Should I Exercise During Pregnancy? [Reader Question]

When I first found out I was pregnant, I wanted to continue exercising but was so confused about whose information to follow. From every side, conflicting information was thrown at me – even from among the trainers I worked with.

“You know your body. Just keep doing whatever it is you are doing!” one trainer said.

“Don’t you lift that!” Quipped another trainer, as I picked up a box to use with one of my clients, “You need to be more careful!”

“Oh… ok. What can I do then?” I asked …and the answer I got was that I was basically limited to very, very light exercise for the duration of my pregnancy.

On top of this conflicting advice from professionals, I also had basically everyone else I knew telling me I should no longer lift weights. I even had those telling me that I shouldn’t carry a backpack around! I felt so confused that I basically stopped all exercise for a few weeks. I certainly didn’t want to do anything to hurt my baby – but I continued to do research. There had to be some kind of a balance between the “do nothing” and the crazy-pregnant-crossfitter do-everything approach. There just had to be.

Thankfully, before long, I was handed a book by one of my fellow trainers called “Exercising Through Your Pregnancy” by Dr. James Clapp. It was literally the best thing I could have read about pregnancy and exercise. Based on extensive research, this book discusses in detail the effects of exercise upon the pregnant woman and the baby she is carrying.

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This book is a must read for mums wishing to feel confident about continuing exercise during pregnancy.

As I read, I loved the fact that the book was based on extensive, unbiased research. That gave me the confidence boost I needed – and as a result picked back up and I continued with weight lifting through to 32 weeks (when I experienced pelvic pain and a bout of illness) and have continued with brisk walking all the way through (I am now 37 weeks). I believe that keeping up with exercise has contributed greatly to my current mobility and the practical absence of lower back pain throughout my pregnancy.

I also found that as I continued to exercise the doubt that people expressed turned into admiration. I have had many who expressed their disapproval turn around and express their approval. I found that I even began to admire myself. I was healthy, my baby was healthy – and though exercise was proving to be more difficult as the weeks went on – I had persevered. I was succeeding in staying healthy for my baby. Though if I could do it over again and do more, I would – I was happy with what I had continued to do. I felt strong.

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Hubby and I on our hike up Castle Rock in the Pongurups, WA, Australia – 33 1/2 weeks pregnant.

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According to Dr. Clapp, women can safely continue with exercise before, during, after their pregnancies. He says:

“Some women fear that exercise will increase the risk of miscarriage, malformations, pre-term labor, brain damage to the baby, or material injury, but this is not the case.”

He even goes on to say that:

“Women who exercise feel better, perform better, and have babies that are be stronger physiologically and perhaps better developed neurologically.”

After reading the book and realising that exercise could actually have a positive influence on both my baby and my postpartum body, I was encouraged and motivated to continue with exercise throughout my pregnancy.

So far as the concerns that most people have in regards to pregnancy and exercise, most of them are completely unfounded. Dr. Clapp addresses some very common misconceptions about pre and post natal exercise:

  1. Pregnant women should keep their heart rates under 140 beats per minute.
  2. Exercise during lactation makes the milk taste sour.
  3. Women should avoid abdominal exercises in mid and late pregnancy.
  4. Pregnant women should not lift weights.
  5. The bouncing and jarring which occur during running and high-impact aerobics increase the risk for the baby getting tangled up in the umbilical cord.
  6. Exercise causes premature labor.
  7. Exercise will cause the fetus to detach from the wall of the womb.
  8. Exercise right after a pregnancy will cause hernias and loss of vaginal and pelvic support.

Dr. Clapp also found that through his study the amount of miscarriages in the control group (those who didn’t exercise) and the amount of miscarriages in the group of exercising women were the same, indicating that exercise was not a contributing factor in the miscarriage. He also adds that miscarriages are so common that doctors don’t usually investigate the reasons why a miscarriage occurs until a woman has had at least three miscarriages. Most miscarriages if they occur were going to occur regardless of whether the mother exercised during her pregnancy or not.

So if these are not concerns for women during pregnancy, and exercising is a good thing for a pregnant woman to do – what are some guidelines that pregnant women should follow in regards to prenatal exercise?

Some basic rules for exercise during pregnancy are:

  1. Make sure that at any point in time during the workout you are able to speak in sentences before taking a breath. This is a better gauge of exertion than heart rate monitoring. If you can’t speak or are having trouble breathing, you are going too fast for a pregnant lady. Slow down and take a breather.
  2. Always reserve a little of your strength. Work to about 80% of your maximum capacity. The key is to never work yourself to the point where you can do no more. Always stop before that last rep.
  3. When lifting weights, keep the repetitions that you perform between 8-12 repetitions. Stay away from 1RM (1 repetition maximum) exercises. Do a medium range of reps with a lighter weight, rather than trying to reach a PR (personal record) during pregnancy. There will be time for PRs, but that is not now. 8-12 repetitions is ideal for building and maintaining strength, which you will need for later in pregnancy.
  4. Make sure the room you are in is cool (and preferably air-conditioned) so you don’t overheat, and drink plenty of water. If you are too hot or dehydrated, your baby is too.
  5. Don’t be afraid to take extra rest. Stop in between sets for longer than you usually would if necessary.
  6. Stop if you feel: cramping in the pelvic region, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, bleeding, or any other worrying symptoms or conditions. If you experience cramping, stop exercising and lay on your left side until the cramping subsides.
  7. Definitely listen to your health provider’s advice regarding any exercise you are going to undertake. There are some conditions which require a woman to cease activity during pregnancy. These are a minority of cases, however.
  8. Start, but start slow if you weren’t exercising before, so you can learn your limits and build your strength gradually. This is not a time to push your body beyond it’s limits, but to nurture it. In other words, don’t start off sprinting or doing ballistic exercises (like box jumps) if you weren’t already doing those before. Do start early though – it is during early pregnancy that you build up your exercise capacity and your body and baby learn to adapt. The more you do now, the more you will be able to do later!

What are some important exercises to focus on during pregnancy?

  1. Build a strong pelvic floor foundation. You know those kegels doctors are always telling you to do? Do them. Your uterus is going to put a lot of pressure on your pelvic region, and you’ll be thankful for that strong foundation!
  2. Build strong glutes to support your back. Your growing belly is going to place increased pressure on your back. Glute strengthening is vital. Balance out any anterior chain exercises with posterior chain exercises 2:1. Think squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, supine bridges.

What exercises should I be careful of, modify, or avoid?

This is going to look different for every pregnancy – depending on what you were doing beforehand and how your body reacts to pregnancy – but here are some general guidelines.

Be careful with:

  1. Split stance and single-legged exercises. Lunges, step ups, and single-legged exercises where the pelvis is forced into a split-stance position need to be done with caution, as they compromise pelvic stability. If you can do them with no discomfort, that is fine – but if you feel discomfort stick to more stable leg exercises, such as squats and deadlifts.
  2. Laying on your back after the second trimester. Use a wedge or a swiss ball to elevate yourself and modify the exercise.
  3. Pull ups and hanging exercises. The stress placed on the abdominals with this exercise is quite considerable. Since the abdominals are already being stretched, it is best to avoid this exercise in favour of exercises with less of a stretch.
  4. Planking and horse stance ab exercises. These are not a problem for every pregnant woman, but are inadvisable because the abs are under stress and can separate with downward facing pressure, causing the dreaded diastasis recti. Reverse planking, side planking, and TVA exercises (such as toe taps) are preferable.
  5. Ballistic movements. While these may be performed with no side effects for some pregnant women who have been performing them prior to pregnancy – pregnancy hormones cause the joints to relax and become unstable. Even the strongest of athletes can find themselves doing damage to their bodies if they continue with ballistic movements (think box jumps, plyometrics, etc.). Although these remain okay for some, they can do damage if great care is not taken. Know your limits and don’t push yourself.

Be aware of changes in your body and modify your workouts accordingly. The hormone relaxin is going to loosen your joints – causing you to lose strength and balance. If anything makes you uncomfortable, modify the exercise or replace it for something that offers you more stability. It is better to play it safe than to have preventable pelvic dysfunction or diastasis recti when you are done!

Your growing belly will also begin to get in the way of certain exercises – change your stance or grip to accommodate it as it grows!

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While for myself I know that if I were to do it all over again I would have much more confidence with continuing a strong exercise regime right from the beginning of my pregnancy – in the end, I’m not an expert on any of this. I only have my own experiences and the research I have done during pregnancy to draw upon. If you have any concerns, please see your doctor and listen to them! 

For some examples of how to exercise during pregnancy, see the prenatal section of my workouts page.

What has been your experience with exercise and pregnancy? Did you find the advice you received confusing or discouraging?

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6 thoughts on “Should I Exercise During Pregnancy? [Reader Question]

  1. Hi Chantelle

    Personally as I am not into gym exercises, I think the safest exercise during pregnancy is swimming. the boyancy of water makes the pregnant woman forget about her heavy tummy! furthermore swimming helps one to “breathe deliberately” and this will certainly come useful during labour 🙂 Mayb u can try out in your next pregnancy.

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    1. Ha ha, I do not enjoy swimming for exercise! I’m glad that you have found something you enjoy, but it’s certainly not for me. The good thing about exercise is that we can all find some kind that we enjoy.

      If you read the recent research all is safe, as long as you keep within your limits! I’ve had a very healthy and safe pregnancy. 🙂

      Thank you for your comment!

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  2. Hey Chantelle,

    You’re looking great and it’s nice to see that you’ve found something to enjoy during your pregnancy 😊 Technically if one thinks about it, pregnant mothers with toddlers would be carrying all that weight on one hip for many hours a day. Not 40 kgs but at least 10-18kgs depending on how heavy the child is. I did with my second pregnancy, my eldest was about 13kgs then. So I think a lot of people actually don’t realize the weight as it’s just seen as a mom carrying her child. I was able to carry my son all the way till the day I delivered, I didn’t exercise but keeping up with him was more than enough exercise for me. Haha. I was also able to use the squatting toilet for both my pregnancies till the day I delivered without wobbling in fear of falling 😉
    I had a better delivery with my second as with my eldest I wasn’t very active, I don’t know. But with my second delivery, I was up and walking wishing an hour of delivering and could walk to put my baby back into her bassinet at the hospital. It was great, no pain at all when I walked. Will pray for your safe delivery and that you will have a wonderful experience. It wasn’t painless but the pain doesn’t last 😊

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    1. Hey Stacey!

      What you say is really true – and one reason I kept searching for answers! I kept thinking, “I’m going to have to push this baby out and carry it around – and if I had another I’d have to carry them around! Plus women 100 or so years ago used to keep working in the fields until very late in pregnancy!” Thankfully my husband was very supportive of me.

      Thank you for your comment, and for your prayers! It’s getting close now! ❤

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  3. My doctor was very supportive of me exercising when I was pregnant with my 4th child. I was an older mom at 40 but she just said to keep my heartbeat under 140 and do not lift more than 15 pounds. I think it actually did help me after I had the baby because I felt so good.

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