In my last article, we talked about how to structure your workouts during the first year postpartum. If you missed it, you can read more about that here.
If you’re about to give birth to your babe, you are recently postpartum, or you know a mama who is, then this piece is well worth the read.
For this post, we are switching gears a little bit and we are going to talk about how to structure your workouts during pregnancy. I recently had a consultation with a mama who is just starting her second trimester, and she wanted to learn how to be working out in a way that will support her body and keep her feeling strong and as pain-free as possible through her pregnancy. So with that, I was inspired to write this for you in case you are also an expecting mama (or know of one) who is also looking for sound information on how to structure your workouts as you progress through pregnancy.
By now, most of us are well aware that strength training during pregnancy is a great activity for both mom and baby once your doctor has cleared you for such activity. Strength training will help to support your body and keep it feeling strong amidst all of the additional load and stress being placed upon it during pregnancy. It will also provide a natural energy boost, as well as many positive health benefits for baby.
Strength training during pregnancy also helps to provide a tremendous boost in mood, self-confidence, body image awareness, and empowerment at a time when a woman can very much feel out of sorts and unsure of herself (from all of the changes going on with her body).
You know that strength training during can be very beneficial. But, you’re still probably wondering how exactly to structure your workouts and what exercises you should/shouldn’t be doing? So, let’s talk about it!
First thing’s first, though. One of the most important things for you to keep in mind for your training is: Why? What is the behind your training program? When it comes to prenatal strength training, our why and purpose behind the workouts should be to prepare the body for the additional weight, stress, and strain that the body will experience throughout pregnancy, labor, and delivery. As you progress through pregnancy, you will experience a lot more belly and boob than you and your body is used to; so, we want to strengthen your body in a way that will keep it feeling strong and able to more easily support the additional weight and load.
It’s not about continuing along with the same fitness routine you were doing before you became pregnant and just making little tweaks here and there. It’s about directly addressing the physical changes that occur during pregnancy with safe, sound, and effective exercise programming so that you can stay as strong and as pain free as possible while carrying your babe in utero! OK, so now what?
Your prenatal workouts should address several things, and your program will need to change a bit as you progress further along into your pregnancy. Here are the most common factors to keep in mind:
Should I warm-up? How do I warm-up?
Every good workout begins with a good warm-up. When we’re talking prenatal workouts, there are even more specific drills that we will want to include in our warm-ups to address those tight hip flexors, tight pectoral muscles, lazy glutes, and a stiff upper (all commonly experienced throughout pregnancy). When designing prenatal warm-ups, I place major emphasis on stretching the hip flexors, opening up the chest, addressing mobility through the hips and upper back, as well as activating the core and glutes.
There are two parts to our warm-up as well: myofascial release/soft tissue work and dynamic stretching. If you aren’t already doing some kind of myofascial release/ soft tissue work before your workouts and throughout the day, now is the time to start. If you aren’t familiar with it already, foam rolling is basically a convenient and inexpensive form of self-massage. It is commonly done by using your body weight and a foam roller to work out any trigger points, knots, and adhesions that have built up in your muscle tissues and/or fascia. These pesky and annoying little spots can develop as a result of sitting or standing too much, repetitive movement patterns (created by our daily physical habits), injury, chronic muscle tension, and changes in our alignment (hello pregnancy posture!).
Foam rolling your muscles, especially those surrounding your hips, mid to upper back, and shoulders will help you to train more effectively during your workouts and reduce overall pregnancy aches and pains. The foam roller and therapy balls will become your best friend during pregnancy to ease your cranky hips and back!
If I haven’t convinced you yet, there are even more wonderful reasons to include foam rolling/myofascial release into your daily routine.
Foam rolling/myofascial release also:
- Reduces inflammation and joint stress.
- Improves circulation and flexibility.
- Improves muscle strength and activation
- Results in less fatigue and better energy.
- Decreases aches and pains(lower back pain, sciatica)
- Increases blood flow which has a rejuvenating effect on the body
- Results in better sleep
Just note that like strength training and stretching, foam rolling won’t yield significant improvements overnight. You will need to be diligent and stick with it to gain the best results.
As far as stretching goes, you will want to focus on those stretches that are dynamic in nature. Dynamic stretches should consist of a series of movements (not static positions) designed to increase your body temperature, activate the nervous system, increase joint range of motion, and correct limitations. Some of the movements should also mimic the actual exercises you will be doing in your workout, preparing your body for the specific movement patterns of those exercises.
Save your static stretching for the end of your workouts, but also be careful about this type of stretching during pregnancy; your joints, connective tissue, and muscles are a bit looser due to the increased Relaxin hormone levels in your system. You will want to include dynamic exercises in your warm-ups that actively stretch your hip flexors, open up the chest, create mobility in your thoracic spine (mid-back) and hips, and activate your glutes and core. I’ve provided you with a sample warm-up here that will mentally and physically prepare you to hit the weights! This warm-up can also be done on days when you just don’t feel like doing an entire workout (#pregnancyfatigue).
How much weight should I lift? How much weight is considered “too heavy”?
You may have heard that during prenatal fitness you shouldn’t lift anything heavier than 15-20 pounds. Sometimes this advice is warranted, but generally speaking, this advice is a bit outdated.
Every woman’s fitness level and training experience is completely different going into pregnancy, so what may seem heavy for one woman may not be all that challenging for another woman. So, there is no specific number to assign to exercises that is considered heavy across-the-board. Generally speaking, you want be using a weight that will make the last few reps difficult (but still manageable enough that you can still be practicing good form and technique).
With all that said, you will most likely have to reduce the loads you use for different exercises as you progress through your pregnancy. You will need to lighten up on the weight over the coming months. Some signs that you need to lighten the load:
- You simply can’t engage through your core and pelvic floor well enough to lift a heavy load. You often can’t maintain good alignment throughout the entire exercise unless you lower the weight.
- You have to hold your breath during ANY portion of the exercise.
- You see any coning, doming, or bulging along the midline of your belly, or simply your growing belly is getting in the way.
As you continue reading, keep in mind that I’m not suggesting that you necessarily stop any specific exercise forever! Instead, if you are experiencing any of the signs or symptoms discussed below, seek some guidance from a pelvic floor physiotherapist or a fitness trainer who is educated in prenatal exercise.
Also keep in mind that for every scenario below you may need to make some minor tweaks to your form or alignment to make an exercise more comfortable or safer for body in pregnancy.
Can I keep doing cardio? What about running?
Absolutely, you can keep up with your cardio. But let’s talk about what cardio means during pregnancy. Running is usually the default when we thinking of doing cardio. And, while running isn’t directly dangerous to you or your baby, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a safe prenatal exercise option either. For all my avid runners reading this, just give me a chance to explain why I advise against lots of running (at least for the latter part of your pregnancy).
We’ve already talked in great detail about how important it is to maintain (as much as possible) the strength and integrity of your core and pelvic floor during pregnancy. As your pregnancy progresses and your baby grows bigger, your pelvic floor muscles have to work overtime in order to hold your abdominal contents (mainly the bladder, uterus, and rectum) up and in the pelvic bowl.
Much like a trampoline, these muscles need to be strong and taut in order to expand and recoil in response to pressure changes throughout your core, to prevent leaking of urine, fecal matter, or gas, and to keep your organs from literally falling out of your body (i.e. a prolapse). The strength of these muscles is already compromised from the additional weight bearing down on them, and the repetitive pounding from running can only make matters worse by causing them to have to stretch even more with each jarring foot strike.
There are much safer options to get your “cardio fix”. Consider walking, cycling, swimming, rowing (as long as the belly allows for it), or metabolic strength training workouts. There will be plenty of time to lace up your running shoes again after your baby arrives, as long as you have taken the time to rehab your core and pelvic floor (so that they can handle the rigors of running again).
As far as where to place your cardio in your workouts, I would suggest leaving it until after you have finished your strength training. Our main focus is keeping you feeling strong and pain-free right now, so we want to be sure to get in those strength workouts first. You can follow your strength work up by doing a few sets of cardio intervals (no more than 20 minutes total) keeping your level of intensity around a 6-7.5 on the Rate of Percieved Exertion Scale for your “working” intervals, and your recovery intervals around an RPE of 5 or lower. Also, be sure to keep your rest periods at least twice as long as your working intervals. And lastly, another option is to simply designate 1-2 days per week solely on cardio workouts.
What Exercises Should I Avoid?
You want to avoid exercises that place unnecessary pressure on the diastasis. As a reminder, it’s very normal to develop a diastasis during the latter part of pregnancy. This is your body’s normal way of making room for your growing baby and uterus. It can also happen very early on during pregnancy, especially if this isn’t your first pregnancy. Even if you don’t have one right now, we don’t want to do things with exercise that will help create one. Pay attention to the signs of DR (e.g. coning, doming, a football shape along the midline of the belly during certain movements). Place one hand on your belly when doing any abdominal exercises (where you can), or look to see if you notice any bulging or popping out along the midline of your belly. If this does occur with your belly during any exercises, be sure to either modify the exercise so that the bulging or popping doesn’t occur, or just good ahead and remove it altogether (or find an alternative exercise). In order to minimize stress to the linea alba, make sure that you are rolling to your side EVERYTIME you need to get up or get down.
Now is the time to REMOVE OR MODIFY certain exercises like:
Exercises That Make You Feel Like Your Belly Is Bulging
We already talked about this, but you will want to avoid those exercises that make you feel like you are putting undue stress and pressure along your abdominal wall. What does this feel like? It’s a feeling as if you are straining through your abdominal wall or if an exercise is pulling at your belly button. Some exercises that you may feel this sensation with include:
- Aggressive core work like twisting and rotational exercises, crunches, reverse crunches, sit-ups, double leg lowers, jackknife type exercises, knee tucks, hanging knee raises, knees to elbow, toes to bar, and kipping exercises
- Front loaded exercises like planks, push-ups, and bird-dogs especially moving into the 2nd You can also do your planks and push-ups from a high incline position until that starts to aggravate your Diastasis.
Exercises That Cause ANY Leaking
Leaking urine during exercise is NOT a normal. It commonly occurs during heavy deadlifts, squats, Olympic lifting, chin-ups, pull-ups, lat pull downs, jumping and bounding exercises, or high rep core work.
You should also be cautious of high-impact work like running, jumping rope, plyometric work (burpees, box jumps, bounding, jumping jacks, etc.). These exercises will become highly uncomfortable as your pregnancy progresses, and they can place a LOT of undue stress on the abdominal wall and pelvic floor at a time when they are already under a lot of stress from increasing baby weight, loosened ligaments, and stretched tissues.
In some cases, you may not need to entirely rule out an exercise that causes leaking UNLESS it can be fixed by adjusting your alignment and breathing techniques. However, in this type of scenario we need to ask ourselves what the risk-versus-reward is for keeping such an exercise in our workout program.
Exercises That Cause Pain Or Discomfort
Pay attention to any exercises that cause pain or discomfort during or after the exercise. This is a sign that perhaps it isn’t right for your body. The most common areas for pain in pregnancy tend to be the front of the pelvis at your pubic bone, back of the pelvis around your SI joints, the lower back, hips, and knees.
Pain and discomfort are signs that your body is in need of some extra support or adjustments. Again, you may not necessarily need to remove a specific exercise from your program if the pain/discomfort is resolved by honing in on your alignment, concentrating on good breathing mechanics, switching the way in which you perform the exercise (i.e. trap bar deadlift instead of a barbell deadlift), or simply by reducing the load.
Exercises That Make You Feel Any Bulging In Your Perineum
What the heck is your perineum? Your perineum is the triangular area of skin between the back of the vagina and the front of the anus. The importance of the perineum is not the actual skin but the muscles and fibrous tissue that lie beneath the skin. These are known as the perineal muscles and they extend from each side of the pelvis to join together in the midline. The perineal muscles help to strengthen the posterior wall of the vagina and close the vaginal entrance, giving support to the vagina and the pelvic floor.
If you are feeling any downward pressure or bulging onto your perineum, this is a sign that the pelvic floor may not be coordinating well with the other deeper core muscles to manage the amount of pressure being placed upon it.
You may feel this type of sensation or bulging in your pelvic floor at the top of a deadlift, the bottom of a squat, or the top of an overhead press. If you experience this at all during any exercise, then you need to pay close attention to how you are breathing and whether you are holding your breath at any time during the exercise. Remember to inhale on the easiest part of an exercise, and then begin to exhale before the toughest part of an exercise, continuing to exhale through the toughest part of the exercise.
E.g. Inhale as you lower into bottom of squat. Start to exhale and continue exhaling as you stand up.
Exercises Or Workouts That Trigger Your Ego
There is a new wave of influence making its way through the fitness world whereby expectant moms are being encouraged to push themselves just as hard as everyone else. To earn that “badge of honor” that they are tough enough or strong enough to keep going hard even while pregnant.
Unfortunately, most athletes and instructors are completely ignorant when it comes to the issues that new and expectant moms face with their bodies. And these athletes and instructors, in their machismo-and-testosterone-laden ignorance and exuberance, wind up cheering and pushing expectant moms into places where they can (and often do) cause long-term damage to their bodies.
These women will earn their badges of honor. Their coaches think they’ve done a great service by helping these women get the most out of their workouts. The Facebook posts go viral. “Wow” emojis abound. 5 minutes of fame are earned. Then everyone else goes about their lives. And quietly, behind closed doors, when no one else is watching, these women suffer. They are left with bodies that feel weak, broken, and riddled with pain because of a dysfunctional core and pelvic floor…all stemming from exercise that was too much for their system. But there’s no room for weakness! Toughen up! Go hard or go home! So, these pregnant women toughen up to keep up appearances. And then they suffer quietly, not understanding what happened to their bodies.
Remember, you have NOTHING to prove to anyone during your pregnancy! Is it great to be able to exercise and challenge yourself, relatively speaking, in the gym? Yes, but it doesn’t mean that you have to or SHOULD go “ovaries to the wall” with your workouts during pregnancy.
Something I want you to ask yourself as it pertains to prenatal fitness is: Should I do this?
It’s not so much a matter of whether you CAN do something. It should come down to whether an exercise is going to be the best choice for your pregnant body and all the changes it’s undergoing. It’s perfectly fine to slow things down and be a bit more methodical with your exercise. If something does not feel or look right to you…DO NOT DO IT!
What Exercises Should I Include In My Workouts?
There are many types of exercises and their variations that exist in the fitness world, and you shouldn’t have to resort to a plain old boring workout when you become pregnant. With all this being said, you should still err on the side of caution during this time and incorporate/stick to some basic and very valuable exercises in your program.
There are several postural changes that occur to help you accommodate for your expanding belly: the pelvis is pulled into a more forward tilt, the hip flexors become very tight, your abdominal muscles become overstretched, your glutes become droopy and lazy, the upper back becomes more rounded or kyphotic (think hunchback), your shoulders round forward, and your head and neck jut forward. To counteract these changes, you will need to include exercises into your workouts that strengthen the muscles all along the backside of your body, also known as the posterior chain. Strength training through pregnancy will help to encourage correct posture and alignment.
Remember: maintaining optimal posture and alignment during your pregnancy will:
- Reduce forward head posture
- Keep your shoulder blades and upper back from rounding forward
- Keep your spine properly aligned and decrease pregnancy aches and pains (especially upper and lower back pain)
- Gives your babe more room to grow and position themselves optimally in your pelvis
- Possibly allow for a smoother labor and delivery
- Minimize Diastasis Recti
Now, this is not to say that you will want to ignore or eliminate any of the pushing exercises that work the front side of your body. It’s just that you will want to place a bit more emphasis on pulling exercises for both the upper body and lower body. I generally like to have my ladies perform 2 upper body pulling exercises for every 1 upper body pushing exercise, and 2 hip-dominant (lower body pull) exercises for every 1 knee-dominant (lower body push) exercise.
* Remember to keep your ribcage stacked over your hips, spine neutral, and abdominals engaged. Also, perform core connection breathing (learn more about that here)
with every repetition.
Upper Pulling Exercises (And Their Variations):
- Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows (1 or 2 arms)
- Cable Rows (1 or 2 arms, seated, ½ kneeling, standing)
- TRX Inverted Rows (1 or 2 arms), TRX Reverse Flys, DB Reverse Flys
- Lat Pulldowns
- Cable/Band Face Pulls
- Band Pull-Aparts
- Pull-ups, Chin-ups (unassisted or assisted as belly gets bigger) try to keep the ribcage pulling down gently and the abdominals engaged, so you’re not flaring the ribs upwards and letting the belly hang.
Knee Dominant (And Their Variations):
- Squats, Lateral Squats (Bodyweight, Dumbbell, Barbell, Goblet, band. Reduce depth of squats or just use bodyweight if necessary for comfort).
- Step-Ups, Lateral Step-Ups (Keep the height of the box where the thigh of the stepping leg will be parallel to floor when foot is on the box. Decrease the height of the box as pregnancy progresses for safety and comfort.)
- Lunges (Stationary/Split Squat, Front, Walking, Reverse). Reduce depth of lunges if necessary for comfort. Do not do if you are experiencing any pubic pain.
Hip Dominant (And Their Variations)
- Deadlifts (Conventional, Sumo Stance, Trap Bar, Rack Pulls, Kettlebell Suitcase Deadlift, Kettlebell Deadlift, Romanian/Stiff-Legged, Single Leg RDL’s. Deadlifts can become uncomfortable during the later part of your pregnancy, so either remove them, switch to a wider stance, or lighten the load. Avoid Single Leg RDL’s if you are experiencing pubic pain).
- Glute Bridges (Double Leg, Single Leg, Feet Elevated, Band Resisted, Weighted – only use MODERATE weight as you move further along into your pregnancy and as long as is comfortable and safe to perform. You may need to just stick to your own bodyweight, or use bands as the belly gets bigger.)
- Hip Thrusts (Double Leg, Single Leg, Band Resisted, Weighted…again…only use MODERATE weight as you move further along into your pregnancy and as long as is comfortable and safe to perform. You may need to just stick to your own bodyweight, or use bands as the belly gets bigger.)
*For the Glute Bridges and Hip Thrusts, be sure that the movement is coming from your glutes to extend your hips and not your lower back. Think of squeezing through the glutes to press out of the bottom of the exercise, not arching at the low back to gain range of motion.
Having a strong core is absolutely essential during pregnancy AND after pregnancy. Your core muscles will be stretched beyond their limits by the end of your pregnancy, and whatever strength you have built up to this point will help your core muscles to bounce back after pregnancy. The core strength you build and maintain during pregnancy is very important in protecting your pelvis, back, and hips as your belly grows, and after birth, when these areas are at risk for injury due to the instability brought about by pregnancy. Clearly, core work should be an integral part of your prenatal fitness program.
For your core exercises, you will want to focus on exercises that keep the spine in a neutral position. These types of exercises include Core Connection Breathing, dead bug variations, heel slide variations, heel tap variations, side plank variations, Pallof Press variations, and Farmer’s Carries.
Remember that your body is going through significant changes and your body is doing something absolutely amazing! Keep the focus of your workout routine on exercises that keep you feeling strong, help you feel comfortable, and keep you feeling supported in your body now and for the long haul!