Your fitness questions answered, from the first to last trimester and beyond.
Are you nervous about exercising while pregnant or hesitant about returning to fitness activities, like running, after giving birth? The good news is, you’re not alone. I train women just like you every day. From active ladies who want to stay strong while pregnant and return quickly to their favourite sports (in true Hong Kong style), to women new to exercise who are training for a healthier pregnancy.
As a pre and postnatal exercise coach I often get asked questions like:
- Should I even exercise while pregnant?
- How can I physically prepare for labour?
- I’m pregnant, but I’ve never exercised. Should I start now?
- Is it too late to start?
- When can I get back to running or lifting weights after giving birth?
In this article – the first in a four-part series that will span all three trimesters, before taking a look at postpartum exercise – I hope to address these kinds of questions and more. We’ll look at some of the biggest myths surrounding fitness during pregnancy and will provide useful guidelines on what exercises to perform (and what to avoid!) as your body changes.
Hong Kong is an amazingly diverse city, and I know there is a huge variety of fitness levels among all mamas. So, whether you are a type-A trail runner, or you prefer quiet evenings on the couch curled up with hot cocoa and a good book, I will suggest exercises and variations suitable for all levels of fitness. You’ll also find some useful safety tips so that you have a better idea of how hard to push yourself, as well as when to seek help and professional assistance. Happy training!
Exercise guidelines for the first trimester
You might be feeling more fatigued, have morning sickness, your breasts may be extra heavy and tender, or you might even feel dizzy at times. Every woman is going to feel a little different. And how you feel is going to change over the first trimester as well. Don’t worry, it’s totally normal!
The key is to modify exercises according to how you feel. For example, if you often feel fatigued try and get as much rest as you can. I know this can be hard in Hong Kong, but getting the extra sleep and extra recovery in between exercise can make all the difference. If you feel dizzy then it’s best to stay away from high-intensity training exercises and fitness regimes that rely heavily on your sense of balance. Meanwhile, if your breasts feel heavy it can be useful to wear an extra sports bra and stay away from exercises that put pressure on your chest. In short, you want to maximise the physical and psychological benefits of exercise for you and your baby, while minimising the risk to yourselves.
What are you hoping to achieve?
Your fitness goals in the first thirteen weeks should be about building the foundations for a healthy and active pregnancy. This means improving your posture and alignment, which will be crucial for minimising back pain when you’re carrying your baby as it grows inside you. It also means things like improving the function of your pelvic floor, strengthening your core muscles and developing a good aerobic foundation to make the birthing process easier.
Myths vs facts
Myth one: It isn’t safe to exercise during pregnancy
A generation or two ago most women were advised to avoid fitness exercise during pregnancy. Considering that women were barred from running marathons until the 1970s because they were too thought of as too “fragile”, I suppose this isn’t surprising!
However, luckily for us, times have changed. Scientific study after study has proven that for the vast majority of women, moderate levels of exercise and fitness are good for mum and good for baby too. If you’re interested in the science behind it, this peer review of recent studies into the effects of pregnancy during exercise is a useful starting off point.
Some proven benefits for you are:
- An easier birth, because you are stronger and fitter
- More control over your weight changes before and after pregnancy
- Less chance of getting gestational diabetes and pregnancy-induced hypertension
- Generally feeling happier and healthier
Some proven benefits for your baby are:
- A healthier heart and lungs
- Less chance of chronic issues like obesity and diabetes later in life
- A possible increase in cognitive development
Today, organisations like the British National Health Service, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiologists all agree that most pregnant women should aim for around 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week, spaced over around three sessions.
That said, while this advice is suitable for most mothers, there are a couple of exceptions in which it is riskier and sometimes inadvisable to exercise. These are called contraindications, and we’ll cover these in more detail in the health and safety section.
Myth two: Exercise will increase my risk of miscarriage
It’s totally understandable that you might be nervous about putting your baby at risk with any fitness activity. However, the good news is that moderate exercise has not been linked to higher rates of miscarriage. Like I mentioned before, doing the right kinds of exercise and fitness in the right kinds of way can actually be beneficial to the development of your foetus.
If you play contact sports like rugby, boxing, judo or MMA, now is the right time to hang up your gloves and boots for a while. The same applies to sports where you are at risk of colliding with others and falling. So start to avoid activities like football, basketball and even squash. I’d also advise against sports like cycling and skiing where you can easily lose your balance and fall over. The key is to minimise the chance of unwanted knocks and bumps to your abdomen. And in case any of you nutty mamas out there were thinking of asking – yes, skydiving and scuba diving are also out of the question (for now)!
On the other hand, specific strength and conditioning programmes in the gym or at home, pedalling a stationary bike, modified yoga and pilates routines, and swimming are all okay. At least within the first trimester. So let’s start with some pregnancy-specific strength exercises that are safe to do in your first few months.
- Find a bench or a chair that you can stand in front of.
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
- If your feet pointing straight ahead, turn them out about 30 degrees, so that they are angled slightly away from each other.
- Initiate the squat by hinging at the hips and moving your booty to the bench or chair, just like if you were going to sit on it. Be careful not to let your chest drop or chin go up – inhale to brace your core as you go down.
- Tap the bench with your bottom without shifting your weight from your legs to your behind.
- Stand back up by squeezing your glutes to drive your hips back up. Exhale as you stand.
Tips: If you find your knees are collapsing, think about rooting your feet to the floor by turning your toes out and your heels in. You’ll instantly feel it in your glutes, which will help to drive your knees out.
Recommended Sets and Reps: 2-3 sets of 8-10 repetitions, with 30-60 seconds rest between sets.
Advanced Variations: If this sounds too easy then up the reps to 10-12 for each set, and try adding some extra weight by doing a goblet squat or a barbell back squat.
2. Reverse lunges
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Take a step straight back with your right foot. Once your right foot is planted behind you on the ground, start to drop your knee towards the ground.
- As your knee nears the ground, take care not to let it drop or rest on the floor, but instead pause the movement just above the floor. This keeps the tension on your muscles and gives you a better workout.
- Move your right foot back to your starting position.
- Once in the standing position repeat with your left foot, and alternate from right to left.
Tips: If you feel wobbly placing your feet behind you, imagine that you are standing on train tracks and that each foot is on one side of the track. When you move your right foot back, imagine keeping it in line with the right train track (and vice versa for the left). This will keep you aligned along one plane and help stop you wobbling so much from side to side.
Practice coordinating your breath with the movement. Breathe in on the way down, and breathe out on the way up.
Recommended Sets and Reps: 2-3 sets of 6-10 repetitions per leg (alternating), with 30-60 seconds rest between sets.
Advanced Variations: If this sounds too easy then up the reps to 10-12 per leg for each set, and try adding some extra weight by holding a dumbbell in each hand.
3. Incline push-ups on a bench
- Start on all fours. Hands on a bench and knees on the ground.
- Make sure that your hands are shoulder width apart and your shoulders, elbows and wrists are all stacked above one another in a straight line.
- Get your knees off the ground by straightening your legs and then rooting your toes to the floor.
- Inhale and initiate the movement by sending your elbows back and lowering your chest towards the bench. If you want to work your triceps more keep your elbows tight to your body. However, if this is too difficult you can let your elbows flare out to an angle of up to 30 degrees. Don’t flare out your elbows more than 30 degrees though, because anything more than this will impinge your shoulder.
- Keep tension at the bottom of the movement, when your chest is brushing the bench and then exhale and push through with your hands so you come back to your starting position. Your body should be moving like a solid plank, pivoting from your feet.
Tips: You can make this exercise easier either by doing the push-ups with your knees resting on the ground or by increasing the incline you are doing your push-up on. Practically speaking, this means that doing your push-ups off a bench will be easier than doing strict push-ups off the floor and that doing your push-ups against a wall will be even easier than doing them off a bench. If you find the exercise too challenging, I normally recommend increasing the incline over getting on your knees.
Recommended Sets and Reps: 2-3 sets of 8-10 repetitions, with 30-60 seconds rest between sets. If this is too hard, start with 2 sets of 5 repetitions and build up slowly.
Advanced Variations: If this sounds too easy then up the reps to 10-12 each set, and try a push-up on the ground without any incline. You can even ask a friend to add weight to your back if you are feeling super gung ho. However, do not try a weighted variant unless you are 100% comfortable performing a normal push-up.
4. Suitcase carry
- Pick up one dumbbell in your right hand (this should feel heavy, but not too heavy that you feel like your forearm is on fire and the dumbbell is slipping out of your grip before you’ve even finished the exercise).
- Stand up straight with your shoulder blades pulled down and back.
- Hold the dumbbell down by your right side as if you are holding a briefcase.
- Keep your arm an inch from your body, and keep your shoulders pulled back and down.
- Brace your core by engaging the muscles to make it firm and stable.
- Walk slowly in a straight line for 30 metres at a time. If you run out of space, put the weight down, turn around, pick it back up and continue the carry until you’ve completed the distance.
- Swap hands and repeat for the left side.
Tips: Make sure to lift dumbbells safely. Start with lighter weights, and increase them if you don’t experience pain or discomfort. Think about your alignment, and make sure that you are not being pulled over to one side by the weight. Use your core to keep straight and upright.
Recommended Sets and Reps: 2-3 sets of one carry per arm, with 30-60 seconds rest between sets.
Advanced Variations: If this sounds too easy then increase the distance to 50 metres or more per carry.
5. Banded row
This exercise can be done with a cable machine or with a resistance band like the one I am using here.
- Get into a half kneeling position with your left knee up and your right knee touching the ground.
- Loop one end of the band around a post, so that it’s at shoulder height.
- Grab onto the other end of the band with your right hand.
- Shuffle away from the post, so that you can fully extend your right arm and hold the band under tension. This means your arm should be straight, and there shouldn’t be any slack in the elastic band.
- Once you’re happy with your setup, pull the band towards you. Make sure that your elbows don’t flare out. Keep them down and close to your body.
- Only pull as far back as it’s comfortable. Some of you will stop when your elbow brushes your ribcage and your arm makes a 90 degrees angle. Some of you will stop when your elbow is slightly behind your ribcage.
- Once you’ve pulled the band back as far as you comfortably can, you can then slowly release the tension and bring the band back to the starting position. When returning to your starting position don’t let the band pull you forward towards the post. Instead, keep your core tight and focus on anchoring your ribcage in the same position, so that you are not leaning forward.
- Perform all your reps for your right arm before alternating your leg position (left knee on the ground, right knee up) and swapping to your left arm.
Tips: Start with your weaker or less dominant arm first. This is usually the opposite of the hand you write with. Exhale as you pull in, and inhale on the release.
Recommended Sets and Reps: 2-3 sets of 6-10 repetitions per arm, with 30-60 seconds rest between sets. Do all the repetitions for one arm first before changing your set up and switching to the other arm.
Advanced Variations: If this sounds too easy, then up the reps to 10-12 per arm for each set. If you have access to a cable machine then you can also increase the weight. If you only have access to a band, then try slowing down the release or eccentric phase of the exercise (step 7). This will make your muscles work harder!
Health and safety
Before you start doing your first-trimester fitness please make sure you read this super important section of the article. First off, if you haven’t been cleared to exercise by your doctor or midwife please check with them before you begin. There are a few conditions which could make exercise a bit riskier for you and baby. This isn’t the case for the vast majority of you out there. However, it is always best to play these things safe and seek help before putting yourself at any risk. Examples of serious contraindications to exercise are things like:
- Persistent vaginal bleeding that is unexplained
- Carrying triplets (or more)
- Uncontrolled thyroid disease
- Other serious cardiovascular, respiratory or systemic diseases
Secondly, you need to be aware of your body and your own limits. This is especially the case if you are new to fitness and exercise or haven’t been exercising in a while. It’s always safest to start things slow and understand where your comfort levels are. You don’t have to push yourself too hard, as this is not the time to exhaust yourself. Also, and this is extremely important: no exercise during your pregnancy should be painful. If it is, stop immediately. Should the pain persist after your session, please seek professional medical help as soon as possible from your doctor or midwife.
If any of this sounds new or overwhelming, I’d also recommend that you work with a qualified trainer who has experience working with prenatal clients. A good prenatal trainer understands how to modify exercises to accommodate your pregnant body and get you the most benefits from exercise with the least risks. Until the next article, I wish you the best on your pregnancy journey. Stay healthy, happy and fit!
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