First we hugged. Then we cried. Then we spent about 10 minutes staring at the positive pregnancy test, the enormity of becoming parents in approximately nine months only beginning to set in. But like many first time expecting parents, my husband and I were filled with unbelievable excitement…but also a million questions around how to take care of this growing baby before it even made its official debut!
So we sat down for our first prenatal appointment with a gigantic list of questions about the do’s and don’ts of a healthy pregnancy. My beloved margarita? Out of the question, obviously. Intimacy? Green light, totally safe! But what about exercising? Do I need to have a pregnant gym workout plan? I’d been running and swimming for years, and had recently discovered CrossFit. I hit the gym, the pavement or the pool 5-6 times a week to maintain a healthy body weight, for occasional weight loss, to relieve stress and to channel my inner badass. Of course, I wanted to do whatever it took to keep my baby safe, but to stop exercising was a daunting prospect.
I held my breath, waiting for my doctor’s approval. She nodded thoughtfully as I blabbered on about how important my sweat sesh was to me, but how I would do whatever she said, and what did she think?
“Prenatal exercise is totally safe,” she reassured me, “Especially since you had a regular exercise program before getting pregnant.”
Before I could start signing up for a late second trimester half marathon, she did caution me, “Make sure to listen to your body. Modify exercises if you need to. And if you have any unusual pain, give me a call right away.”
Why exercise during pregnancy is (usually) safe
If you’re pregnant, you’ve heard this time and again: EVERY. PREGNANCY. IS. DIFFERENT. That means, even in a normal pregnancy, you might have a different experience with pregnancy symptoms, weight gain, mental health, complications with the baby, everything.
That being said, if you’re having a normal pregnancy and are in no danger of a high risk pregnancy, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists assure pregnant women that it’s safe for both you and the baby to keep exercising during pregnancy. In fact, it’s not only safe, it’s recommended. Doctors note that women who follow a pregnancy exercise program can experience some big benefits, including:
- Fewer annoying pregnancy symptoms, like backaches, bloating and swelling
- Boosted mood and energy levels
- Better sleep (get it now!)
- Less excess weight gain
- Lower risk of gestational diabetes
- Shortened labor (YES!)
- Reduced risk of C-section
A regular exercise routine can also preserve the health and safety of your baby – including a lessened chance of pregnancy loss or low birth weight.
As previously mentioned, this is generally the advice of doctors for a normal pregnancy. For some pregnant women, exercise might not be recommended due to certain medical conditions or concerns, such as:
- Heart and lung conditions
- Preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced high blood pressure)
- Twins or triplets with risk factors for preterm labor
- Severe anemia (low levels of red blood cells)
- Ruptured membranes (e.g., your water broke prematurely)
Once again for the people in the back – it’s always best to keep in touch with your doctor about your prenatal workout plan, especially as your pregnancy progresses, to make sure you’re staying safe and healthy, both for yourself and for that beautiful baby.
Best Pregnancy Gym Workout Plan (and a few to avoid)
Ideally, you should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week (think 30 minutes for 5 days, or smaller workouts throughout each day), meaning you’re moving the large muscle groups in your body enough to raise your heart sweat and break a sweat.
If you had a dedicated workout schedule before getting pregnant, it’s generally safe to continue the activities you were doing before (with a few exceptions. See below.) Doctors say runners can continue logging miles (even long distance miles if, again, their bodies were already accustomed to doing that before the pregnancy), and strength training exercises with comfortable weights is also fine.
If you’re a newb, experts love brisk walking because it’s effective, easy on the joints and muscles, and can be done anywhere. A few other cardio exercises and movements that can be done throughout pregnancy include:
- Swimming and water aerobics – Water supports your weight, alleviating some of those pregnancy aches and sore muscles temporarily and making for a fantastic low-impact pregnancy exercise. Certain swimming strokes (like freestyle) also support core muscles without a twisting motion. Switch up your strokes by intermittently swimming laps of freestyle, breaststroke and backstroke, or opt to alternate your speed and intensity. Health experts do recommend sticking to a chlorinated pool with a lifeguard as opposed to open water swimming for health and safety reasons.
- Indoor cycling – Peloton and SoulCycle lovers, rejoice! Cycling on the stationary bike racks up all of the benefits of biking without the balance and fall concerns that can come with riding a bike outside. Make a few modifications to make your ride more comfortable, like raising the handlebars and adjusting the saddle position to sit more upright instead of leaning forward. That should relieve strain on your lower back.
- Yoga – Prenatal exercise is not only one of the most popular prenatal workouts, it’s also a preparation tool for labor and giving birth (focused breathing, anyone?). There are classes specifically designed for pregnant women, but doctors say hatha yoga and restorative yoga are also good choices. Focus on improving flexibility and stretching, and feel free to utilize the readily-available modifications, like a yoga block, blanket or cushion to help achieve the position safely. Avoid poses that require lying on your back or belly, or core exercises that require twisting the abdominal muscles.
There are plenty of options for expecting moms to get some great exercise during the nine months before the baby arrives, but doctors say there are some movements that need to stay out of the pregnancy workout plan for safety’s sake. Those include:
- High contact sports – Any team or individual sport where there is a risk of getting hit in the abdomen, like ice hockey, soccer and basketball.
- Activities with a high fall risk – Think downhill snow skiing or water skiing (experts say cross country skiing is generally OK, but because it can really spike your heart rate, doctors again reiterate to listen to your body). Gymnastics, surfing and horseback riding are also not recommended. And (this should be pretty obvious, but the ACOG has it on the list anyway), skydiving is a big no-no.
- Hot yoga – Hot yoga is usually practiced in rooms at around 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This one needs to be left out of the pregnancy workout routine because of the heightened risk for overheating and dehydration. One study even found a connection between hot yoga and some serious pregnancy complications, including an increased risk of neural tube defects and other malformations in the baby. Hard pass.
- Sit Ups / Curls / V-Ups – Hate to break it to you…but eventually, these just aren’t going to happen.
What about weightlifting?
Women who prefer strength training workouts to get in that healthy physical activity, have no fear. Weight training can be part of your pregnancy workout plan, as long as you’ve been given the green light from your doctor. If you’re new to the dumbbells, pregnancy might not be the time to start (wait until you’re going for the postpartum weight loss – strength training is phenomenal to lose fat while building muscle – total win-win).
Even if you were lifting regularly before getting pregnant, experts recommend concentrating on full body workouts as opposed to sectioning off upper body, lower body and core exercises. It’s also a good idea to stay within the 10-12 rep scheme with comfortable weights (CrossFitters and Olympic weightlifters,, looking at you here – careful with those one-rep maxes!). For safety’s sake, avoid laying flat on your back for long periods of time (same as with yoga). Also, don’t lift heavy weights overhead (think: overhead squats, snatches, etc.) – it can lead to joint and lower back injuries, and can also strain your pelvic floor muscles.
Different strength training workouts can come in handy as your pregnancy progresses. Let’s break down these safe pregnancy exercises by trimester.
First Trimester Pregnancy Workouts
Nausea, fatigue, and the need to pee every 30 minutes – the first trimester of pregnancy is a peach. Luckily, even during this sucky time, getting a prenatal workout plan underway can help in alleviating some of the worst pregnancy symptoms (hey, moving around can’t hurt, right?).
As your body adjusts to being pregnant, it’s never too early to start prepping for labor and delivery (yes, already). Concentrating on posture, spinal mobility and pelvic floor is paramount for all pregnant women at this time, regardless of fitness level. You need all three to strengthen the abdominal muscles to get ready for that big baby bump.
- Pelvic brace: If you’re not sure what Kegels are…well, you’re about to get very familiar. They are fantastic for strengthening the pelvic floor muscles (bonus: if you keep doing them even postpartum, you might stop peeing while doing double unders) and assisting with labor and delivery. This is one of many great pelvic floor exercises that can be done throughout your whole pregnancy. Slowly lower down to your back, with your knees bent and your feet hip distance apart on the floor. Perform a Kegel contraction by gently closing the openings of your urethra, vagina and anus.Keep breathing as you draw in the lower abs, relax and repeat. Make two cycles of 8-10 reps part of your pregnancy workout plan every day.
- Squats: Put those leg muscles to work! These can be done with dumbbells, but bodyweight squats are also wildly effective. They’re great for your glutes, your quads and your core and pelvic floor. They also help your blood supply get circulating and prepare your body for labor and delivery (it’s a natural birthing stance) – can we say pregnancy win?! Find your starting position with your feet hip width apart. Lower down as if you were sitting in a chair, with core muscles engaged. Stand straight back up. To make it more difficult, take three seconds to lower down to the bottom of a squat, hold for two seconds (BREATHE!!!!) and then come back up. Squats are one of those pregnancy workouts that are easier during the first trimester. By the time you hit the second and third trimesters, your center of gravity will have shifted (thanks, baby bump) and it will by harder to balance on the descent. Modify exercises by reducing the depth of the squat, widening your lower body stance or by squatting to a target – like a chair.
- Bicep curls: Let’s be vain for *just* a second. How awesome does it look when a pregnant woman has a cute baby belly and LIT arms? Get started in the first trimester and enjoy the stares for the rest of your pregnancy! Grab a set of dumbbells, grasp them in each hand in a supinated grip (with palms facing up) standing with feet at hip width and knees slightly bent. Bend your elbows, bring the dumbbells up to your shoulders. You could also do these as hammer curls, with a neutral grip. Both increase muscle tone, but bicep curls are more of an isolated movement and hammer curls work more muscle groups.
Second Trimester Pregnancy Workouts
Also known as the “honeymoon” phase of pregnancy, the second trimester is just awesome. Energy levels bounce back, the icky nausea and morning sickness of the first trimester wane, and bonus – you get to see your baby in all its cute, unborn glory at the 20 week ultrasound (and find out the gender, if you’re planning to). Second trimester is also a great time for pregnancy exercises, simply because – you might feel more up to it! Savor it before the third trimester fatigue hits!
If you think lifting a growing baby and eventually toddler isn’t a serious physical activity, you are sadly mistaken. Get ready for some serious lifting by working that upper body. Find your starting position in either a plank position or with your knees on the ground, your hands placed directly under your shoulders. Slowly lower down all the way to the floor (chest to deck, as my CrossFit coach always says) – reminder to not lay flat on your belly. Push straight back up until your arms are totally straight. Repeat. Push ups can be a faithful part of your pregnancy workout plan the whole nine months, but you will need to add in a few modifications as you get closer and closer to your due date. If you aren’t starting out on your knees, you will likely need to lower down by the third trimester, or do push ups standing and go to a wall.
Strengthening your core muscles during pregnancy can prevent diastasis recti, or the separating of your ab muscles at the midline (this is very common in pregnancy and can happen regardless of fitness level). Plank and plank variations are great pelvic floor exercises too. Start on either your hands or elbows with your feet straight behind you. Engage your core and glutes and hold for 15-30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times. To modify, you can do these as bird dogs on your hands and knees, do them at an incline (with your hands or elbows on a weight bench and your feet on the floor).
Hip Flexor Stretch
Perfect your posture as your balance shifts with the growing belly. Stretch your hip flexors by getting into a half kneeling position on the floor, right knee on the floor and left foot in from of you (flat on the floor). Lunge toward your left foot, stretching your right hip and thigh. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 2-3 more times. Switch sides.
Third Trimester Pregnancy Workouts
Ooh, you’re getting so close! Your pregnancy workout plan might start looking a little different, and THAT’S OK! That fully grown baby you’ve got in there means extra weight you’re not used to, leading to difficulty sleeping, swollen ankles and fatigue. Ugh. Again – you’re almost done! Hang in there, mama! You might consider slowing down the cardio exercises (many dedicated runners pick the third trimester as their cut off for logging miles, switching to walking or exercises), and should make an extra-conscious effort to exercise safely and keep an eye out for signs of labor.
- Pelvic Floor Exercises – More important now than ever before! Use this hands-and-knees version every day during your final days of pregnancy. Get down on all fours with your hands directly under you shoulders and your knees hip width apart, like the starting position of a cat cow. With a flat back, draw up your abdominal muscles, bringing your belly button in toward your spine. Hold for a few seconds. TIlt your pelvis muscles, concentrating on getting your pubic bone up toward your navel. Hold, release after several seconds.
- Modified Hip Thrusts – Another movement that can be part of your prenatal workout routine that can be done throughout your whole pregnancy. Save the single leg hip thrust for the first trimester (or leave them out totally), but modified hip thrusts are safe and effective. Use a weight bench to elevate your upper back, so you’re in a table top position. Keep your feet flat and dip your hips to the floor. Pushing explosively through the heels, squeeze the glutes and thrust the hips up to the ceiling. Lower slowly. Do 8-10 reps.
- Yoga Ball Squats – Modifications during your prenatal workouts can include the use of yoga balls. Using one can help keep your squat game going. Stand in front of a wall, with the yoga ball flush against the wall. Position the yoga ball to the upper middle of your back. Squat down slowly, being careful not to let your knees go past your toes. Make it easier by turning your toes out into more of a sumo stance. Do 8-10 slow reps.
Bringing it all back to baby (and you!)
Exercise during pregnancy has its challenges, but so many amazing benefits for your physical, mental and emotional health. So with your doctor’s go-ahead and a realistic attitude, you can work toward being the very best, healthiest version of you, both for yourself and for this beautiful new baby you’ll soon hold in your arms.
Kendra Whittle is a writer, novice CrossFitter, marathon runner and triathlete. She lives in St. Louis with her husband, three kids and two dogs.