Being pregnant is an exciting time, but when it comes to exercising — it’s downright confusing, so let’s chat about tips for working out when you’re pregnant …
When I was working as a personal trainer at Equinox in San Francisco a few years ago, I went through an additional educational process to get pre- and post-natal certified, so that I could take on moms-to-be and new moms as clients. While that training was very beneficial, I didn’t really need it much for my young clientele at the time, but I sure do need it now — for myself.
Since the time I went through that training three years ago and wrote a post about pregnancy and exercise, there has actually been an update to the official guidelines for pregnant woman from the thought-leader in this space, The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), and these updates were much anticipated and long overdue.
You see, it’s hard for a pregnant woman to know what’s safe, and doctors aren’t always totally in tune with what particular workout routines and group fitness classes, etc. entail, so they can’t give you definitive answers to your questions.
Now that I’m pregnant myself, I can completely understand why some women choose to totally back off from their normal workout routine or are afraid to start anything new — that is way easier than committing to the gym. Why? Because your body is changing SO much every single day. You feel weird pains. You get tired so much faster. You’re dealing with nausea and other unpleasant things. You’re bombarded with messaging to “take it easy.” And when you’re at the gym, people tend to stare and wonder whether you should be doing what you’re doing.
15 things you should know about working out when you’re pregnant
So here I am today, a pregnant pre- and post-natal certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor and regular gal who wants to calm your fears and clear some things up.
1. Yes, it’s okay to start working out once you get pregnant. Just move!
First and foremost — YES, you should exercise. Just like for anyone else, it’s recommended that you get 20 to 30 minutes of activity almost every day of the week. And here’s one of the biggest changes from the updated guidelines out by ACOG: ACOG no longer says that women who are not active before pregnancy should not start working out once they become pregnant. The new thought is this: even if you weren’t active before getting pregnant, you should still start an appropriate exercise program once you become pregnant to have a healthy pregnancy. (Unless you have some major pregnancy complication, like preeclampsia or placenta previa, as assessed by your doctor.)
This doesn’t meant that you should join a Crossfit gym once you get a positive pregnancy test, instead, it means that you can start doing low-impact activities and even lifting light weights and doing bodyweight work, even if you’ve never done any of that before. Be smart and start slowly. The best thing to start with? Walking. Every single day.
So now that you know you CAN work out, let’s talk about the scary stuff …
2. Watch out for straining and pain in your abs, which could lead to hard-to-recover-from ab separation, called diastasis recti.
You don’t need to worry about this until further along in your pregnancy when your belly is bigger. I started to feel a strain during some movements around 22 weeks. Since that time, I’ve decided to do most push-ups on my knees instead of toes to eliminate the pain and potential strain, and I’ve also reduced the amount of plank work that I do and majorly reduce the amount of crunches.
You can look down at your core and see if the upper mid-line of your abs (just below the bra line) appears to be showing a gap during a movement — where the two long ab muscles should be close together, instead they show a bulge and a space. If you see this — stop doing that movement. Heavy overhead lifting and tough plank work can cause this, as well as aggressive crunching motions. You should also be careful to avoid too many rotational moves, especially as you get further along in your pregnancy, so as not to mess up the core region and cause any separation.
Here’s a great article on how to see if you have this condition, once again, called diastasis recti, which is hard to recover from and means you won’t be able to achieve a flat belly again for a long time after childbirth.
3. Be careful laying down for too long on your back or laying on your stomach at all.
Once again, you won’t notice much difference when laying on your back during the first 16 or so weeks of pregnancy, but then one day, you’ll notice. In addition to the fact that it’s harder to get up and down from a laying position when your belly grows, you also run the risk of cutting off some major blood circulation in your body on your back, because a big vein runs that way.
Rather than laying on your back for chest presses, etc., lay on an incline. If you saw my post about how to modify a BODYPUMP class when you’re pregnant, you’ll read this tip in more depth there. Once you stop doing crunches, you may find that you never have the need to lay on your back at all. But if you like to attend group fitness classes, you may have the opportunity for laying a lot — so you have to have a plan in place for how you can give yourself a little room to prop up. You could even just prop yourself up on your elbows whenever everyone else is laying down.
This should go without saying, but you should stop the laying on your stomach position very early on in your pregnancy. This was tough for me, as I love to do back work like supermans, etc. on my stomach. I also need to demonstrate some of these moves while teaching Bootybarre. However, I have not laid on my stomach since about 12 weeks pregnant. Just don’t!
4. Don’t hold your breath, and make sure you can always speak during your workouts.
It’s more important than ever to make sure you are taking in the proper amount of oxygen to feed your growing body when you exercise. The proper breathing pattern remains — in through your nose and out through your mouth. Take a deep breath in during the first part of a move, and exhale during the biggest effort needed.
And while ACOG does not recommend a certain heart rate to stay under (although some doctors still go by the outdated rule of 140 or below), during exercise, pregnant women should try to not go past the moderate intensity zone very often at all. You can test that by doing the “talk test.” You should be able to comfortably talk during exercise without losing your breath. If you go over this limit too often, you could risk maintaining adequate blood/oxygen flow to the uterus and fetus.
That means that HIIT workouts should be limited and brought down to a more reasonable exertion level. You can still get in a great workout without maxing out every single session.
Take it from me — I can always spit out some words when I’m doing my toughest workouts these days, and yet, they still make me feel quite winded and exerted, without overdoing it.
5. Perform proper range of motion, and don’t stretch too far, as your body produces more relaxin.
When you’re pregnant, there’s a lot of this hormone called relaxin in your system, and that may make you feel more flexible. (It’s also going to help you deliver a baby later!) Relaxin is responsible for loosening the hips to allow the fetus and uterus to grow and can also offer greater range of motion throughout the ankles and wrists.
While this may seem like a good thing, as a pregnant woman, you should still only work through a traditional range of motion, in order to keep your stability and strength. Sometimes the more flexible you become, the less strong, so it’s a difficult balance. Just be aware that you may have more range, and you don’t want to go crazy with how far you push your body to get into certain positions.
6. Just say no to contact sports or anything where you could have abdominal trauma.
No football. No baseballs flying at your stomach. And it’s also not the time for high-altitude adventures, rock-climbing or even scuba diving. Save those activities for when you recover from childbirth.
7. Work out in a cool environment and always seek ventilation.
There are even more nos. No hot yoga. No hot Pilates. No saunas. No steam rooms. No hot tubs. You have to be careful to keep your core body temperature at a safe range, and that means you shouldn’t be exercising or hanging out in hot environments. You’ll sweat too much, risk dehydration and create a risky environment for your baby. And yes, ACOG specifically calls these hot activities out in the updated guidelines.
When you’re working out at a gym or in a group fitness studio, try to position yourself near a window or fan or door. If you’re planning to work out outside during the summer, do it in the morning or evening, when you have more moderate temperatures. Super high temperatures for the fetus can lead to problems, and you just don’t want that. Not to mention, it’s way more pleasant to work out in a cooler environment, and when you’re pregnant, you need all the pleasant you can get!
8. Give your body time to recover after childbirth before returning to exercise.
This is a tip that I’ve yet to try out on myself, because my baby hasn’t arrived yet (coming October 2017, yay!!). But I do know that when you consider what the woman’s body is doing during childbirth — it needs time to recover before committing to any movement.
While some women feel good enough to start walking and doing light movement just a few days after delivery, I have the sense that it’s too early for some — and I’ve talked to some moms who wish they had waited much longer than they did, because it caused some problems later on. Even if your energy levels are back up (which I can’t imagine they would be), there are so many organs inside your body trying to move back into position and recover, that it’s likely better to take it super easy for at least a few weeks before getting going again.
Of course, you want to talk to your doctor and get the all-clear before resuming your old workout routine. And once you do, remember that you’ve gone through a lot, so it may take quite a while to build back up to where you were before pregnancy.
It’s typically four to six weeks after delivery, however if you’ve had a c-section, it’s closer to six to eight weeks. Sometimes doctors will clear you earlier, but it’s not advised that you do anything above moderate intensity until the uterus has shrunk back to its pre-pregnancy state.
9. Fuel up! Don’t exercise on an empty stomach, and take lots of extra water breaks.
Due to hormonal changes that make pregnant women more susceptible to blood-sugar level drops, you should always have food in your belly when getting active. You should also try to eat smaller meals throughout the day and drink more during your workouts — you need it!
Have your water bottle with you and a few snacks to consume before and after your session. It’s just not the time to fast, people. Eat up. I’ve found that I like to exercise about one hour after a snack, then I have a protein shake when I’m finished and eat another meal about two hours later. Food is my favorite!
1o. Keep moving, and try not to stand still for too long in one place.
Due to the presence of the hormone progesterone in the body when you’re pregnant, which decreases smooth muscle activity in the intestines, veins and arteries, pregnant women, shouldn’t stand still for too long. ACOG recommends women avoid motionless standing and consistently do calf raises, walk around or put their ankles up, so blood doesn’t pool in their lower regions.
That means if you are in a weightlifting class, which has you standing for long stretches (like the biceps track in BODYPUMP), try to switch your feet position often. And if you have a job that requires you to stand, try keeping a stool nearby, so you can rotate your position frequently.
I guess I don’t stand still for all that long, because I have not worried about this one at all, but still — it’s worth mentioning.
11. Protect and strengthen your pelvic floor. Kegels are your friend.
If you read nothing else, read this one.
Don’t know what a kegel is? It’s the action done when you contract your muscles of the pelvic floor, as though you’re going to pee, then stop. You should do kegels when you brush your teeth, when you’re riding in an elevator or when you’re sitting at your desk. Any time you get a chance to strengthen your pelvic floor, do it. A strong pelvic floor will help you carry a growing fetus and will help you to regain some normalcy after childbirth.
I’ve heard that “pelvic floor coaches” are a thing popping up to help new moms recover faster from childbirth and get all of their systems running properly again (so that you don’t have any leakage issues later on — yes, I just said leakage). I think it’s an awesome idea, and I just may seek help from one if I need it.
12. Focus on strengthening both sides of your body, so you can be ambidextrous for your baby.
If you choose to breastfeed, you’ll need to learn how to use both your hands and arms to counteract the weight of having a baby on both sides. If you begin strengthening both sides, you’ll feel more balanced and more prepared for being a mom to a newborn.
So instead of always lifting a barbell, in which one side can take over and overcompensate, try doing one-armed dumbbell moves one side at a time. You will definitely find that one side is stronger than the other. That’s normal, but try to work to correct it as best as you can!
13. Listen to your body. Don’t max out, and be careful of too much impact.
If something doesn’t feel right, then don’t do it. There’s never a need to push to your max when you’re pregnant just to get a PR (personal record). Don’t try any challenging new skills, max weights or complex movements during these few months and keep it simple.
You may feel a little imbalanced at times, and that’s totally normal, so be extra careful. It’s advised that you do some strength training, but keep normal range of motion and avoid super heavy weights, like Olympic lifting or tire flipping.
When it comes to high-impact activities like running, tuck jumping, burpees or plyometrics — well — it’s up to you. I’m not going to tell you to stop running at a certain time during your pregnancy, but if your pelvic floor starts to feel heavy — it’s a good time to limit that motion. If you are constantly putting extra weight and work on your pelvic floor, you may pay the price for it later after delivery. (See the pelvic floor coach in tip #11.)
I do NOT like the feeling of impact at this stage in my pregnancy and removed ALL jumping and running and plyometrics at around 13 weeks, but I do see some women at my gym continuing on with them even well into their second trimester.
Every body is different and some women may be able to go much longer than that before feeling discomfort. You do you — but remember that if something doesn’t feel right, you should probably skip it rather than forcing it.
14. Be your own person, and don’t compare yourself to others.
If I have learned anything at all about being pregnant, it’s that everyone’s experience is different. You may see an athletic woman doing pull-ups at six-months pregnant, while you are struggling to do a bodyweight squat at four-months pregnant. Her pregnancy and her activity doesn’t matter to you. What matters, is how YOU feel and what your body wants to be doing. Put on your blinders, and do your thing.
This one has been particularly hard for me, because there are other pregnant group fitness instructors at my gym who are still going VERY hard in their workouts and teaching tons of classes. However, I have had to pull back already and will be pulling back a little bit more soon. While I know that it doesn’t mean anything about my own fitness abilities or motivation, it isn’t an easy pill to swallow. So I’m trying to take my own advice with this tip, that’s for sure.
15. When in doubt, try these moves …
We’ve gone over a lot of things to be scared of, yet I’ve suggested that you keep moving. So what can you do? A lot.
Swimming. Foam rolling. Breathing. Kegels. Barre classes. Spinning. Cycling. Walking. Power walking on a treadmill on incline while swinging your arms (which is a killer workout, by the way). Pre-natal yoga. Bodyweight work, like squats, bridges, arm circles, bird-dogs, cat-cows and reverse lunges are always great options. Weighted work like deadlifts, deadrows, chest presses, lateral raises and a LOT of pulling motions to counteract the forward position your body is forming with a big belly.
Strengthening the back is KEY, so for every “push” exercise you do, try doing two “pull” exercises to make up for it. (For example, a row is a pull, whereas an overhead press is a push.)
Overall, you can keep doing much of what you’ve done before, just remove the big core work, laying work, super heavy weights and impact, and you’ll be golden.
There you have it! Perhaps one of the longest posts ever on A Lady Goes West, which isn’t quite done yet …
Overall, what you should take away about working out when you’re pregnant …
When you’re pregnant, you’re body is already working in overdrive to safely create a human being. You will notice that you get out of breath faster, you have to work extra hard to complete movements and your motivation may be at an all-time low. But, movement is medicine, and even though it’s hard to get yourself in motion, every safe and smart workout is good for you and your growing little miracle.
During this time, it’s especially important not to compare yourself to others, pregnant or not, because you have to make the right decisions for what feels good for YOUR body and not be concerned about keeping up with anyone else at all.
And for those of you who are NOT pregnant, be kind to the ladies you see at the gym working hard. Most likely, they are listening to their bodies and only doing what feels good to them. It’s probably not your place to judge and/or suggest that they “take it easy.” Let’s let them make that decision!
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(For more posts related to my pregnancy, check out these.)
Questions of the day
For women who are pregnant or who have been pregnant: What was/is your favorite workout to do throughout your pregnancy?
What’s one way that you get motivated to exercise?