The Best Pregnancy-Safe Exercises at Home and the Gym
The excitement (or sheer panic) you felt when you saw those two blue or pink lines appear is likely something you’ll never forget. And now that you’re pregnant, you might be wondering what needs to change and what can stay the same.
The good news? Staying active tops the list of things to keep for the next 9 months.
And whether you’re looking to continue your current workout routine or start a new one, we’ve got you covered. From cardio and strength training to stretching and core exercises, here’s everything you need to know about staying fit during your pregnancy.
If you think of exercise solely as a way to fit into a smaller pair of pants, you may need to shift your perspective (and priorities) now that you’re pregnant.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), exercising during pregnancy can lead to a lower incidence of:
- preterm birth
- cesarean birth
- excessive weight gain
- gestational diabetes or hypertensive disorders such as preeclampsia
- lower birth weight
It’s also an excellent way to:
- maintain physical fitness
- reduce low back pain (hello, growing tummy!)
- manage symptoms of depression and anxiety
- reduce stress
- improve postpartum recovery
Brooke Cates, prenatal and postpartum fitness expert and owner of Studio Bloom, says some exercises can be implemented in each trimester to support the body through its physical changes while preparing for an easier return to exercise postpartum.
She emphasizes a shift of focus on core and pelvic floor awareness, which can help you build a deeper core-based connection before the real changes begin to take place.
When considering exercises for pregnancy, Cates says there aren’t a lot of activities that need to be removed from your current regimen.
“While the majority of exercises can be continued throughout each trimester, modifying and scaling back where needed can help increase the strength, stability, and physical adaptability as your body changes,” she says.
With that in mind, here are some general safety tips to consider when exercising during pregnancy, according to the ACOG.
- Get clearance from your doctor if you’re new to exercise or you have any health conditions that may contraindicate exercise.
- Drink plenty of water before, during, and after exercise.
- Wear supportive clothing such as a supportive sports bra or belly band.
- Don’t become overheated, especially during the first trimester.
- Avoid lying flat on your back for too long, especially during the third trimester.
- Avoid contact sports and hot yoga.
Cardiovascular exercises such as walking, swimming, jogging, and stationary cycling are top picks during all three trimesters.
Unless your doctor has told you to modify physical activity, follow the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week.
If you’re used to doing vigorous-intensity exercises such as running or your fitness level is high, the ACOG says you can continue these activities during pregnancy — with your doctor’s clearance, of course.
The first three months of pregnancy can be a wild ride of emotions. From elation and pure joy to concern, worry, and even fear as you begin to realize that you’re responsible for nourishing, growing, and keeping this tiny soon-to-be human being safe and healthy.
As long as you’re not considered a high-risk pregnancy, physical therapist Heather Jeffcoat, DPT, says you can continue with your regular exercise routine in the first trimester.
The foundation of a well-rounded prenatal fitness routine should include at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular activity each week and 2 to 3 days of strength training exercises that target the major muscle groups.
It should also focus on specific exercises that help make pregnancy easier and prepare you for labor and childbirth. (It may seem far off — but it will be here before you know it!)
One area of importance, says Jeffcoat, is to work on body awareness to prepare for changes in your posture. “Doing an exercise like the pelvic curl is a great way to begin working on spinal mobility and strengthening the abdominal muscles that will support your belly as it grows,” she says.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, about hip-width apart.
- Take a deep breath in to prepare, then exhale as you tuck your pelvis (your “hips”) so that you’re making an impression of your spine on the floor.
- Keep that tucked position as you continue the exhale and roll through the movement so that you are lifting your spine out of that impression, one vertebra at a time.
- Stop when you reach your shoulder blades.
- Inhale at the top of the movement, then exhale as you fold your body back down, placing one vertebra at a time back onto the floor until you get to your starting position on the back of your pelvis (your “hips,” as many people will refer to them as).
- Do 12 to 15 reps. For an added challenge, bring your legs all the way together.
Do this throughout pregnancy as long as you don’t have pelvic floor symptoms such as painful intercourse or urinary urgency.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, about hip-width apart.
- Place your pelvis and low back into a “neutral” position. To find this, make sure you’re resting on the back of your pelvis and creating a small space in your lower back (your back should not be pressed into the floor).
- Inhale to prepare, then exhale to perform a Kegel contraction by gently closing the openings (the urethra, the vagina, and anus). As you are performing this contraction, notice how your lower abdominal muscles want to work with that.
- Slightly draw the lower abs in with the Kegel. Inhale, relax the abs and pelvic floor, exhale repeat contraction.
- Do 2 sets of 8 to 15 repetitions of 3- to 5-second holds, once or twice a day.
This move targets core and upper body strengthening together.
- Lie flat on your stomach, then push up onto your hands and knees, keeping your knees behind your hips.
- Pull in your abs (the pelvic brace), and then slowly lower your chest toward the floor as you inhale.
- Exhale as you press back up.
- Start with 6 to 10 and gradually work up to 20 to 24 reps.
The first trimester is also an ideal time to get squatting! If you have access to the gym, you can also use the leg press machine. Squats — especially bodyweight squats — can be done throughout your entire pregnancy.
Plus, since squats strengthen all the muscles in your lower body — including the quads, glutes, and hamstrings — Jeffcoat says keeping these muscles strong is a great way to protect your back, so you use your legs instead of your back when lifting.
- Stand in front of a couch, with your back facing the couch. Begin with feet just wider than hip-width apart. Use the couch as a guide to ensure proper form.
- Squat down like you’re about to sit down on the couch, but come back up just as your thighs start to touch it.
- Make sure you take 5 seconds to go down 3 seconds to come back up.
- Exhale as you squat; inhale as you stand.
- Do 2 sets of 15 to 20 reps.
This simple — yet effective — move is another top pick throughout pregnancy. Jeffcoat says bicep curls are a key move to add to your workouts since you need to prep your arms for repeatedly lifting and holding your baby.
- Grab 5- to 10-pound dumbbells and stand with your feet slightly wider than your hips and your knees slightly bent.
- Exhale as you slowly bend your elbows, bringing the dumbbells toward your shoulders.
- Inhale and slowly lower the weights back down.
- Take 3 seconds to lift the dumbbells and 5 seconds to lower.
- Do 2 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.
Some variations and additional strength training moves to include in the first trimester, according to Brittany Robles, MD, CPT include:
- lunges with weight
- glute bridge (if you’re experiencing any pelvic pain or have a history of pelvic pain with pregnancies, you can also add ball squeezes in between your thighs during the glute bridges)
- standard pushups
When it comes to what you should avoid during the first trimester, Robles says to put your high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on hold since it’s an easy way to exhaust yourself early in pregnancy.
Robles also recommends avoiding any exercise where you can experience trauma, such as contact sports.
Once the reality sets in that you’re in this for the long haul, you may notice a feeling of calmness and even an increase in energy over the next several weeks. Many women say this is the trimester where they feel the best, which is why it’s an excellent time to focus on your fitness routine.
That said, Robles does point out that since the uterus is getting bigger, you do need to be a bit more careful with physical activity.
Activities to avoid during the second trimester, according to Robles, include any high impact exercise that involves jumping, running, balance, or exhaustion. You also want to avoid any exercise that has you lying on your back for extended periods of time.
In addition to the exercises in the first trimester, consider adding some variations to your squat such as narrow squats, single-leg squats, as well as wide stance squats. Incline pushups, which target the chest, triceps, and shoulders, are another move to add during this trimester.
Now that the core foundation has been established, Cates says training the core as the abdomen expands is a much easier concept. And with things beginning to shift and grow even more at this time, she often recommends that moms-to-be continue to work on stability strength with an extra focus on the inner thighs and glutes.
- Stand facing a ledge or railing and place your hands shoulder-width apart on the surface.
- Step your body back into a standing plank position with your back in a straight line.
- Bend your arms and slowly lower your chest toward the railing or ledge.
- Straighten your arms to return to the starting position.
- Do 2 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions.
Hip flexor and quadriceps stretch
Due to postural changes, Jeffcoat says the second trimester is the ideal time to develop a stretching routine that focuses on the hip flexors, quadriceps, low back, gluteals, and calves.
Because of your changing center of gravity, the belly tends to fall forward, creating shortened hip flexor muscles. This exercise allows you to safely stretch during pregnancy.
- Go into a half-kneeling position on the floor. Place your right knee on the floor and your left foot in front of you, left foot flat on the floor.
- Keeping your posture nice and tall, lunge toward your left foot until you feel a stretch in the front of your right hip and thigh.
- Hold for 30 seconds, ease off, and then repeat 2 more times.
- Switch sides and repeat.
Side-lying leg lifts
To prepare for your changing center of gravity, it’s important to get the muscles that help with balance and assist in pelvic stabilization stronger.
- Lie on your right side with both knees bent and stacked on top of one another.
- Slightly lift your right side off of the floor to create a small gap between your waist and the floor. This also levels your pelvis.
- Straighten your left leg and angle it slightly in front of you. Rotate your hip so that your toes point down toward the floor.
- Exhale as you take about 3 seconds to lift your leg; inhale for 3 seconds back down. As you lift your leg, make sure you don’t lose that little gap you created between your waist and the floor.
- Do 2 sets of 8 to 15 repetitions on each side.
As your baby grows, it can start to create pressure on your diaphragm and ribs that can be painful.
- Sit on the ground with both of your knees bent (or folded) and your feet facing to the right.
- Raise your left arm straight to the ceiling as you inhale, then exhale and sidebend your torso toward the right. The stretch should be felt on the left side in this example. Hold for 4 slow, deep breaths. This would be the direction to stretch if you experience discomfort on the left side.
- Reverse directions for discomfort on the right side. To reduce the risk of this occurring, start stretching both directions during the second trimester.
You’ll definitely notice a slowdown — if not an abrupt halt at times — during the third trimester, as your body begins to prepare for labor and childbirth. This is a great time to focus on cardiovascular activities and keep up your mobility and abdominal strength with:
- prenatal yoga
- pelvic floor exercises
- bodyweight moves
These help to keep your upper and lower body muscles strong.
For safety purposes, Jeffcoat says to avoid any exercise that places you at a risk for falls. “Because your center of gravity is changing daily, it’s smart to avoid exercises that would lead to a loss of balance, resulting in a fall and possible abdominal impact that could harm your baby,” she says.
It’s also not uncommon to experience pubic symphysis pain, which is pain in the front pubic bone. Because of this, Jeffcoat recommends avoiding exercises where your legs are too far apart, which will further aggravate this pain.
Diastasis recti correction
“Diastasis recti [separation of the rectus abdominal muscles] is a concern for women during this time, and it will show up as a bulge that runs down the midline of your abdomen,” says Jeffcoat. In order to combat this, she recommends doing a diastasis recti correction exercise.
- Lie on your back with a pillow under your head and shoulders. Knees are bent, and feet are flat on the floor.
- Use a crib or twin sheet and roll it so it’s about 3 to 4 inches wide, and place it on your lower back (above your pelvis and below your ribs).
- Grab the sheet and cross it once over your abdomen. Then, grasp the sides, and the sheet should form an X as you pull each side.
- Take a deep breath in to prepare, then press your back flat into the floor as you raise your head and shoulders off of the pillow. During this motion, you are gently “hugging” the sheet around your abdomen to support your abs.
- Inhale lower, and repeat 10 to 20 times. If your neck or shoulders hurt, start at 10 and work your way up.
- Do this 2 times a day.
Other low-weight or bodyweight-only strength training exercises to target during the third trimester include:
- bodyweight squats or sumo squats with a wider stance for an increased base of support (if you’re not experiencing pelvic pain)
- standing shoulder press with light weights
- bicep curls with light weights
- pushups against a wall
- modified planks
- tricep kickbacks with light weight
Staying physically active during pregnancy is beneficial for both mom and baby.
Including some form of exercise most days of the week can help keep your core strong, your muscles fit, and your cardiovascular system in top shape. Plus it can do wonders for your mental health (yay for endorphins!).
Make sure to listen to your body and stop if you feel any discomfort or pain. And as always, talk with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about how your body is responding to an exercise program.