Prenatal Fitness: What Changed For Me & What Didn't Have To

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Pregnant woman holding kettlebell

During my pregnancy, I’ve posted a lot about the importance of staying active. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about prenatal fitness and I’m so happy to answer them as best as I can because it’s tough to know what’s ok to do and what’s not ok to do while pregnant. In this post, I'll talk about what changed in my own exercise routine, and what didn't have to change at all.

Prenatal Fitness: Why Is It So Confusing?

Exercising while pregnant became taboo somewhere along the way, and it’s such a disservice to pregnant women (assuming your pregnancy is a normal, healthy, complication-free pregnancy). Exercise can be a huge benefit to you and your little one if done in a healthy and safe way. I can honestly say that other than first-trimester nausea, I've felt pretty good my whole pregnancy. My energy has stayed up, I've slept pretty well, and I haven't had many of the hip and backaches that are so common. I truly believe it’s because I was able to keep my body strong and stay active.

Look, there are lots of opinions on exercise and pregnancy from people who really know nothing about either topic (like your relative, co-worker, or random person in the grocery store line). They all mean well, but most of them don’t know much about exercise or pregnancy!

On the flip side, sometimes it seems like those who should know a lot about it don’t have much guidance to offer. I understand this, as there are so many variables with a pregnancy, and no one wants to give out advice where there are unknowns. Since every pregnancy is different, it’s no wonder no one wants to give out blanket statements about exercise specifics since what is fine for one woman could be dangerous to another.

So then, I wrote this post because it’s overwhelming and scary at times to navigate what’s ok to do while pregnant and what’s not ok to do. It can be overwhelming and confusing to navigate. Sometimes pregnancy seems like a long list of things you can no longer do. It’s my hope that this post shows you that although, yes, some things will likely need to change regarding your exercise routine, there are MANY, many, many, things you can still do. I hope this post gives you encouragement that this particular aspect of your life may not have to change as much as you think it does at a time in your life where everything seems to be changing or restricted. 

I hope this post gives you encouragement that this particular aspect of your life may not have to change as much as you think it does at a time in your life where everything seems to be changing or restricted. 

I’m no doctor. I’m a personal trainer and yoga instructor. Yes, I have some training hours in prenatal fitness, but— still— it was hard for me to navigate, too. So I have a lot of compassion for pregnant ladies who are legitimately trying to stay active for the health of themselves and their little one. I really, really respect that. 

First, 3 Things About Prenatal Fitness You Need To Know...

  • For starters, if you’re pregnant, ask your doctor about your fitness routine. They will be able to give you guidance on what is ok for YOU. They know YOUR medical history, and they know how YOUR pregnancy is going, and they just know a lot of helpful stuff— they’re smart people!!— so do use them as a valuable resource for your entire pregnancy. Tell them about what you’re used to doing, what your heart rate typically gets to when you exercise, how often you work out, what activities you typically do, and any other information you can give them so that they can help you navigate in a safe and healthy way. 
  • Next, manage your expectations. I’ve written about this here, in 7 Healthy Mindsets for Pregnancy. Pregnancy isn't the best time to plunge into a totally new exercise routine, intensify what you’re already doing, or try to make huge gains with a fitness goal (like training for your first marathon). Pregnancy is a time to nourish your body, so keeping that perspective in mind is important.
  • Lastly, understand that every pregnancy is different. What works for me, may not work for you. What works for you, may not work for your best friend. Ultimately, you have to stay mindful of how you feel when you’re exercising and use your own wisdom on when it’s time to dial things back. If something feels “off” or awkward, then it’s probably a good indication that it’s time to change it up. 

With all that being said, below are some insights from MY experience. Which, again, will be different than yours, but I hope this helps you see that staying fit while pregnant is not as scary as your relative / co-worker / random person in the grocery store line has made you think it is. 

So remember: consult your doctor, manage your expectations, don’t overexert yourself, and listen to your body. 

What Changed For Me:

NOTE: This is from the perspective of a normal, healthy, complication-free pregnancy. I'm not giving out medical advice here, just simply offering encouragement from my own experience. Consult your doctor before exercising while pregnant.

Eliminating Anything Where I Risked Falling. This included things like biking or any kind of jumping/climbing where a fall would be dangerous. When I say jumping, I’m not talking about jumping jacks or exercise moves on the ground with jumps. Those were fine for me and I still did them up until it was awkward. I’m referring to things like high box jumps, etc.

Tracking My Heart Rate. A standard guideline for pregnant women is to keep their heart rate under 140 for sustained exercise. A FitBit or any kind of heart rate tracker works great for this. It was fantastic for peace of mind to be able to look at my wrist and see where I was at. This is definitely one to ask your doctor about— they will have an opinion on it and will take into account your pregnancy, your history, and your fitness level.

Running. This was just personal. Many runners keep running right up until they go into labor. I simply didn’t feel like it, as I was really sick my first 15-16 weeks, and then I battled a sprained ankle, and then a sprained foot. I did other types of cardio instead.

Inversions. As a yoga lover, my doctor said “no more inversions.” This eliminated handstands, forearm stands, or any major inversion where I could fall or possibly jar the placenta. Inversions like Downward Facing Dog, or elevating legs against the wall to rest were still fine. 

Weight Training that Loads Across the Abdomen. Like Barbell Hip Thrusts. Before I was pregnant, I was hip thrusting 295 pounds with the barbell. As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I stopped that since it loads the weight right across the abdomen. For me, the only other specific exercise this affected was Reverse Hypers on the Reverse Hyper Machine, as all of your bodyweight loads right there on the abdomen. I would love to note, however, that although this eliminated Reverse Hypers and Barbell Hip Thrusts for me, it did not eliminate Hip Thrusts completely. It simply eliminated Barbell Hip Thrusts or Hip Thrusts with any heavy weight across my abdomen. I could still do bodyweight hip thrusts, single-leg versions, banded thrusts, and even load it with dumbbells on the hip bones or upper thighs (just not the abdomen). 

Heavy Lifting. I still lifted weights my entire pregnancy with my doctor's guidance. I simply dialed it back as my pregnancy progressed. This was not as much of a bummer as I initially thought it would be because as my pregnancy progressed, I simply didn't have the stamina for super heavy lifts, anyway. If this bums you out, just keep in mind there are lots of ways to make lighter-pound dumbbell workouts challenging. I also still used my 17 and 25-pound kettlebells up until the end.

Deep Twists in Yoga. The good news: if you're a yogi, you can still twist! Just not deep twists at the abdomen. Twisting poses in yoga are my favorite and I worried that I might do something wrong here. However, I just knew when it was time to dial back twists because I simply couldn't do it comfortably anymore. As my belly grew, twists just changed. So instead of twisting from the belly area, my twists were upper back only. An easy way to remember this: keep your belly and your hips pointing in the same direction and let your twist start higher up, around the chest area.

Adding In More Pelvic Floor Work. In yoga, we do a lot of pelvic floor work anyway, but I increased this a lot. I've written about it in Prenatal Core Work You Should Be Doing Daily, and even break down how to do it as well as suggestions for how much to do.

Ab/Core Exercises. Much of my routine didn't have to change too much in the first trimester, but as my pregnancy progressed things like traditional core exercises had to change. Here, I'm referring to things like crunches (hey, they're overrated anyway!), double leg lifts, planks, etc. This was more about my body, as I didn't want to do anything to cause diastasis recti (separation of the abs) to be worse than it would already be. As a pregnant belly grows, the abs separate down the middle to make room for the baby. This strains the connective tissue down the middle of the core, and if you're not careful, you can put too much pressure on that area, making the separation much worse and much harder to heal postpartum. For those reasons, ab work should only be done when you show no signs of intolerance (coning or doming down the middle of the abs where the connective tissue is).

Eliminating Prone Exercises. Again, this was after the first trimester. There just comes a time when you can’t lay on your belly anymore. You'll know when that time comes, so no need to stress about it.

What Didn’t Change For Me:

Heavy Lifting. Well, kind of. I think "heavy lifting" looks different to everyone based on your own strength and fitness level. So, no, I wasn't using the barbell anymore for hip thrusts or deadlifts, but I was still able to enjoy some sizeable kettlebells for much of my pregnancy. As I already explained above, I dialed back my weight lifting continuously and gradually as my pregnancy progressed. Dialing back was intuitive and I paid attention to my body and how lifting felt. Again, I didn't want to do anything where my core strained or felt weak because I didn't want to create too much pressure on my abdomen which would cause diastasis to become worse. I also didn't want to strain the baby at all, so lifting was dialed back to still be challenging, but not where I'd ever say I was "straining."

Weight Training. I think it's worth noting that keeping your body strong while pregnant is important, so most of my workouts while pregnant fell into this category. I already told you how I dialed back heavy lifts, but don't discount all the things you can do to challenge your muscles with smaller free weights. I used the heck out of my lighter weights and still found challenges daily. My best friends were my 5, 8, and 10 pound dumbbells and my 17, 25, and 33 pound kettlebells. (I used the 33 pound one up until a few weeks before my due date.) If a weight I was lifting wasn't challenging, then I added more reps, more sets, or changed up the format of my workout to make it challenging. Bottom line: you can still make your workout challenging using less weight, you may just have to be a little more creative.

Training My Abs. YEP, I still did it, I just did it differently. Read all about my core training in this post Prenatal Core Work You Should Be Doing Daily. I was able to train my core very effectively, without risking making diastasis worse.

Cardio, Breaking a Sweat, and Generally Getting My Heart Rate Up. Yep, still did this, too! In fact, I read in many places on the importance of cardio training specifically FOR labor preparation. You need stamina for labor, so this made sense to me. While I chose not to run (as explained earlier, mostly due to a sprained ankle), I still used the Rowing Machine until my belly got too big, and am still doing circuits and interval workouts now (I'm currently 39 weeks). I’ve even done some online prenatal cardio classes that incorporate aerobics, pilates, and other methods. I simply monitored my heart rate with my FitBit to make sure it never spiked too high or sustained over 140, and I made sure I never felt too winded. 

Supine Exercises. Unless you feel bad when you do these or have been told by your doctor not to, most women are fine to lie on their backs for a couple of minutes at a time for brief periods of exercise. 

Yoga. You may be surprised to read that out of all of the exercise methods I enjoy, yoga was the one I felt changed the most. As a yoga lover and yoga teacher, I was surprised, too. Especially since prenatal yoga is so highly recommended. However, I love Vinyasa and Power flows, and well, those were just not sustainable (for me) once my belly started to develop. Simply hinging down in a swan dive or attempting a forward fold was uncomfortable. As I already mentioned, deep twists (my favorite) and inversions were out of the question, and during the first trimester, nausea steered me away from the up-and-down cadence of Vinyasa yoga. Then I sprained my right ankle, then I sprained my left foot, so it seemed like there was an obstacle for me at every phase of my pregnancy. However, I tried to stick with it and learned to shift gears with how I treated my yoga practice. It turned into a gentle practice where I focused more on mobility, posture, breathing, stretching, pelvic floor work, and listening to my body. That was hugely beneficial! There were times that I was truly having trouble breathing due to my growing belly and lack of space in my abdomen, and yoga really helped me re-align my posture and stretch so that I could breathe easier.

Final Tip on Prenatal Fitness

Wowee, what a long post! If you're still reading, then I hope you see that while some things may change for your exercise routine during pregnancy, it's not as discouraging as it may seem at first.

I'd sum it all up by saying that I think what most of us active gals want is to be able to stay active for ourselves and our little one, but with peace of mind that we're not doing anything to harm our growing baby or our own body. Knowing that every woman and every pregnancy is different, I do believe my final tip for you is actually just a reminder of my initial tip:

Consult your doctor, manage your expectations, don’t overexert yourself, and listen to your body. 

Staying fit for you and your baby is an awesome goal that will hopefully bless you with good health during pregnancy, fewer aches and pains, better sleep, and easier delivery and recovery. If you have questions along the way, reach out to a personal trainer with prenatal experience or your doctor.

All of my very best wishes to you for a healthy and active pregnancy!

Love + Light.

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