfunction,” states Ritt. Skye adds that this separation, which occurs between the rectus muscles in the middle of the abdomen, is common during pregnancy. It can weaken the abdominal muscles and consequently lead to lower back pain and difficulty lifting objects, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Performing core-strengthening exercises during pregnancy, however, has been demonstrated to decrease the chances of developing diastasis recti, according to the ACOG. Since lying on your back after the 20-week mark can limit blood flow, skip the traditional crunches and leg lifts and instead try incorporating some upright core-building moves, such as the Paloff press, deadlift, and resistance band press-down, into your prenatal workout, suggests Ritt.
Glutes and Pelvic Floor
Maintaining the strength of your buttocks and pelvic floor throughout pregnancy can also help prevent unpleasant side effects. “Your glutes and your pelvic floor are essentially best friends — they work together in harmony,” says Ritt. “Your glutes provide support for your pelvis, and of course, your pelvic floor muscles control the bottom of your pelvis. If one is weak, the other will compensate, so strong glutes are crucial during pregnancy.”
In case you didn’t know, the pelvic floor refers to a group of muscles that create a “hammock” across the floor of the pelvis and assist in holding the uterus, cervix, vagina, and other organs in their proper positions for optimal functioning, according to the National Institutes of Health. Maintaining pelvic floor strength throughout pregnancy (hello, Kegels!) will not only help manage bladder leakage and decrease the likelihood of developing hemorrhoids, but it can also aid in pushing during delivery, according to the Office on Women’s Health. “Having a strong pelvic floor is absolutely essential to support your growing baby and prevent or manage incontinence after giving birth,” says Skye. “Contract and release whenever possible!”
Having weak buttock muscles, particularly in the gluteus medius, may also amplify your risk of experiencing back pain six to eight times, as research indicates.
To enhance that posterior, rely on kickstand deadlifts, squats, clamshells, strides, and arches, says Ritt.
To prepare your body for the tasks of holding your baby with one hand and carrying a car seat after giving birth, Ritt suggests incorporating unilateral exercises for the upper body into your prenatal workout. These exercises focus on one side of the body at a time. Give single-arm presses, single-arm rows, and Paloff presses a try.
Practice abdominal breathing.
To maintain a connection between your pelvic floor and core muscles, and to be able to relax these muscles during labor, consider practicing diaphragmatic breathing. Ritt recommends this technique to prevent pushing for an extended period of time during delivery. Diaphragmatic breathing also improves blood flow and nutrient supply to the placenta and reduces stress by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, sit on an exercise ball or a chair and place one hand on your ribs and the other on your lower abdomen. Envision an umbrella within your ribcage, and as you inhale through your nose, imagine the umbrella opening up. You should feel your abdomen softening and your pelvic floor relaxing and descending. Exhale through your mouth as if you’re blowing through a straw. At the same time, imagine lifting a blueberry from your vagina to your belly button to activate your pelvic floor. Start with around 10 repetitions a few times per week to familiarize yourself with the breathing pattern, and then incorporate it into your daily movements and prenatal workouts.
Be aware of abdominal bulging.
Abdominal bulging, also known as doming or coning, occurs when the pressure inside your abdomen pushes outward through the tissue that separates the right and left rectus abdominis muscles. This creates the appearance of a shark fin-like protrusion in the center of the belly. According to Ritt, it indicates that a core exercise may be too strenuous for the individual. Not everyone will experience abdominal bulging during pregnancy, but it’s important to watch out for it. Ignoring this issue can lead to diastasis recti.
While each woman experiences a certain degree of separation in the abdominal area during pregnancy in the third trimester — which is necessary to accommodate the baby’s growth and the expanding uterus — we have the capacity to decrease the magnitude of this separation by being aware of the exercises we perform and reducing the frequency of observing the bulging effect,” she affirms.
If you observe that coning occurs during exercise, consider it as a signal to attempt diaphragmatic breathing (activating your pelvic floor and deeper core) or adjust your alignment (ensuring your ribs are aligned with your hips), which might prevent it, says Ritt. “If you can’t eliminate that shark fin, then that’s probably an indication that you need to regress the exercise, make it slightly easier, and alter the position,” she suggests. “If you’re performing a push-up, instead of doing it on the ground, do it on your kitchen counter or a table. Simply changing the incline will typically eliminate the coning or doming.” If you still notice coning after making those adjustments, it’s usually best to refrain from that exercise altogether, says Ritt.
Pay attention to your body.
Every individual’s pregnancy experience differs, and a prenatal workout that is safe and effective for one expectant parent may be painful or too strenuous for another. That’s why Ritt encourages all pregnant individuals to closely observe their bodies and how they respond to the activity. For instance, you might experience pelvic pain during pregnancy, particularly while running or performing lunges. Or you might encounter bladder leakage or feel a heaviness in your pelvic floor while sweating it out, says Ritt. “If it occurs during an exercise or worsens after running or lifting heavy, that’s your body’s way of signaling that it’s probably too much,” she explains.
When you notice any signs that your body isn’t responding well to your workout, listen to them and modify your activity – don’t ignore them, advises Ritt. “Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed women pushing through it, and then they face a much more difficult and prolonged recovery period due to complications postpartum… such as pelvic floor or core dysfunction,” she points out. “Being mindful of those warning signs during pregnancy will help you get back to it much sooner.”
Avoid comparing yourself to others.
Thanks to social media and in-person prenatal workout classes, it’s easy to start comparing your activity level and capabilities during pregnancy to those of others – and that’s one of the major mistakes you can make, says Skye. “Pregnancy is already stressful enough without comparing yourself to other pregnant women – or even your pre-pregnancy self,” she emphasizes. “…The only pregnancy journey you should be focused on is your own. Choose carefully who you seek advice from, do what feels right for you, and if social media is making you feel inadequate or stealing the joy you should be experiencing during this amazing time, unfollow.”
Have realistic expectations for yourself.
Reminder: Your body is undergoing significant changes, and you’re unlikely to lift as heavy or train as frequently and intensely as you did before pregnancy, says Skye.
“Though it can be challenging to accept your evolving physique and capabilities, Skye proposes recollecting the reason behind engaging in physical activities in the beginning: To nurture your well-being and that of your infant’s, “not to establish personal records or to exceed your prior strength levels,” she expresses.
That’s why she recommends establishing objectives for your pregnancy that are not focused on your physique. “For instance, you might set a goal to engage in some form of movement five days a week — some of those days might entail a strength session with me on FIT, while on other days it could simply involve taking a stroll around the neighborhood — that’s acceptable!” says Skye. “And on those days when you are unable to exercise due to nausea or dizziness or whatever it may be, don’t criticize yourself.”
Emily Skye’s Low-Intensity Prenatal Workout
One approach you can achieve those activity recommendations and gain all the health advantages that can accompany it? Break a sweat alongside Skye and power through her low-intensity prenatal workout, which, alongside other prenatal workouts, is accessible through the Emily Skye FIT app. “[This pregnancy workout] is designed to assist you in moving safely during the middle stages of pregnancy and maintaining strength in your back and core,” she says.
Although the prenatal workout is designed particularly for individuals in their second trimester, it’s generally safe to undertake during any trimester of pregnancy, says Skye. That being said, “the most important thing is the safety of yourself and your baby, so if something doesn’t feel right, talk to your doctor,” she says.
Note: You should not begin this FIT Pregnancy workout if you have not regularly engaged in exercise prior to becoming pregnant — this program is not intended for beginners. Always consult your healthcare professional before commencing any new exercise program or regimen, as there are some situations where exercise may not be advisable. This information should be used as a guide only and should not replace the advice of your medical practitioner.
How it works: Commence your prenatal workout with the warm-up. Then execute each exercise in the prenatal workout for 30 seconds, with 20 seconds of rest between each movement. Repeat the entire circuit four times in total, resting for 60 seconds after each round. Conclude your prenatal workout with the cool-down.
You’ll need: A pair of lightweight dumbbells (Buy It, $14, amazon.com), a chair, and a cushion.
March On the Spot
A. Stand with your feet apart at hip-width, and gently march on the spot. Use your arms, moving them backwards and forwards while marching, making sure to keep your chest lifted and shoulders pulled back.
Continue for 30 seconds
Semi-Squat with Lean
A. Stand tall with your feet apart at hip-width. Carefully lower down into a semi-squat, focusing the weight on your heels.
B. Hold the semi-squat position and gently reach your right arm overhead towards the left. Lower your arm down and gently reach your left arm overhead towards the right.
Repeat for 30 seconds, alternating arms
Shoulder Press to Tricep Overhead Extension
A. Stand with your feet apart at hip-width, roll your shoulders back and down, and bring your hands up in front of your shoulders.
B. Press your hands above your head, then bend your elbows to drop your hands behind your head.
C. Straighten your arms, then bring your hands back down to your shoulders.
Repeat for 30 seconds
Sumo Plie Stretch
A. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width, with your hands pressed together in front of your chest. Roll your shoulders back and down, and carefully lower into a sumo squat.
B. While lowering into the squat, rest your forearms on the inside of your thighs and gently push with your elbows to open up the stretch.
C. While pushing up out of the squat, remove your forearms from your thighs and return to standing.
Repeat for 30 seconds
Side Squat with Overhead Stretch
A. Stand with your feet under your hips, knees slightly bent, and shoulders rolled back and down.
B. Step one foot out to the side and carefully sit back and down into a squat. While squatting, raise both arms up above your head to touch your hands together.
C. Push up from the squat and return to the starting position, resting your arms back at your sides.
Repeat for 30 seconds, alternating sides
A. Stand with your feet apart at hip-width and your arms resting at your sides. With your shoulders back and down and your chest lifted, make small circular movements with both arms. Don’t let your arms drop — try to keep them in line with your shoulders.
Repeat for 30 seconds forwards, then 30 seconds backwards
A. Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, with your toes turned slightly outward. Brace your abdominal muscles to engage your core.
B. Inhale and initiate the squat movement by hinging at the hips first, then bend your knees to lower into a squat position until comfortable, placing the weight on your heels. Keep your knees in line with your toes.
C. Exhale and push into the mid-foot to straighten your legs and stand up, with your hips and torso rising at the same time.
Single-Arm, Forward-Tilting Dumbbell Row
A. Grasp a dumbbell in one hand and place the other hand on the back of a chair for support. Take a step forward with the foot opposite to the dumbbell and assume a split stance. Lean forward at a 45-degree angle from the hips, ensuring that the active arm extends in a straight line from the shoulder to the wrist, with the palm facing downwards.
B. Slowly bend the elbow of the active arm to lift the dumbbell up towards the outside of the belly, and then lower it back down in a controlled manner. Keep the shoulders pulled back and down to avoid excessive activation of the trapezius muscles, and remember to breathe.
Repeat for 30 seconds, then switch sides.
Seated Dumbbell Arnold Press
A. Find a chair and sit down with your feet planted hip-width apart on the floor. Roll your shoulders back and down, and lift the dumbbells up to shoulder height, with your palms facing towards you.
B. Slowly push the dumbbells up towards the ceiling while simultaneously widening your elbows and rotating your hands so that your palms face forward.
C. Reverse the movement to bring the dumbbells back to the starting position.
Repeat for 30 seconds.
Alternating Donkey Kicks
A. Begin in a table-top position on the floor, with your knees positioned directly under your hips and your wrists under your shoulders. Keep your spine in a neutral position and ensure that the back of your head aligns with your spine.
B. Transfer your body weight onto your left leg. Maintaining a 90-degree bend at the knee, extend your right hip to raise your right leg upwards behind you, aiming to drive your heel towards the sky.
C. Activate your glute muscles to control the movement, and slowly lower your leg back to the floor.
Repeat for 30 seconds, alternating sides.
Marching In Place
A. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and gently march in place. Use your arms to swing back and forth while marching, ensuring that your chest remains lifted and your shoulders are pulled back.
Continue for 60 seconds.
A. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your shoulders pulled back and down. Carefully lift one leg behind your body, aiming to kick your buttocks, and then lower it back to the ground. Repeat the movement, alternating sides each time.
Repeat for 60 seconds.
Standing Quad Stretch
A. Stand parallel to the back of a chair, using it for balance. Shift your weight onto the leg closest to the chair.
B. Bend the knee of your opposite leg and bring your foot up behind your body. Hold onto your foot or ankle with the hand on the same side, making sure to tuck your tailbone under to avoid arching your lower back. You should feel a stretch in the quadriceps muscle of the leg that is being held.
Hold for 30 seconds on each side.
Standing Chest Stretch
A. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, and your spine in a neutral position.
- Place hands at the rear and intertwine fingers, with palms facing towards the body. Encourage the shoulders to move backwards and downwards, while gently pushing the hands away from the back to experience a stretch across the chest.
- Maintain this position for a duration of 30 seconds.
Hip Flexor Stretch
- Kneel with the right foot flat on the ground, precisely below the right knee. Ensure that the left knee is positioned directly under the hip and the left foot faces the wall situated behind you. Both knees should be bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Gradually tuck the tailbone under in order to lengthen the left hip flexor. Maintain this pose, then repeat the sequence on the opposite side.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds on each side.
- Kneel on the floor, with a cushion in front of the body, and sit back onto the heels, with the knees pointing outwards towards the sides.
- Slowly hinge forward at the hips, bringing the chest towards the cushion. Rest the forearms on top of each other, with the head placed on top of the hands. Ensure that the knees are wider than the elbows and the hips are seated back over the heels.
- Maintain this position for a duration of 30 seconds.