As a certified personal trainer, pregnancy and postpartum core specialist, and a mother who is also expecting, I believe that strength training can be extremely beneficial during your pregnancy.
As more and more research comes out about being active throughout your pregnancy, it points to mostly positives when it comes to staying physically fit. With that being said, pregnancy is definitely not a time to set any personal records or maximally exert yourself, which can be a hard concept to grasp, especially if you’re used to lifting and training.
If you’ve been training and working out before your pregnancy, most of the time it’s acceptable to keep doing what you were doing. There are a few exceptions to that, however. For instance, I had been training for a bodybuilding competition before I became pregnant for the first time. I was told to just keep doing what I was doing because my body was used to it, however squatting more than my body weight is typically not customary for the general population, and possibly many readers of STATUS. Around 6 weeks of gestation, while continuing my regular regime at the gym, I experienced a miscarriage with that pregnancy. I can’t say for sure if heavy squats contributed to the loss at all, however knowing what I know now about the pelvic floor and the impact that bearing down can have on a small fetus, I caution against lifting heavy weights or intense workouts, particularly during the first trimester.
The first trimester, about 14 weeks in, is extremely sensitive. Most miscarriages occur within the first trimester, with studies pointing to higher prevalence before the first 8 weeks of pregnancy, so taking it easy around that time is especially important. It’s also critical to consider that as many as one-third of all pregnancies could end in miscarriage, which is staggering but is quite common. I typically caution against any high-intensity activity, running, or heavy weight lifting which encourages bearing down, that puts pressure on the pelvic floor. It’s a time to take things light and steady, enjoy some nature walks and even opt for some bodyweight-style workouts, Pilates or yoga if you can manage and feel up to it. Keep in mind that during the first trimester, most women are extremely exhausted and a large percentage of women experience morning sickness which makes it hard to even think about working out.
Listen to your body, be kind and gentle to yourself and understand that it is not a time where keeping up with your routine is of the utmost importance. It’s easier said than done, but if your body is craving some rest and relaxation or can’t keep any food down, it’s a sign that your body is working overtime to create something special, so let it do its thing!
Around the second trimester, most women feel a lot better. Nausea usually subsides and energy levels come somewhat back to normal. During this time, it’s great to get back to some light lifting if that’s what you’ve been doing pre-pregnancy, or even sticking to short but effective bodyweight style workouts. One of my favourite ways to add resistance without adding weight is to incorporate a glute loop or mini resistance band into your fitness routine. They are inexpensive, lightweight, easy to travel with and they don’t put extra pressure on your joints or ligaments that are already experiencing more laxity.
Because our body produces relaxin during pregnancy, our joints and ligaments become laxer which means they require more stability. This is where strength training becomes important. Our muscles need to be able to be strengthened so that they can help support our growing and changing bodies. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I stuck to mostly yoga because I found that my muscles were so tight and just needed a good stretch. Be careful, though, because overstretching already relaxed muscles can make them even more unstable. What they need during this time is strength following some stretching, ideally in that order. With this current pregnancy, I’ve been stretching for a few minutes daily, but I have been strength training much more and I have to say from my own personal experience, it has helped my aches and pains significantly more. I feel much better physically, and I am in much less discomfort.
In the third trimester, maintaining your workouts may become more difficult. You’re a little less mobile, and you may feel uncomfortable. The goal here is to keep moving and do what feels good, not forcing anything. Walking for short distances if you can stand it, or even continuing on with workouts, maybe shortening the time or lessening the added resistance. You may also start to experience some discomfort in the bottom of your feet, known as plantar fasciitis. This is a very common issue that pregnant women experience with the added weight on their feet. I find it really helpful to get some orthotics to slip into your shoes, or even some insoles from the drugstore can help. Foot massages are also a great way to relieve tension in that stressed area, don’t be shy to ask your partner for some assistance with this!
Most exercises are generally fine to do throughout your pregnancy, however laying on your back in a supine position is not recommended past the second or third trimester, depending on how you feel. Consult your doctor if you are unsure. Obviously, it’s not a good idea to be laying on your stomach, especially past the first trimester. Look out for modifications or choose a different exercise if you feel like you can’t get comfortable or if it’s putting too much pressure on your muscles or joints.
The core is one of my areas of specialty, so when it comes to training core during pregnancy, we want to work smarter, not harder. As the abdominal muscles become stretched to make room for the baby, we focus more on strengthening our pelvic floor and transverse abdominals, rather than the very visible rectus abdominis. Studies estimate that almost 100% of women will experience abdominal separation during pregnancy, referred to as diastasis recti. Core work is important throughout pregnancy, especially as it relates to the pelvic floor and proper pressure management throughout the abdominal canister. Along with aiding in a more comfortable pregnancy and helping with the delivery, it really helps to relieve aches and pains that many women experience in their low back area as the baby grows and causes us to shift our weight. Several women experience Sacroiliac joint pain during pregnancy, and so keeping our core working helps to strengthen the surrounding muscles around those fragile joints, making day-to-day things easier with less discomfort. Things like diaphragmatic breathing, quadruped bird-dogs, and TA contractions or pelvic tilts are great things to incorporate during your core workouts. In terms of upper body workouts, pretty much everything can stay the same, just be mindful about bearing down with lifts, go lighter than you normally would. As your belly grows, lower body workouts might need some modifications. You’ll likely need to opt for a wider stance with certain exercises, especially with squats or Romanian deadlifts, for example. If your knees bother you during the workouts at all, decrease your range of motion and don’t feel like you need to give the same effort as you would pre-pregnancy. Be cautious of arching or hunching your back as well, form matters! Doing exercises with proper form and mind-to-muscle connection can actually provide a better workout than adding weight without any attention to the basics. If you are still wanting to lift heavy, be sure to activate your core pre-workout so it can maintain engagement throughout. While lifting heavy or engaging your core, it’s beneficial to be mindful of the connection to the pelvic floor, especially during this time. Inhalations occur while the pelvic floor is relaxed and then lift and contract the pelvic floor muscles on the exhale, or on the hardest part of the movement that exerts the most pressure. This helps to keep everything engaged and aligned and equalizes pressure throughout the abdominal canister.
Some benefits of exercising during pregnancy include:
- Decreased risk for gestational diabetes
- Better mood
- More energy
- Prevents excess weight gain
- Promotes muscle tone and endurance
It could also help to lessen labour time and decrease the risk of a caesarian.
In some instances, exercising during pregnancy may not be recommended, particularly if you are at risk for developing preeclampsia or have any issues with the placenta. Regardless, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor or midwife to get the go-ahead.
If you’re unsure how to start or what sort of workouts to do, feel free to check out some workouts I’ve posted to my YouTube channel that walk you through every step – POWER by Petra. Alternatively, I post short videos of some workout ideas on Instagram if you like working out independently, but want some direction.
To all of the expecting mama’s out there, congratulations!! Motherhood is one wild ride, but it is truly the greatest gift, especially when we can nurture ourselves in the process of giving life. And to all of the women who are hoping to become pregnant in the near future, I’m wishing you all the best in your journey. Keep checking STATUS for other pregnancy and postpartum-related articles from me to help guide you on your path to your most comfortable and healthy pregnancy.
Cover Photo By: Kelly Hofer