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The Best Pregnancy-Safe Exercises at Home and the Gym

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The excitement (or sheer panic) you felt when you saw those two blue or pink lines appear is likely something you’ll never forget. And now that you’re pregnant, you might be wondering what needs to change and what can stay the same.

The good news? Staying active tops the list of things to keep for the next 9 months.

And whether you’re looking to continue your current workout routine or start a new one, we’ve got you covered. From cardio and strength training to stretching and core exercises, here’s everything you need to know about staying fit during your pregnancy.

Benefits of exercising while pregnant

If you think of exercise solely as a way to fit into a smaller pair of pants, you may need to shift your perspective (and priorities) now that you’re pregnant.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), exercising during pregnancy can lead to a lower incidence of:

It’s also an excellent way to:

  • maintain physical fitness
  • reduce low back pain (hello, growing tummy!)
  • manage symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • reduce stress
  • improve postpartum recovery

Brooke Cates, prenatal and postpartum fitness expert and owner of Studio Bloom, says some exercises can be implemented in each trimester to support the body through its physical changes while preparing for an easier return to exercise postpartum.

She emphasizes a shift of focus on core and pelvic floor awareness, which can help you build a deeper core-based connection before the real changes begin to take place.

Safety tips for exercises while pregnant

When considering exercises for pregnancy, Cates says there aren’t a lot of activities that need to be removed from your current regimen.

“While the majority of exercises can be continued throughout each trimester, modifying and scaling back where needed can help increase the strength, stability, and physical adaptability as your body changes,” she says.

With that in mind, here are some general safety tips to consider when exercising during pregnancy, according to the ACOG.

  • Get clearance from your doctor if you’re new to exercise or you have any health conditions that may contraindicate exercise.
  • Drink plenty of water before, during, and after exercise.
  • Wear supportive clothing such as a supportive sports bra or belly band.
  • Don’t become overheated, especially during the first trimester.
  • Avoid lying flat on your back for too long, especially during the third trimester.
  • Avoid contact sports and hot yoga.

Cardio for all three trimesters

Cardiovascular exercises such as walking, swimming, jogging, and stationary cycling are top picks during all three trimesters.

Unless your doctor has told you to modify physical activity, follow the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week.

If you’re used to doing vigorous-intensity exercises such as running or your fitness level is high, the ACOG says you can continue these activities during pregnancy — with your doctor’s clearance, of course.

Exercises to do in the first trimester of pregnancy

The first three months of pregnancy can be a wild ride of emotions. From elation and pure joy to concern, worry, and even fear as you begin to realize that you’re responsible for nourishing, growing, and keeping this tiny soon-to-be human being safe and healthy.

As long as you’re not considered a high-risk pregnancy, physical therapist Heather Jeffcoat, DPT, says you can continue with your regular exercise routine in the first trimester.

The foundation of a well-rounded prenatal fitness routine should include at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular activity each week and 2 to 3 days of strength training exercises that target the major muscle groups.

It should also focus on specific exercises that help make pregnancy easier and prepare you for labor and childbirth. (It may seem far off — but it will be here before you know it!)

One area of importance, says Jeffcoat, is to work on body awareness to prepare for changes in your posture. “Doing an exercise like the pelvic curl is a great way to begin working on spinal mobility and strengthening the abdominal muscles that will support your belly as it grows,” she says.

Pelvic curl

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, about hip-width apart.
  2. Take a deep breath in to prepare, then exhale as you tuck your pelvis (your “hips”) so that you’re making an impression of your spine on the floor.
  3. Keep that tucked position as you continue the exhale and roll through the movement so that you are lifting your spine out of that impression, one vertebra at a time.
  4. Stop when you reach your shoulder blades.
  5. Inhale at the top of the movement, then exhale as you fold your body back down, placing one vertebra at a time back onto the floor until you get to your starting position on the back of your pelvis (your “hips,” as many people will refer to them as).
  6. Do 12 to 15 reps. For an added challenge, bring your legs all the way together.

Pelvic brace

Do this throughout pregnancy as long as you don’t have pelvic floor symptoms such as painful intercourse or urinary urgency.

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, about hip-width apart.
  2. Place your pelvis and low back into a “neutral” position. To find this, make sure you’re resting on the back of your pelvis and creating a small space in your lower back (your back should not be pressed into the floor).
  3. Inhale to prepare, then exhale to perform a Kegel contraction by gently closing the openings (the urethra, the vagina, and anus). As you are performing this contraction, notice how your lower abdominal muscles want to work with that.
  4. Slightly draw the lower abs in with the Kegel. Inhale, relax the abs and pelvic floor, exhale repeat contraction.
  5. Do 2 sets of 8 to 15 repetitions of 3- to 5-second holds, once or twice a day.

Kneeling pushups

This move targets core and upper body strengthening together.

  1. Lie flat on your stomach, then push up onto your hands and knees, keeping your knees behind your hips.
  2. Pull in your abs (the pelvic brace), and then slowly lower your chest toward the floor as you inhale.
  3. Exhale as you press back up.
  4. Start with 6 to 10 and gradually work up to 20 to 24 reps.

Squats

The first trimester is also an ideal time to get squatting! If you have access to the gym, you can also use the leg press machine. Squats — especially bodyweight squats — can be done throughout your entire pregnancy.

Plus, since squats strengthen all the muscles in your lower body — including the quads, glutes, and hamstrings — Jeffcoat says keeping these muscles strong is a great way to protect your back, so you use your legs instead of your back when lifting.

  1. Stand in front of a couch, with your back facing the couch. Begin with feet just wider than hip-width apart. Use the couch as a guide to ensure proper form.
  2. Squat down like you’re about to sit down on the couch, but come back up just as your thighs start to touch it.
  3. Make sure you take 5 seconds to go down 3 seconds to come back up.
  4. Exhale as you squat; inhale as you stand.
  5. Do 2 sets of 15 to 20 reps.

Related: 5 ways to perform squats safely during pregnancy

Bicep curls

This simple — yet effective — move is another top pick throughout pregnancy. Jeffcoat says bicep curls are a key move to add to your workouts since you need to prep your arms for repeatedly lifting and holding your baby.

  1. Grab 5- to 10-pound dumbbells and stand with your feet slightly wider than your hips and your knees slightly bent.
  2. Exhale as you slowly bend your elbows, bringing the dumbbells toward your shoulders.
  3. Inhale and slowly lower the weights back down.
  4. Take 3 seconds to lift the dumbbells and 5 seconds to lower.
  5. Do 2 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

Some variations and additional strength training moves to include in the first trimester, according to Brittany Robles, MD, CPT include:

  • lunges with weight
  • glute bridge (if you’re experiencing any pelvic pain or have a history of pelvic pain with pregnancies, you can also add ball squeezes in between your thighs during the glute bridges)
  • standard pushups

When it comes to what you should avoid during the first trimester, Robles says to put your high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on hold since it’s an easy way to exhaust yourself early in pregnancy.

Robles also recommends avoiding any exercise where you can experience trauma, such as contact sports.

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