When you’re pregnant, you have lots of questions, about what to do, what activity should avoid, what needs to change, and what can stay the same. You might also be wondering if exercise is safe during pregnancy? In a simple word, yes – it’s absolutely safe and provides a beneficial effect on your body!
Now, you need to know that staying active is at the top of the list to keep performing for the next 9 months. But whether you’re looking to continue your current workout routine or adopt a new one now, we’ve got you covered. From cardio and strength training to stretching, balance, and core exercises, here’s everything you need to know about staying fit during your pregnancy.
Benefits of doing Exercise during Pregnancy
In their most recent guidelines, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) announced in reference to women’s exercise during pregnancy can lead to a lower incidence of:
- Preterm birth
- Cesarean birth
- Gestational diabetes mellitus
- Excessive gestational weight gain
- Gestational hypertensive disorders
- Lower birth weight
For healthy pregnant women, regular exercise also can:
- Keep your mind and body healthy.
- Maintain physical fitness.
- Reduce low back pain.
- Help to reduce your stress and provide better sleep.
- Help you gain the right amount of weight during pregnancy.
- Help reduce your risk of having a cesarean birth ( also called a c-section). Cesarean birth is surgery in which your baby is born through a cut that your doctor makes in your belly and uterus.
- Improve postpartum recovery.
Safety tips for exercises while pregnant
At your first prenatal care checkup, ask your health care provider whether exercise during pregnancy is safe for you or not – this thing is compulsory.
While during pregnancy there are plenty of activities that need to be removed from your current regimen and the majority of exercises can be continued throughout each trimester that increased your strength stability, and physical adaptability as your body changes.
With that in mind, here are some general safety tips to consider when exercising during pregnancy, according to the ACOG.
- Avoid contact sports that put you at risk of getting hit in the abdomen, including ice hockey, boxing, soccer, and basketball
- Avoid activities that may result in a fall, such as downhill snow skiing, water skiing, surfing, off-road cycling, gymnastics, and horseback riding
- “Hot yoga” or “hot Pilates,” may cause you to become overheated, so avoid it
- Avoid activities performed above 6,000 feet (if you do not already live at a high altitude)
- Drink plenty of water before, during, and after exercise
- Wear supportive clothing such as a supportive sports bra or belly band.
- Don’t become overheated, especially during the first trimester.
- Avoid lying flat on your back for too long, especially during the third trimester.
Cardio during pregnancy
Cardiorespiratory exercises such as walking, running, riding a stationary bike, swimming, jogging, and elliptical are the best and most picked exercises during all three trimesters.
Current recommendations of cardiorespiratory training suggest that pregnant women do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. This amount or intensity of exercise poses minimal risk for the fetus and offers beneficial metabolic and cardiorespiratory effects for the exercising women.
If you’re used to doing vigorous-intensity exercises such as running or your fitness level is high, the ACOG says you can continue these activities during pregnancy — with your doctor’s clearance, of course.
Exercises to do in the first trimester of pregnancy
A pregnancy is divided into three trimesters and the first trimester is from week 1 to the end of week 12.
During the first trimester of pregnancy, people should aim to establish good exercise habits gradually. The right amount of exercise for an individual will depend on how active they were before becoming pregnant.
It is best to favor low-impact exercises — especially walking, yoga, swimming, and water aerobics — during this time. Some slightly more vigorous exercises may also be appropriate in the first trimester. Examples of these include running, jogging, and moderate weightlifting.
The foundation of a well-rounded prenatal fitness routine should include at least 150 minutes of cardiorespiratory activity each week and 2 to 3 days of strength training exercises that target all the major muscle groups.
It should also focus on specific exercises that help make pregnancy easier and prepare you for labor and childbirth. (It may seem far off — but it will be here before you know it!)
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, about hip-width apart.
- Take a deep breath in to prepare, then exhale as you tuck your pelvis (your “hips”) so that you’re making an impression of your spine on the floor.
- Keep that tucked position as you continue the exhale and roll through the movement so that you are lifting your spine out of that impression, one vertebra at a time.
- Stop when you reach your shoulder blades.
- Inhale at the top of the movement, then exhale as you fold your body back down, placing one vertebra at a time back onto the floor until you get to your starting position on the back of your pelvis (your “hips,” as many people will refer to them as).
- Do 12 to 15 reps. For an added challenge, bring your legs all the way together.
Do this throughout pregnancy as long as you don’t have pelvic floor symptoms such as painful intercourse or urinary urgency.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, about hip-width apart.
- Place your pelvis and low back into a “neutral” position. To find this, make sure you’re resting on the back of your pelvis and creating a small space in your lower back (your back should not be pressed into the floor).
- Inhale to prepare, then exhale to perform a Kegel contraction by gently closing the openings (the urethra, the vagina, and anus). As you are performing this contraction, notice how your lower abdominal muscles want to work with that.
- Slightly draw the lower abs in with the Kegel. Inhale, relax the abs and pelvic floor, exhale repeat the contraction.
- Do 2 sets of 8 to 15 repetitions of 3- to 5-second holds, once or twice a day.
This move targets core and upper body strengthening together.
- Lie flat on your stomach, then push up onto your hands and knees, keeping your knees behind your hips.
- Pull in your abs (the pelvic brace), and then slowly lower your chest toward the floor as you inhale.
- Exhale as you press back up.
- Start with 6 to 10 and gradually work up to 20 to 24 reps.
The first trimester is also an ideal time to get squatting! If you have access to the gym, you can also use the leg press machine. Squats — especially bodyweight squats — can be done throughout your entire pregnancy.
Plus, since squats strengthen all the muscles in your lower body — including the quads, glutes, and hamstrings — Jeffcoat says keeping these muscles strong is a great way to protect your back, so you use your legs instead of your back when lifting.
- Stand in front of a couch, with your back facing the couch. Begin with feet just wider than hip-width apart. Use the couch as a guide to ensure proper form.
- Squat down like you’re about to sit down on the couch, but come back up just as your thighs start to touch it.
- Make sure you take 5 seconds to go down and 3 seconds to come back up.
- Exhale as you squat; inhale as you stand.
- Do 2 sets of 15 to 20 reps.
This simple — yet effective — move is another top pick throughout pregnancy. Jeffcoat says bicep curls are a key move to add to your workouts since you need to prep your arms for repeatedly lifting and holding your baby.
- Grab 5- to 10-pound dumbbells and stand with your feet slightly wider than your hips and your knees slightly bent.
- Exhale as you slowly bend your elbows, bringing the dumbbells toward your shoulders.
- Inhale and slowly lower the weights back down.
- Take 3 seconds to lift the dumbbells and 5 seconds to lower them.
- Do 2 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.
Some variations and additional strength training moves to include in the first trimester, according to Brittany Robles, MD, CPT include:
- lunges with weight
- glute bridge (if you’re experiencing any pelvic pain or have a history of pelvic pain with pregnancies, you can also add ball squeezes in between your thighs during the glute bridges)
- standard pushups
When it comes to what you should avoid during the first trimester, Robles says to put your high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on hold since it’s an easy way to exhaust yourself early in pregnancy.
Robles also recommends avoiding any exercise where you can experience trauma, such as contact sports.
Exercises to do in the second trimester of pregnancy
The second trimester of pregnancy starts from week 14 and last between 27 to 28 week. Here’s you may notice a feeling of calmness and even an increase in energy over the next several weeks. Many women say this is the trimester where they feel the best, which is why it’s an excellent time to focus on your fitness routine.
That said, Robles does point out that since the uterus is getting bigger, you do need to be a bit more careful with physical activity.
Activities to avoid during the second trimester, according to Robles, include any high-impact exercise that involves jumping, running, balance, or exhaustion. You also want to avoid any exercise that has you lying on your back for extended periods of time.
In addition to the exercises in the first trimester, consider adding some variations to your squat such as narrow squats, single-leg squats, as well as wide stance squats. Incline pushups, which target the chest, triceps, and shoulders, are another move to add during this trimester.
- Stand facing a ledge or railing and place your hands shoulder-width apart on the surface.
- Step your body back into a standing plank position with your back in a straight line.
- Bend your arms and slowly lower your chest toward the railing or ledge.
- Straighten your arms to return to the starting position.
- Do 2 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions.
Hip flexor and quadriceps stretch
Due to postural changes, Jeffcoat says the second trimester is the ideal time to develop a stretching routine that focuses on the hip flexors, quadriceps, low back, gluteals, and calves.
Because of your changing center of gravity, the belly tends to fall forward, creating shortened hip flexor muscles. This exercise allows you to safely stretch during pregnancy.
- Go into a half-kneeling position on the floor. Place your right knee on the floor and your left foot in front of you, left foot flat on the floor.
- Keeping your posture nice and tall, lunge toward your left foot until you feel a stretch in the front of your right hip and thigh.
- Hold for 30 seconds, ease off, and then repeat 2 more times.
- Switch sides and repeat.
Side-lying leg lifts
To prepare for your changing center of gravity, it’s important to get the muscles that help with balance and assist in pelvic stabilization stronger.
- Lie on your right side with both knees bent and stacked on top of one another.
- Slightly lift your right side off of the floor to create a small gap between your waist and the floor. This also levels your pelvis.
- Straighten your left leg and angle it slightly in front of you. Rotate your hip so that your toes point down toward the floor.
- Exhale as you take about 3 seconds to lift your leg; inhale for 3 seconds back down. As you lift your leg, make sure you don’t lose that little gap you created between your waist and the floor.
- Do 2 sets of 8 to 15 repetitions on each side.
As your baby grows, it can start to create pressure on your diaphragm and ribs which can be painful.
- Sit on the ground with both of your knees bent (or folded) and your feet facing to the right.
- Raise your left arm straight to the ceiling as you inhale, then exhale and side bend your torso toward the right. The stretch should be felt on the left side in this example. Hold for 4 slow, deep breaths. This would be the direction to stretch if you experience discomfort on the left side.
- Reverse directions for discomfort on the right side. To reduce the risk of this occurring, start stretching both directions during the second trimester.
Exercises to do in the third trimester of pregnancy
You’ll definitely notice a slowdown — if not an abrupt halt at times — during the third trimester, as your body begins to prepare for labor and childbirth. This is a great time to focus on cardiovascular activities and keep up your mobility and abdominal strength with:
- prenatal yoga
- pelvic floor exercises
- bodyweight moves
These help to keep your upper and lower body muscles strong.
For safety purposes, Jeffcoat says to avoid any exercise that places you at a risk for falls. “Because your center of gravity is changing daily, it’s smart to avoid exercises that would lead to a loss of balance, resulting in a fall and possible abdominal impact that could harm your baby,” she says.
It’s also not uncommon to experience pubic symphysis pain, which is a pain in the front pubic bone. Because of this, Jeffcoat recommends avoiding exercises where your legs are too far apart, which will further aggravate this pain.
Diastasis recti correction
“Diastasis recti [separation of the rectus abdominal muscles] is a concern for women during this time, and it will show up as a bulge that runs down the midline of your abdomen,” says Jeffcoat. In order to combat this, she recommends doing a diastasis recti correction exercise.
- Lie on your back with a pillow under your head and shoulders. Knees are bent, and feet are flat on the floor.
- Use a crib or twin sheet and roll it so it’s about 3 to 4 inches wide, and place it on your lower back (above your pelvis and below your ribs).
- Grab the sheet and cross it once over your abdomen. Then, grasp the sides, and the sheet should form an X as you pull each side.
- Take a deep breath in to prepare, then press your back flat to the floor as you raise your head and shoulders off of the pillow. During this motion, you are gently “hugging” the sheet around your abdomen to support your abs.
- Inhale lower, and repeat 10 to 20 times. If your neck or shoulders hurt, start at 10 and work your way up.
- Do this 2 times a day.
Other low-weight or bodyweight-only strength training exercises to target during the third trimester include:
- bodyweight squats or sumo squats with a wider stance for an increased base of support (if you’re not experiencing pelvic pain)
- standing shoulder press with light weights
- bicep curls with light weights
- pushups against a wall
- modified planks
- tricep kickbacks with lightweight
Which exercises to avoid during pregnancy?
There are certain exercises and activities that can be harmful if performed during pregnancy. Avoid:
- Holding your breath during any activity
- Activities where falling is likely (such as skiing and horseback riding)
- Contact sports such as softball, football, basketball, and volleyball
- Any exercise that may cause even mild abdominal trauma, including activities that include jarring motions or rapid changes in direction
- Activities that require extensive jumping, hopping, skipping, or bouncing
- Deep knee bends, full sit-ups, double leg raises, and straight-leg toe touches
- Bouncing while stretching
- Exercises that require lying on your back for more than three minutes. (especially after your third month of pregnancy)
- Heavy exercise spurts followed by long periods of no activity
- Exercise in hot, humid weather
- Scuba diving
Staying physically active during pregnancy is beneficial for both mom and baby.
Including some form of exercise most days of the week can help keep your core strong, your muscles fit, and your cardiovascular system in top shape. Plus it can do wonders for your mental health (yay for endorphins!).
Make sure to listen to your body and stop if you feel any discomfort or pain. And as always, talk with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about how your body is responding to an exercise program.