Are you gearing up for building a family and feel excited and ready to take the next step to plan for becoming pregnant? Maybe you are not sure about how you should work out while pregnant, or, what is the best type of exercise? If your answer is yes to either, keep reading as I'll unpack some of these common questions and concerns around exercise and pregnancy.
It's essential to know more about exercise in each stage of pregnancy, including your current preconception health (time before you conceive), as well as continuing a workout regimen during pregnancy. Exercising during pregnancy reduces the risk of complications and the severity of common pregnancy symptoms like backaches and bloating. Exercise likely boosts your baby's brain development and heart health as well (1).
These days, many women ask how they can prep their bodies before becoming pregnant, to ensure that they have a healthy environment for a growing baby, as well as a smooth delivery. This preconception stage is a great place to address your health-related lifestyle choices and strengthen your body with an exercise routine for what's to come. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend 150 minutes a week of physical activity while trying to become pregnant, as well as throughout pregnancy if you are cleared by your doctor (2). The intensity of exercise throughout the stages of pregnancy is meant to be moderate and not geared towards setting a new personal best in a lift. Remember, your goal with exercise is to provide adaptations of strength and stamina, not overloading your body and creating a stressful environment for a growing baby.
As a trainer, I have had many female clients come to me before becoming pregnant to get stronger and more mobile before they move into the next stage. Some clients are fearful their bodies aren't capable, or some old injuries may be an issue while carrying their baby. This is a great time to address any concerns and develop a consistent resistance and mobility routine. I like to think of this stage as an opportunity to work on improving your functional movement before approaching the next stage of prenatal care and development.
However, many women do not know where to start. How much, or what type of exercise is best? It is important to note that this is not a time to overstress your body with prolonged, strenuous exercise, that can disrupt the delicate balance of hormones needed for ovulation and conception. Rather, it is good to begin a resistance training program, especially if you have not exercised regularly before to improve your overall health.
Beginning with moderate resistance training two to three times a week and focusing on functional strength and stability is a great place to start. Exercises such as squats, deadlifts, lunges, chest press, overhead press, and rows are key to building a strong base. These compound movements will help you not only get stronger, but you will feel more resilient and capable as you progress with your workouts. Many clients I've worked with often told me how much their overall physical ability, stability, and confidence in their body improved with these workouts prior to getting pregnant.
During the preconception stage, as well as the early stages of pregnancy, it is a great time to work on your mobility, as well as practice a routine that focuses on improving your postural stability and strength. During pregnancy, postural adaptations happen naturally, as well as holding and caring for your child after birth. In this preconception stage and with early pregnancy, you can take advantage of positions, such as face down exercises, that target specific postural muscles. You can also add hip mobility exercises like the 90/90, which increase control of the ranges of motion for your hips, which can help mitigate low back issues down the road.
Exercising in your first trimester can be a wild ride of emotions and hormone changes, so it's good to get clearance from your doctor throughout your pregnancy for exercise as things can change. But most of all, it's important to listen to your body no matter what exercise program you are following.
If you're cleared for exercise, then this stage is a great time to work on split stance stability exercises, which later become harder to do as your tummy grows with your baby. Exercises such as variations of weighted lunges, step-ups, and split squats are great for also building balance and stability. It's also important to work on core stability in exercises such as a Palloff press, side planks, and dead bug variations from a four-point position to create more stability.
Just like with the preconception stage, mobility is important throughout your pregnancy journey. During the first trimester, the hormone relaxin is released and causes the ligaments that support your joints to become relaxed (3). Often women can overstretch or move beyond normal ranges as the joints are more mobile and at greater risk of injury. It's not the best time to do jerky, bouncing, or high impact motions but rather add control with your mobility work.
When it comes to core work, at the end of the first trimester is when you should stop doing any crunch movement as your abdominal wall is beginning to expand as well as your uterus. The pressure you can put on the expanding abdominal wall can cause diastasis recti; this separation and gap between the left and right sides of your abdominal muscle. It's important to know that this is not the time to aim for a six-pack but rather focus on stabilizing your body. We don't want to overstress your body but instead build stamina and strength, especially if you're planning on natural birth. Think of this stage also as another building block towards your body, getting stronger, and improving your balance. But if your hormones are taking you for a ride where you are not up for an entire workout, you can take advantage of going for a swim or a light walk.
Many women settle into their body around the second trimester and become more motivated to exercise with increased energy. Be mindful that it is not a time to go more intense with exercise, but instead stay consistent and keep up a resistance training program. This is a great time to continue to work on more postural strength training exercises, such as weighted seated row variations and face pulls, to add more strength and stability for the upper back extensors and rear shoulders. You can also incorporate more rotational exercises, like a wood chop on a cable machine, to help increase trunk and hip stability while using the obliques. For a chest press, an incline bench can work to avoid being on your back, and you can do an incline pushup as well for the chest. As far as squats go, you can incorporate more front-loaded goblet style versions that mimic lifting up a baby and are very functional. Remember, the relaxin hormone is released so it's good to keep up with your mobility routine to help add control to your joints range of motion.
This is the home stretch, and it's a great time to focus on what your body needs as your baby is still growing. My clients often told me that incorporating swimming and light cardio and their resistance training allowed them to give their bodies a break from the extra weight at this stage in the game. For resistance training, it's great to focus more on wider stance squats like a sumo stance versus a split stance lunge, which is harder to achieve with a growing belly. Squatting will help strengthen your legs and pelvis muscles and prepare your body for giving birth naturally. Rotational cable exercises and postural row variations are still important to keep those areas strong. You can also incorporate sitting on a stability ball and perform single-arm rows and rotational movements, creating more of a stability challenge. It's also a great time to focus on side-lying glute work such as clam variations and leg abductions for hip strength.
You can work out with resistance training and mobility in each stage of pregnancy and modify exercises as your body changes in each one! The most important thing is to listen to your body and make sure you are cleared for exercise from your doctor as you progress in your pregnancy. Exercise will help you feel stronger and more physically capable throughout your pregnancy journey and prepare you for your delivery.
1) Baby brain: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27622854/
2) Exercise weekly: The American college of obstetricians and gynecologists
3) Relaxin: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4282454/