The Safest Exercises for Pregnancy

by Cara Turnquist | Follow on Twitter

Pregnancy is not a time for personal records, but it’s important to know what you can do and what to avoid.

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A FEW MONTHS AGO, a picture of a very pregnant woman performing Olympic lifts during a Crossfit workout went viral. What surprised me was not only how passionate people felt about what this expecting Crossfitter was doing, but also how diverse the opinions were.

People have pretty strong opinions about exercise during pregnancy.

In an industry where trends seem to change as fast as underwear, women are often left not really knowing who to trust and what to do during this important time.

Some women worry that exercise is too dangerous for themselves and their baby and steer clear of it altogether for the duration of their gestation.

Some women stick with yoga and walking.

Some women kick their workouts into high gear because they are worried about gaining a lot of weight during pregnancy.

The old adage “do what you were doing before you got pregnant,” often recommended by doctors, simply doesn’t cut it.

What does this really mean?

If you were running ten miles a day pre-conception, does this give you the go-ahead to enter a marathon at 8 months along? If you were deadlifting 300 lbs before pregnancy, should you continue to push weights in the gym? If you weren’t working out at all before baby came along does that mean that you can’t start an exercise program during pregnancy?

It’s confusing. It’s muddy. And it’s really, really important.

Let’s go over a few of these questions and break down how pregnant mamas can see through these hazy guidelines to stay healthy and safe throughout pregnancy.

Talk with your doctor.

First thing’s first–talk with your doctor. Some women might not be advised to do ANY physical activity during some parts of pregnancy. Those situations are unique and should be respected. If you suffer from pregnancy-induced hypertension, incompetent cervix or preterm labor, exercise might be out for you for a while.

Also, many women going through IVF are advised not to exercise at least through the first trimester because their pregnancies are extremely expensive and delicate.

But what do they really know?

Keep in mind that despite how amazing your doctor may be, most many clinicians have zero training in how the muscles of the pelvic floor function after birth. The curriculums for most doctors’ education do not include information or instruction about exercise, despite the fact that almost any workout program you can find suggests you speak to a doctor first before embarking on it.

So, let’s get back to our pregnant Crossfitter…

She has been under a ton of scrutiny about how she decided to workout throughout her pregnancy. Comment after comment attacked her for putting her baby at risk only to be rebounded by exercise supporters claiming she is only doing what her body is used to. Peppered in by a comment here and there about how it’s really none of our business.

So, here’s what I think.

First of all…I tend to side with the critics to say “back off, it’s her body.”

I’m not in support of any conversation that is geared towards women feeling any worse about their bodies or more guilty about how they mother than they already do.

There are a lot of acceptable ways to workout during pregnancy. Every woman is different. Heck! Every pregnancy is different. In order to take away some of the confusion, I have put together some guidelines on how to exercise safely through pregnancy.

Even trainers need trainers

One of the first things I recommend is to hire a trainer who specializes in pre and postnatal fitness once you know you are pregnant. During my first pregnancy, I impressed all my friends and family with how much I could do in the gym. I lifted. I ran. I exercised HARD. Afterall… I was a trainer, I knew what I was doing!

Actually, my ego was getting in the way of my common sense.

Like many of us, I had very little perspective when it came to my own body. Instead of keeping myself fit and healthy during pregnancy, I exercised myself into ALL the postpartum problems:

  • I peed myself every time I sneezed or coughed.
  • I had two hernias from creating too much pressure in my core while the tissue was being stretched to make room for the baby.
  • I got varicose veins.
  • I suffered from postpartum depression.

This mama was a mess.

Today I am mostly grateful for that experience because it lit a fire under me to help educate other women. Why should even one more woman experience what I went through?

So I sought out the experts. I read (and still read) everything I could get my hands on about this topic and dedicated myself to helping women exercise safely through pregnancy and beyond.

When I got pregnant again I decided it would be best to hire a trainer for objective feedback and guidance during this important time. These are the exercise tips that I recommend:

1. If I wasn’t exercising before I got pregnant, can I start?

Yes. However, you don’t want to simply jump head first into anything with high intensity or complicated movements. Simplicity is your friend. I give all my clients a list of “warm-up” exercises that they should be doing everyday. These are mostly birth prep exercises, pelvic floor breathing and light stretching. If one of my clients comes into the program with zero exercise history, this is where we start.

2. General rules for cardio

Cardio is good for the heart and soul. One of the first questions I get from new clients is how they can continue to make cardio a part of their pregnancy routine and there are a few things to consider.

  • First, learn how to listen to your body. You’ve probably been told that over the years, but what does it really mean? I like to use the Rate of Perceived Exertion (or RPE) model to have my clients listen to their bodies. Imagine a scale where a 1 is sitting on the couch watching your favorite trashy TV show and 10 is running as fast and hard as you possibly can. While pregnant, you’ll want to keep your exertion to about a 6-7 out of 10. You should be able to talk while exercising.
  • Another factor to consider is heat. You definitely don’t want to let yourself get too hot while running or jamming out on the elliptical. If you start feeling too hot, take a break and cool off.
  • Pay attention to your level of fatigue while doing cardio or any other kind of exercise while pregnant. Sure, being a little tired is normal, but your workout should also make you feel accomplished and energized. If the walk from the gym to the car is overwhelming or you are falling asleep during dinner after a workout, chances are you pushed too far and will want to dial it back in the future.
  • Lastly, when doing cardio, especially running, you want to minimize the impact to your pelvic floor. This one is sneaky–many women can run throughout their entire pregnancies without any problems. However, the problems come later, after baby is out. Taking a step class, running, jumping jacks, and other high impact activities can put a lot of extra strain on tissue that is already stretched and weakened from pregnancy. Because the pregnancy itself creates a pressurized system in the core, women do not become aware of the damage they have caused until afterwards. Pelvic floor dysfunctions, like incontinence, diastasis recti and pelvic organ prolapse don’t become evident until postpartum. I recommend women eliminate all jumping, running or explosive exercises in the second trimester and wait months (like… almost a year) after birth to get back into it.

That’s not to say that there aren’t great ways to get cardio in when you’re preggers! Hill walking is my favorite. Hill walking gives all the huffy-puffy, endorphin releasing benefits of running without the strain on the pelvic floor and core.

3. General rules for weights

No type of exercise gives pregnant women the nervous flutters more than resistance training. My clients usually have a million questions about this aspect of exercise.

I’m going to say this now–in my opinion,

“Lifting weights is the most important form of exercise during pregnancy.” –> CLICK TO TWEET

Delivery, and even the pregnancy itself, is a workout! You should train accordingly.

That said, it is not enough to just continue to do what you have always done when it comes to resistance training.

  1. In the first trimester, you might feel a little too ill to lift very much.
  2. In the second trimester, you should begin steering clear of exercises performed on your back.
  3. In the third trimester, you will need to stop doing movements that put too much pressure through your core.

Here are the guidelines that I give my clients…

  • If you have to hold your breath, it’s too heavy. You should always be able to breathe naturally during a pregnancy lift. No valsalva maneuver.
  • Pay attention to any joint or muscle pain. Being a little sore the day after a lift is ok, but having a hard time sitting down on the toilet is another! Anything more that a little “reminder” of your workout the day before is too much and a sign to cut back. Also, the hormone relaxin that is coursing through your system is loosening all your joints. Because of this, your body might be moving differently and you should adjust accordingly.
  • If you are irritable (I know…what pregnant woman isn’t?) it is a sign you’ve done too much. Exercise can overload your nervous system and if you feel like you are stuck in a “fight or flight” response, your workouts are too hard.

TWEET THIS –> “Pregnancy is not a time for personal records.”

I coach my clients to focus on building their volume (reps and sets) during pregnancy, not trying to increase the weight on the bar. This will not only benefit them in keeping them safer from injury, but it will also build strength and endurance that will come in handy during delivery.

I believe that all women should have an empowered experience during pregnancy and birth. It is a time for great change in all aspects of your life. Your family changes. Your schedule changes. Your heart feels like it just tripled in size from shear love. And your body changes.

As a trainer, I’ve seen how strength on the outside often translates to strength on the inside. Having a healthy, strong pregnancy can carry over to feeling more confident during childbirth. It can lead to feeling strong enough to advocate for yourself. It can translate into feeling strong enough to ask for help when you need it as a new mom.

As mothers we have the most important job in the world: caring for the future generation. Shouldn’t we take impeccable care of ourselves?

About the Author
Cara Turnquist

Cara Turnquist, Co-Owner of Movement Duets, connoisseur of spandex and practitioner of the Beautiful Adventure we call life. I help moms move naturally, eat primally and take unapologetic ownership of their place in this world. I strive to wake up each morning with a renewed sense of curiosity and wonder and go to bed knowing that I did what I could to learn, teach and leave the world a better place. Join the conversation over on my Facebook page!