Prenatal Workouts 101: How to Exercise Through Every Trimester
Gone are the days when pregnant people were treated like fragile porcelain dolls. Now, they’re squatting loaded barbells and crossing the finish line of a marathon. Exercising while pregnant isn’t just for athletes, though, it’s a good way to keep mom and baby healthy.
As long as you get the all-clear from your doctor, you can work out from conception to delivery day (and after your postpartum recovery), changing things up as your body changes, too. The most important thing is to listen to your OB/GYN and your body. Honor the incredible process your body is going through and match your workouts to it — not the other way around.
Here’s your trimester-by-trimester (including the fourth trimester!) guide to staying active throughout pregnancy, with advice from Anna Victoria, Fit Body CEO, NASM-certified personal trainer and fellow mom, and Amy Schultz, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Pre and Postnatal Certified physical therapist for the Fit Body app.
Benefits of Working Out During Pregnancy
So why would you want to work out during pregnancy? After all, you’re going to gain weight and your belly will grow. (As it should! You’re growing a human!)
If you’ve been a part of the Fit Body community for a while, you know there’s more to exercise than looking a certain way. There’s also feeling a certain way – specifically, strong, confident and capable.
And when it comes to pre-natal exercise, there are additional benefits, such as reducing blood glucose levels, lowering the risk of Cesarean section or instrumental vaginal deliveries, and having a positive impact on maternal weight gain, per a November 2015 review in Sports Health. It may also help prevent gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and perinatal depression.
Take it from Anna, who listed out a bunch of the reasons she works out while pregnant:
- Helps to ease some of the common aches and pains of pregnancy
- Helps to prevent or lessen diastasis recti and pelvic floor dysfunction
- Helps to develop the endurance and strength needed to endure the “marathon that birth will be” (assuming a vaginal, complication-free labor and delivery)
- Helps to support the weight of growing belly and to prevent back pain and postural issues during pregnancy and post-partum
- Lays the foundation for an overall strong body to support fetal development and raising a child
Best Exercises During PregnancyThere are three pregnancy and postpartum programs in the Fit Body App, specifically designed to be safe for expectant and postpartum mothers or those looking for gentle workouts.
- Grow + Glow: low-impact strength-training program designed to coincide with each week and trimester of pregnancy
- Revive: low-intensity postpartum program
- Restore Your Core: an On Demand follow-along series designed to be done after a C-section (and with your doctor’s permission)
In addition to these programs, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has listed these as the best exercises to keep you active while pregnant:
- Swimming and water workouts
- Stationary bicycling
- Modified yoga
- Modified Pilates
The March of Dimes also suggests low-impact aerobics and strength training, depending on your fitness level and any pregnancy complications.
Exercises to Avoid While Pregnant
Regardless of what trimester you’re in, the ACOG also has a list of exercises to avoid during pregnancy – all of which put you at increased risk for injury.
- Contact sports and sports that put you at risk of getting hit in the abdomen
- Activities that may result in a fall
- Hot yoga or hot Pilates
- Scuba diving
- High-altitude activities (unless you live at high altitude)
- Vaginal bleeding
- Increased shortness of breath before you exercise
- Chest pain
The very beginning of your pregnancy will look pretty similar to your pre-pregnancy routine, exercise-wise (given a complication-free pregnancy and not too much morning sickness).
“They can continue exercising the way they have been up to week 12,” Schultz says. “Again, this differs for everyone, so it’s important that they do what they are comfortable with and within what the MD recommends.” So if you love running (and it feels comfortable), run! If you enjoy lifting weights (and have been doing it for a while), continue with your routine.
It’s also fine to start exercising when you’re pregnant, but again, you’ll want the all-clear from your doctor, along with any advice or guidelines they have. Start on the easier, lower-impact side of the intensity scale.
Even 10-minute bouts of walking, bike riding, swimming, stretching/yoga and body-weight exercises have mental and physical health benefits and are great ways to get your body moving while pregnant (or at any stage of life).
Full-body workouts are a great option during the first trimester. Check out this barbell pregnancy workout from Anna that you can also do with dumbbells or no weight at all.
Your second trimester is when things really start to change. After week 12, you’ll want to make some modifications – particularly for any lying-down exercises or high-intensity, high-impact activities.
“They’ll need to avoid lying on their backs,” Schultz says. “This is meant to avoid having the baby compress against the vena cava (which is our blood supply).
Oftentimes women who lay on their back for extended periods of time will start to experience lightheadedness, nausea and sometimes difficulty breathing.”
Fortunately, you may still be able to do modified planks (on knees). “And modifying planks to the fundamental move of diaphragmatic breathing on all fours is one of my favorite (if not my most favorite) exercises for pregnancy and postpartum,” Schultz says. “It really teaches us how to coordinate our core, pelvic floor and breath together.”
Below is a video demo from Anna showing variations of diaphragmatic breathing you can do as a warm-up before a workout or any other time you want.
prenatal diaphragmatic breathing
Both options strengthen your core and pelvic floor – particularly your transverse abdominis (TVA).
“Your TVA is your inner core muscles, often referred to as your ‘corset muscles,’” Anna writes on Instagram. “These are the muscles you need to learn how to engage, activate and strengthen to have a strong core. Engaging your TVA is also one big part of preventing not only lower back pain but preventing hip flexor pain as well.”
Standing ab exercises are an option, too, as long as you’re not crunching and compressing your abdomen.
“Crunches are usually nixed due to increasing the intra-abdominal pressure, which with pregnancy, can put more stress on the already stretching/weakening abdominal muscles and their associated connective tissue,” Schultz says.
Toward the end of your second trimester, you’ll also want to re-evaluated any high-intensity, high-impact workouts you’re doing.
“Around 22 weeks of pregnancy, I usually recommend for women to modify plyometric exercise,” Schultz says. “This can be sooner or later, depending on how big the baby is and how strong the core and pelvic floor are to support this activity.”
Swap them out for prenatal workout classes or try this body-weight workout Anna posted on Instagram. You can add dumbbells if you’re feeling up to it!
All of the same guidelines from the second trimester apply in your third, as well, but it’s even more important to listen to your body and adjust your physical activity to match what your body and your doctor are telling you (sensing a theme here?).
“No real big modifications here – just staying as active as they can with what the body will allow,” Schultz says.
Your main goal during the final stretch of pregnancy (which may feel longer than the first two trimesters combined) is to prep your body for labor and delivery. That means, as long as you’re able, walking and hip stretches are your best friends.
In this Instagram video, Anna shares some of the best stretches she did while 40 weeks pregnant.
“These moves are each intended to help open my hips and encourage baby girl to drop lower and lower!” she writes. “If you want to try these out, the goal is to find which ones feel best for YOU and your hips and where your baby is positioned.”
Moves include: sumo squats, lunges, side lunges, hip circles, pelvic tilts and crab walks on up the stairs.
Postpartum (aka Fourth Trimester)
You’ve just brought a baby into the world! Hopefully, you’re able to soak in all the amazingness of having your little one in your arms. As great as it is, though, it can also be a big adjustment period filled with stress and uncertainty.
Now is not the time to plunge full speed ahead. Allow your body time to rest and recover from labor and delivery.
“Everything in life is a season, and while I’m a big believer in taking care of your physical well-being, sometimes what that looks like is actually resting and taking it slow,” Anna has been quoted saying. “Soak up those precious newborn and baby moments while they last, because time flies!”
The general rule is to wait at least six weeks before doing anything beyond that – and even then, only with your doctor’s evaluation and approval. Again, the best way to start is to ease into things: walking, stretching, body-weight movements, etc.
If you want to get active before then (and you feel OK and have your doctor’s approval), it’s usually alright to start a few days after giving birth, according to the ACOG.
Go for a walk, perhaps even with the little one in the stroller, do some stretches and gentle core exercises. Giving birth is stressful and can even be traumatic for the body, so use gentle movement and light physical activity as a way to give your body some TLC.
Once you’re ready, postpartum exercise is an essential part of boosting and maintaining your mental and physical health after having a baby, according to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
And one of the absolute best moves you can do during the fourth trimester? Diaphragmatic breathing. You’ll re-establish your core connection and begin to regain strength in your pelvic floor. This lays the foundation for every other workout you do once you’re ready to tackle them, since all movements initiate from the core.
“Diaphragmatic breathing is perhaps *the* most important part of your workout,” says Anna. “Did you know EVERY move you do should help strengthen your core? IF you’re engaging your core correctly. But many of us are not.” She offers the following demonstration to guide you through a few rounds.
postpartum diaphragmatic breathing