Staying active while pregnant is one of the best things you can do to support your health and the health of your baby. “Most women benefit from physical activity during pregnancy, though a few changes may need to be made to accommodate anatomical changes, physiological changes, and any medical concerns that may arise through the course of pregnancy,” says Aimee Nicotera, an ACSM-certified exercise physiologist and AFAA- and ACE-certified group fitness instructor.
Think about exercise during pregnancy as training to gain the strength for motherhood, suggests Farel Hruska, a pre- and postnatal fitness specialist and director of education and culture at Chuze Fitness. “The movements that are important to do during pregnancy are ones that are helpful to postural alignment and will help a woman practice for motherhood.”
Consider including some (or all) of the exercises below in your prenatal workout program. Listen to your body as you perform these, and only do what feels right. Also always consult your healthcare provider before engaging in physical activity.
Why do them: Building upper back strength helps with posture. This matters because the weight of a growing belly can cause arching in the low back and rounding in the upper back. And all of that can cause pain.
How to: Anchor a resistance band at chest height. (You can also sit up tall with your legs extended and a resistance band looped around the bottoms of your feet.) Facing the anchor, hold one end of the band in each hand with arms straight. There should be some tension in the band. With control, draw your arms back, bending your elbows close to your sides. Finish the movement by squeezing the shoulder blades together. With control, return to the starting position.
Why do them: Rotational movements strengthen the core and translate to everyday life when you twist to reach or lift objects—and babies!
How to: Stand with feet slightly wider than hip width, holding a weight (dumbbell, kettlebell, or medicine ball) in both hands. Squat down and twist your torso toward your right foot. As you press back up to standing, rotate the weight diagonally across your body and up above your left shoulder. Do all reps on one side, then rotate in the opposite direction.
Why do them: Cat-cows are an excellent way to train the core and also help relieve and minimize back pain.
How to: Come to all fours with knees under hips and hands under shoulder joints. Inhale, then, on an exhale, round your back while tucking your pelvis and dropping your head to create a contraction in the rectus abdominus (think of an upside-down crunch). This is cat. On your exhale, return to a neutral spine, then lift your chest and tailbone upward simultaneously. This is cow. Continue to alternate between the two, only going as far as is comfortable.
Why do them: Squats of all types strengthen the lower body and help increase mobility in and around the pelvis. This helps during labor. Note that “if you have any pain in or around the pelvis, avoid deep squats,” says Juan Michelle Martin, DPT, a pelvic health physical therapist and pre- and postnatal expert.
How to: Stand with feet wide and toes pointing diagonally outward. With control and keeping your back straight and chest up, drop down into a squat. Squeeze with your inner thighs to return to standing, squeezing the glutes at the top of the movement.
Why do them: Many people with female anatomy have heard of kegels. These help maintain a strong pelvic floor to avoid urine leakage and incontinence. “The pressure from pregnancy can weaken the pelvic floor muscles,” Nicotera explains.
How to: Start with an empty bladder. Sit or lie down. Identify the pelvic floor muscles as those with which you stop your flow of urine mid-stream. Engage and squeeze these muscles. Hold the contraction for three to five seconds, then relax. Aim for 10 reps, three times a day, Nicotera recommends.
Why do them: The many plank variations help maintain core strength, which contributes to good posture and decreased pain. However, only do planks (especially front planks) if you can engage your core muscles. To test, come to all fours by a mirror. Try to contract your abs toward your spine. If you can visibly see the difference with your belly rising up toward your spine, try a plank and see if it feels OK to you. If you do not see your abs moving toward your spine, do not do planks.
How to: For a side plank, lie on your left side with your legs straight. Place your left elbow or hand below your shoulder. With your abs engaged, raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from your ankles to your shoulders. Hold.
Why do them: Like squats, lunges in all directions help strengthen the lower body and increase hip mobility. They also help with stabilization since balance is involved. However, like squats, if you have any pelvic girdle pain, do not do deep lunges, Martin says.
How to: For a reverse lunge, stand with feet about hip-width apart. Step backward into a lunge with your left foot, bringing your left knee as close to the ground as is comfortable. Pause, then return to standing by pressing into your right foot. You can alternate sides or do all reps on one side and then repeat on the opposite side.
Movements to Avoid While Pregnant
“Activities or sports that involve bodily contact and could possibly put a pregnant woman at risk for abdominal trauma should be avoided,” Nicotera says. This includes things like skiing, horseback riding, scuba diving, and any contact sports. Also be cautious during anything that requires balance. “The hormone relaxin is produced during pregnancy and allows the ligaments in your body to relax and in essence become less stable,” Nicotera explains. “This is great for the pelvis during pregnancy and delivery but may cause other joints of the body to feel less stable.”
Plus, the added weight of a baby may throw off your center of gravity and cause you to feel less coordinated, possibly increasing the risk of falls.
Also avoid full sit-ups. “These increase intrabdominal pressure, can be uncomfortable for the mom, and can increase pressure on vena cava,” Martin explains. When this happens, you may feel dizzy or lightheaded, and it could be dangerous for the fetus.
Plus, usually late in the third trimester, you can’t generate as much force as you could before because the rectus abdominis muscles are stretched. “If you’re pregnant and try to do a crunch, you probably won’t get very far, and you may compromise by holding your breath,” Martin says. Do other core work to keep these muscles strong.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.