How to Do It Safely
So you want to know what the deal with strength training during pregnancy is –…
So you want to know what the deal with strength training during pregnancy is – what the benefits are, how you can do it safely and what to eat as you squat, lift and strengthen? Phew. That’s a lot. But, if that is you, welcome. You’re in the right place.
To demystify exactly whether pregnant women should be lifting (relatively) heavy objects, as well as how you can do it safely to protect yourself and your baby, we called upon the experts:
- Rosie Stockley, pre and postnatal trainer and founder of Mama Well
- Dr. Sayyada Mawji, general practitioner
- Allison Filepp, registered dietician
- Helen Keeble, pelvic health physiotherapist and c0-founder of UMI Health
Before we get into things, remember, consulting your doctor before undertaking (or continuing) strength training during pregnancy is non-negotiable. Stay in constant contact with your GP, midwife and maternity team to monitor any changes and keep you and baby as well as possible.
4 benefits of strength training during pregnancy
In general, staying active during pregnancy has myriad benefits from preventing gestational diabetes to improving sleep. But, if you’re not interested in running when you’re pregnant, there are some key benefits strength training, in particular, can have.
1. Can help with pregnancy aches and pains
Not to be all does-what-it-says-on-the-tin about it, but strength training will literally increase the amount of strength your muscles and bones have and what they’re able to endure. This can help with pregnancy and, eventually, life with a newborn.
‘Strengthening your muscles will help you to carry the added weight of pregnancy, ease back ache and strengthen your joints, in turn helping to reduce the aches and pains of the baby growing,’ explains general practitioner, Dr. Sayyada Mawji.
2. Supports you during labour
Secondly, once the pregnancy has run its course, you can reap the reward of increased strength during labour.
‘Strengthening activities can help to improve muscle tone and build stamina, all of which can help during labour,’ says Mawji.
3. Helps with life with a newborn
Strength training is something that can set you and your body up for life – not just pregnancy. And, one way it can really support you is post-pregnancy when a small weighted object will need you and your lifting abilities on the reg.
‘Strength training in pregnancy will pay huge dividends when it comes to life after birth, helping you look after your newborn with all of the lifting, carrying and pram pushing,’ says Mawji.
So, don’t skimp on your resistance work – postpartum life could be somewhat easier because of it.
(It’s also an excuse to go hard on the Nike Maternity range but that’s not strictly a health benefit…)
Answering your pregnancy strength training FAQs
Can you start strength training during pregnancy?
Some quick housekeeping: if you’re planning on strength training during pregnancy, even if you’re continuing on from doing so pre-pregnancy, it’s always best to check with your doctor or midwife first.
‘It’s safe to add resistance to your workout, for example using resistance bands or bodyweight movements, that will strengthen and tone you,’ says Rosie Stockley, pre and postnatal trainer and founder of Mama Well. ‘It is also safe to start weights if you’d like, but be careful with the load.’
Does strength training always have to include weights?
If you’re up pregnancy-creek without a dumbell in sight, don’t fear. Focusing on bodyweight moves and adding light resistance with bands can be enough to build strength and increase endurance – both of which will help you and your body to carry your babe in the womb and beyond.
Is it OK for pregnant women to lift heavy things?
If pre-pregnancy you were throwing about chalky metal or getting down with a kettlebell on the regular, it can seem unnatural to stop everything once you get that positive result.
But is it safe?
‘Your body is changing rapidly, so you want to be sure your workout is beneficial and supports these adaptations,’ says Stockley.
One of these adaptations is the introduction of the pregnancy hormone relaxin, which helps soften the ligaments around your joints during pregnancy and prepares your pelvis and cervix for birth. However, this hormone and the resultant effect can make heavy weight training more dangerous as your joints become unstable.
‘Loading yourself up with too much weight could put excess pressure on your looser joints, risking strain and injury,’ says Stockley.
‘So, during pregnancy, don’t try to embark on a strength or power training programme to dramatically increase strength – instead, just aim to maintain and hone what you’re already doing to support your body.’
What strength exercises should pregnant women focus on?
If you’re familiar with strength training – e.g. have experience, competence and confidence prior to pregnancy – Stockley recommends doubling down on three key moves:
- Deadlifts – activate and strengthen hamstrings, glutes and back muscles.
- Squats – build leg and glute strength to support you during pregnancy.
- Rows – opens the chest and strengthens the upper back which helps support good posture as your breasts grow.
‘Strong upper legs, glutes and back muscles will really help support your bump in addition to your abdominals,’ says Stockley. ‘A strong upper back and chest help to support the breasts as they grow and all the feeding and holding that’s involved post-birth, too.’
Are there any exercises to avoid during pregnancy?
Short story, it depends. Stockley suggest avoiding any movements you’re not familiar with, due to the fact that it’s best to have a pre-pregnancy benchmark of what each exercise should feel like before your body began to change.
Saying that, if you’re working 1:1 with a trainer they may have you perform new exercises which, because you’re under qualified supervision, is permissible.
Trying out new moves solo in your garden? Not so much.
‘As with any workout, you want to avoid pain, so notice how your body is feeling each day. Some movements may cause pelvis or lower back pain in pregnancy, so you’ll want to avoid those,’ says Stockley.
How often should pregnant women strength train?
This will depend on you, your pregnancy and how you’re feeling week-to-week and day-to-day. However, there are some national guidelines to follow.
The UK Chief Medical Officers’ Physical Activity Guidelines for pregnancy recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, with no known adverse risks to a pregnant woman.
‘The guidelines recommend muscle strengthening activities twice a week, however, throughout the pregnancy, the body goes through significant changes, such as increased laxity (looseness) of joints, changes in centre of gravity as the bump grows and an increased resting heart rate,’ explains Mawji.
‘Therefore as the pregnancy progresses, consider modifying your program and be guided by how you feel,’ says Mawji.
6 tips to strength train safely during pregnancy
Now you’re clued up on exactly what strength training during pregnancy entails, let’s get around how to get you doing it safely. Mawji’s broken it down into seven key safety tips to keep you moving well.
1. Start slow
‘In the first trimester, if you weren’t actively weight training before your pregnancy, don’t suddenly take up strenuous weights. Use slow and controlled movements to lift weights as pregnancy hormones cause joints to be loosened and can increase the risk of injury,’ she says.
More tortoise, less hare. Ok?
2. Choose seated movements over lying down
After sixteen weeks general advice is to avoid lifting weights while lying supine (on your back) as it can press on a major vein – the vena cava. ‘Doing so could make you feel dizzy, lightheaded and could limit your baby’s oxygen supply,’ she says. Yikes.
With this in mind – and as your pregnancy progresses into the second trimester – it might be best to take a seat to lift weights. Standing for too long during a workout could cause blood to pool in your legs and make it more difficult to keep good posture as your bump will alter your centre of gravity.
3. Adapt to your changing bump
We know you know your body is changing. You see it, you feel it, it’s real. But does your routine know it?
Changing up your routine as your body changes is one of the most important things to do if you want to continue training safely.
‘Be careful with free weights at this stage as there’s a chance you could accidentally knock your bump,’ advises Mawji.
4. Prioritise your pelvic floor
A strong, flexible pelvic floor is so important for all pregnant women as it can help prevent and treat:
- bladder leaks
- bowel leaks
- pelvic organ prolapse, and;
- improve sexual function
‘National NICE – national institute for health and care excellence– guidelines recommend all pregnant women do daily pelvic floor squeezes,’ says Helen Keeble, pelvic health physiotherapist and c0-founder of UMI Health.
And having a strong pelvic floor, stretches into fitness too, helping safely strength train for longer and heavier without increasing their risk of pelvic floor problems.
‘When lifting any weight, our core cylinder automatically has to engage,’ explains Keeble. ‘The pelvic floor is situated at the bottom of – and is the most important part of – our core. A strong one means a strong core which means you’ll be able to lift heavier weights more safely.’
How to do pelvic floor squeezes
Simply, you need to pretend you’re stopping wind – you should feel a tightening and lifting sensation that begins at the back passage, advises Keeble, adding that there should be no external signs from the outside that you’re doing them. The rest of your body – stomach, legs and bum should all stay still.
How many pelvic floor squeezes to do
‘Eight squeezes at least three times a day,’ recommends Keeble. But, ideally, these need to be short and long ones.
- Short squeezes are where you squeeze and release immediately.
- Long squeezes are where you squeeze and hold for 10-seconds before letting go.
If you feel like you’re not fully releasing between each one – which, heads up, you need to do – take a deep breath in and out. That should release the tension.
5. Don’t hold your breath
A common thing to do when lifting weights is to hold our breath as we huff and puff the heavy things around. Short story: stop doing that.
Try to breathe normally and use the Talk Test – e.g. can you keep up a conversation while working out without feeling breathless – to make sure you’re staying the right side of exertion.
6. Swerve overexertion
This is a biggie – always work within your abilities, limits and comfort. Pregnancy is not the time to try to smash PBs. Sorry, but it’s not. Instead, Mawji advises allowing yourself plenty of rest and time to recover.
7. Avoid lifting weights overhead or up from the floor as your near the end of your pregnancy
Felt your centre of gravity shift as the baby grows and your body changes? Thought so. This change in balance can make you less stable and unfortunately more likely to fall over.
With this in mind, Mawji recommends not lifting any weight over your head or up from the floor, and, if you’re in any doubt to slow down and consult your maternity team.
So, if there’s a weight you want to pick up from the floor – phone a friend. No, literally phone a friend.
Warning signs to look out for when strength training during pregnancy
No matter your experience or skill level, watch out for the following signs during exercise. If you have any of them, stop and seek immediate medical help:
- bleeding from the vagina
- feeling dizzy or faint
- shortness of breath before starting exercise
- chest pain
- muscle weakness
- calf pain or swelling
- regular painful contractions of the uterus
- fluid gushing/leaking from the vagina
- reduced baby movements
Is there anyone who should avoid strength training during pregnancy?
‘If you have an uncomplicated pregnancy without any pre-existing medical conditions then strength training shouldn’t cause any issues,’ says Mawji.
However, she does recommend talking with your doctor if you’d like to continue (or start) weight training in pregnancy as they’ll be able to advise if it’s safe for you to do so.
Nutrition tips to support your pregnancy strength training routine
One last thing before we let you go and safely strength train to your heart’s content: nutrition. How can you fuel yourself to workout and grow a tiny human at the same? Well, with some solid expert advice, it shouldn’t be too difficult. Allow us.
How often to eat
The amount and frequency you eat will change during pregnancy, especially if you’re strength training. However, it doesn’t need to change drastically to begin with.
‘Pregnant women who are strength training and continuing their exercise routine during pregnancy should consider having a small meal or snack every two to three hours that includes a combination of protein, carbs, fibre, and fat to maintain steady blood sugar levels and stable energy throughout the day,’ says registered dietitian, Allison Filepp.
In the first trimester, not much, as increased calories aren’t necessary just yet.
‘However, during the second trimester an additional snack should be added to the usual daily intake. During the third trimester, two snacks or a small meal should be added to the daily diet (compared to pre-pregnancy intake) to ensure both mum and baby are receiving the nutrients they need for optimal health,’ advises Filepp.
What to eat before a workout
‘While it is always best to keep a combination of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, and fibre in mind, choosing foods that are higher in carbs before the workout will help to provide ample energy to get through without hitting the dreaded “wall,”‘ advises Filepp.
Prior to getting your sweat on, she recommends chowing down on:
- Cheese and whole grain crackers
- A piece of whole grain toast with peanut butter and sliced banana
- Greek yoghurt with oats and berries
What to eat after a workout
‘After working out, it’s important to emphasise high quality protein sources to repair muscle and replenish the body’s iron stores,’ says Filepp. ‘As pregnant women have higher iron needs than usual, this piece is critical.’
Some solid post-workout options:
- omelet with spinach and peppers
- broccoli with carrots, hummus, and a handful of nuts
- salad topped with grilled chicken and a dash of balsamic vinaigrette
‘Each of these options has that great pairing of protein, carb, fat, and fibre to replenish the muscles, provide long-lasting energy, and get the most out of your meal,’ she says.
Tip: pair your protein with a source of vitamin C to enhance iron absorption!
Are supplements safe?
Just because you were smashing a pre-workout and protein shake before and after your workouts pre-pregnancy doesn’t mean you should continue on the same vein. In fact, it might be time to put down the pre-workout altogether.
‘It’s typically not recommended to continue to take a pre-workout during pregnancy,’ says Filepp, advising that it’s best to consult a registered dietician to review protein shake ingredients as well.
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