Exercising during pregnancy

by Freydis
Exercising during pregnancy

Congratulations! You or someone you know is about to perform the miracle of life. Pregnancy is an amazing time – just think, your body is busy making a little human.

The pregnant body goes through some major changes. Therefore there are some implications and modifications you should take into account, according to how far along you are. An implication due to the growing belly is of course that it gets in the way when you try to do certain exercises. Modifications will be necessary since you won’t be able to lie on your belly or hug your knees, just to name a couple of implications.

Even though pregnancy might sound like a good reason to stop exercising, due to various factors like tiredness, dizziness, heaviness and the fact that you lose your breath just by climbing a few stairs, the opposite is actually the case. Pregnant bodies should be moderately physically active for a minimum of 30 minutes per day. If you have had pre-eclampsia, the advice is a minimum of 60 minutes per day. Studies have shown many health benefits as a result of exercising during pregnancy and it can decrease the risk of abortion by up to 40%.

For the baby, the benefits of exercise include:

  • lower stress levels at birth
  • fewer are born with green amniotic fluid
  • a higher Apgar Score
  • they weigh about 300 g less than the babies of mothers who don’t exercise
  • lower body-fat mass, up until the age of 9
  • most likely only positive effects

For the mother, the benefits of exercise include:

  • birth occurs 5-7 days before compared to mothers who don’t exercise during pregnancy
  • fewer complications
  • higher chances of vaginal births
  • the average childbirth is 3 hours shorter (hurrah!)
  • less need for assistance during childbirth in the form of cutting or a suction cup
  • it prevents pre-eclampsia
  • fewer nuisances during pregnancy in the form of cramps, back pains and symphysis pubis dysfunction (hurrah again!)
  • less weight gain during pregnancy
  • overall better fitness and physical condition

Just make sure that you don’t push yourself too hard or lose your breath. You should also avoid increasing the intensity of your exercise during the 1st Trimester.

Changes in the cardiovascular system

By the end of the 1st trimester, blood pressure usually falls slightly and then rises again in the 2nd trimester and rises slightly above the normal blood pressure towards the end of the pregnancy.

The blood volume increases during pregnancy, which increases oxygen uptake in the blood. As you get heavier the result of all these factors will cause a decrease in your physical condition and fitness, making you lose your breath (much) more easily.

Relaxin affects the tendons

The hormone Relaxin is responsible for the Linea Alba to become wider, splitting the Rectus Abdominis in half. All of your abdominal muscles become weaker during pregnancy. It’s debatable how much you need to train the Rectus Abdominis, but I advise that you train all the other core muscles, especially the Transversus Abdominis, as long as it feels comfortable and the belly doesn’t make the characteristic “cone” or triangular shape.

Because of this hormone, you should avoid any sudden or jerky movements, as all of the ligaments in the body become affected, making them loose and more prone to injuries. Also, avoid using your full range of motion when exercising, again, because of the looser joints.

Weaker and tighter muscles

As your belly grows your balance-point changes and you start using your muscles differently. Therefore, some muscles become weaker while others become tighter.

During pregnancy, the Gluteus Maximus, Iliopsoas and the Gracilis muscles become weaker, while the Rectus Femoris, Tensor Fasciae Latae, Sartorius, Iliocostalis Lumborum, Longissimus Thoracis and the Piriformis become tighter.

To avoid musculoskeletal problems during pregnancy it’s a good idea to focus on strengthening the muscles that become weak and stretching the muscles that become tight.

Gluteus Maximus

This muscle is the visible part of your buttock muscles and the largest one of the Gluteus muscle group. Its function is primarily leg extension, but it also laterally rotates the thigh at the hip, abducts the thigh and assist in stabilizing the extended knee by tightening the iliotibial tract.

Some good exercises you can do while pregnant are Squats (that gradually become Sumo Squats as the belly grows), Donkey Kicks, Single-leg Bridge, Single-leg Deadlifts (as long as your balance is good) and Leg Abductions.

Iliopsoas

This muscle group is also called the hip bender muscles. It consists of the Psoas Major muscle and the Iliacus muscle. Together they are responsible for flexing the thigh at the hip, laterally rotate the thigh at the hip and flexing the vertebral column.

To strengthen the Iliopsoas you can do some Leg Lifts with an elastic band or Boat Pose in the first two trimesters – the Boat Pose becomes very difficult, if not impossible towards the end of your pregnancy.

Gracilis

You use this muscle to adduct the thigh. It’s a long and lean muscle that’s placed on the inner thigh. To strengthen it you can do Sumo Squats and Hip Adductions.

Stretches for the tighter muscles

For stretches, I recommend focusing on the muscles that become tighter during pregnancy. I also recommend stretching the whole body in general.
The muscles that tend to become tighter during pregnancy are located on the front thigh, hips and lower back. If these muscles are not stretched it could lead to problems with the Iscias nerve.

Keep in mind that your range of motion is increased during pregnancy because of the hormone relaxin, so avoid any exaggerated stretches to shield your joints and tendons.

Rectus Femoris

Is located in front of the thigh and flexes the thigh at the hip. It can be stretched in a lunge or low lunge and the Rectus Femoris stretch – a standing stretch, where you hold one foot at your buttock while keeping the hips stable and the knees next to each other.

Tensor Fasciae Latae

This muscle is located on the lateral side of the hip. It abducts and flexes the thigh at the hip. It’s attached to a long tendon, the iliotibial tract, that passes the lateral side of the knee and inserts under the knee. It can be responsible for many injuries and nuisances if the muscle becomes tight. Good stretches you can do while pregnant are Lying Twists (avoid twists in the 1st trimester), Pigeon Pose and TFL stretch.

Sartorius

Is a long and lean muscle that flexes the leg at the knee. It can be stretched in a declined Hero Pose or the Sartorius Stretch.

Iliocostalis Lumborum

This muscle is located alongside the lower part of either side of the spine and helps to extend the lower part of the back and laterally flex the cervical vertebrae. Therefore it will be stretched in any Side stretch, seated (crosslegged/wide-legged), standing, in Childs pose, a Lying twist or a Triangle pose.

Longissimus Thoracis

Lyes alongside a large part of either side of the spine on the middle of the back. Its function is to extend and hyperextend, as well as to laterally flex the vertebral column. It can be stretched in Cat Pose and Neck stretches – and these feel so good pregnant or not!

Piriformis

This small muscle is located deep in the hip. It laterally rotates the thigh at the hip and abducts the thigh if the hip is flexed. The muscle is stretched in a Seated Twist, Pigeon Pose or Thread the Needle Pose, which is best to do seated during pregnancy.

Other pregnancy exercise advice

In general, throughout the whole pregnancy, it’s important that you listen to your body, and avoid any exercises that don’t feel comfortable. You should stop the activity if you feel pain in the uterus or if you experience pressure in your pelvis, as though the baby is pressuring on the pelvic area and also if you get dizzy.

Do’s:

  • Other than the exercises listed above, you should start doing Kegel exercises to prepare for birth from the second trimester!
  • It can also be helpful to do exercises that help the blood flow up from the legs. It can be as simple as laying on your back with your legs up against a wall.
  • When you strength train, engage you kegel muscles while doing the exercise.
  • If you have a membership to a gym, opt for the strength training machines over the free-standing weights to avoid injuries.
  • When you are pregnant, each muscle group needs 48 hours to recover.
  • I think it is a good idea to strengthen the back muscles during pregnancy as well because once your baby is born, you will be holding him or her a lot, which can make the chest muscles tight and the back muscles loose. So throw some rows and pullups or pulldowns in the mix – you will be glad you did!

Dont’s:

  • After week 20 you should avoid exercises that require laying on your back, as the weight of your growing uterus can close off the flow from the veins in your legs.
  • Sports where you are at risk of falling, getting punches or hits.
  • Sports where the balance is required.

Exercising in the 1st Trimester of Pregnancy

In the first trimester, your little one’s organs are being formed, and that requires a lot of energy. Therefore you probably feel very tired – all the time.

Exercising in the 1st Trimester
Exercising in the 1st Trimester

The fetus is very fragile at this stage as it is still trying to implant. To give the fetus better chances to successfully do so, there are some exercises and moves you can avoid. At the same time, you need to keep the oxygen flowing throughout your body by staying active, in order to avoid pregnancy complications.

Here is some advice on what should be avoided during the 1st trimester of the pregnancy:

  • Jump backs (often seen in yoga)
  • Twists of the abdomen
  • Stretches of the abdomen
  • Inversions (like a headstand, or anything where your body is upside-down)
  • Heavy lifting – if you lift weights, aim for 15 reps of 20 RM (meaning: In any given exercise, you aim for a weight of which you can lift a max of 20 repetitions, but instead of lifting 20 times you only do 15 reps)
  • Standing for too long
  • Getting too warm
  • Dehydration
  • Holding your breath
  • Contact sports and sports where you are in risk of falling or getting hits to your belly
  • Any exercises or moves that make you feel uncomfortable

Nice to do

Here is some advice on what’s really good for you and the fetus during the 1st Trimester of pregnancy:

  • Strength training, aim for 15 reps of 20 RM
  • Yoga or pilates – just avoid the twists, stretches of the abdomen and inversions
  • Prenatal breathing and stretching exercises
  • Meditation

Need to do

Here is what you should try to incorporate into your daily routine for optimal health for yourself and your little belly dweller during the 1st trimester:

  • 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, daily. Such as swimming, jogging/running, dancing, biking etc.
  • Stay hydrated – preferably with water

Exercising in the 2nd Trimester of Pregnancy

Congratulations! You got through the 1st trimester. For many, now the discomforts of the 1st trimester will have lifted – aka morning sickness and fatigue. Plus the belly is not as big, as it’s going to be in the 3rd trimester. Therefore the second trimester is the most comfortable time of the pregnancy, for most women.

Exercising in the 2nd Trimester
Exercising in the 2nd Trimester

The baby is securely implanted in the womb, which means that if you were used to jump-backs and inversions in your yoga routine before you got pregnant, you can start doing those again now – but only as long as they feel good.

Below I’ve listed some of the things that should be avoided in association with your exercise routine during the 2nd trimester of pregnancy:

  • Heavy lifting – if you lift weights, aim for 15 reps of 20 RM
  • Often a Shoulder Stand (Salamba Sarvangasana), can cause discomfort during pregnancy, and if it does for you, please leave it out of your routine
  • Holding your breath
  • Lying on your belly
  • Intense abdominal work
  • Extreme backbends
  • Contact sports and sports where you are at risk of falling or getting hits to your belly
  • Standing for too long
  • Getting too warm
  • Dehydration
  • Any exercise or moves that make you feel uncomfortable!

If you start feeling dizzy during your exercise, please sit down in a kneeling position (Vadrasana in Yoga) with a long straight spine and take deep breaths.

Nice to do

Here are some things that would be really good to incorporate into your daily routine during the 2nd trimester:

  • Strength training, aim for 15 reps of 20 RM
  • Yoga – just remember to avoid Shoulder Stand (Salamba Sarvangasana), poses on your belly, extreme backbends or intense abdominal work, Crow Pose (Bakasana) and other arm balances, as well as any poses that make you feel uncomfortable
  • Prenatal breathing and stretching exercises
  • Meditation

Need to do

Just like in the 1st trimester, 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercises (such as swimming, walking/jogging, dancing, cycling etc.) and drinking about 1,5-2 l of water should be incorporated into your daily routine.

In the 2nd trimester, kegel exercises need to become part of that routine as well. It doesn’t have to require a lot of time. You can do them in bed either in the morning or evening. You can even do them on the train, if you commute to work or while waiting in line at the supermarket.

Exercising in the 3rd Trimester of Pregnancy

In the last three months of the pregnancy, the feeling of increased fatigue starts to settle in for most women. By now it almost feels as though the belly is growing by each passing day.

Exercising in the 3rd Trimester
Exercising in the 3rd Trimester

Some women experience swelling, especially of the feet. You could also experience water retention. Heartburn and indigestion are also a common third-trimester nuisance. And overall there are many aches and pains accompanied by the third trimester.

As mentioned earlier, during pregnancy the body releases a hormone, relaxin, which allows your ligaments to loosen so your baby has an easier passage through your pelvis and so the belly can expand. This hormone has an effect on all of your body’s ligaments, making all of them lose, so you are more prone to injury during and a while after pregnancy. Therefore, please take that into account and don’t push yourself into any extreme poses.

With the growing belly, you may experience many discomforts in the 3rd trimester. Your breathing is affected, it becomes difficult to put your shoes on, and you probably experience lower back pains if you’ve gone crazy with something like tidying up or making dinner (…sigh).

Here are some of the modifications you should take into account in the 3rd trimester:

  • Lying on your back for too long – if you feel discomfort, roll over to the side and out of the position
  • Lying on your belly – this is probably a given, but I’ll mention it anyway
  • Any exercise with so much intensity, that you can’t talk during it. If you’re out of breath your baby is not getting enough oxygen.
  • Heavy lifting – if you lift weights, aim for 15 reps of 20 RM
  • Standing for too long
  • Getting too warm
  • Dehydration
  • Holding your breath
  • Intense abdominal work
  • Extreme backbends
  • Balancing exercises without something you can hold on to
  • Contact sports and sports where you are at risk of falling or getting hits to your belly
  • Any exercise or moves that make you feel uncomfortable!

Nice to do

Below I’ve listed some activities that are really good for you and your baby, but not essential:

  • Lie on your side, while sleeping or while in Shavasana
  • Strength training, aim for 15 reps of 20 RM
  • Yoga – Your current yoga practice should be entirely about opening, preparing for birth (with lots of hip openers), and nurturing yourself and your growing offspring. Find a prenatal class either in your area or online
  • Restorative moves that create space in your body
  • Prenatal birthing class
  • Prenatal breathing and stretching exercises
  • Meditation

Need to do

Here I’ve listed some activities that are recommended for a mother to be in the 3rd trimester:

  • 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, daily – like swimming, walking, biking etc. – just avoid being out of breath!
  • Kegel exercises
  • Leg exercises that help the blood flow from your legs to the heart
  • Stay hydrated – preferably with water

As long as you feel comfortable and good, and haven’t gotten any restrictions from your health practitioner, most exercise and moves are OK. Just remember to listen to your body and if you’re out of breath, so is your baby.

I’ve also written a post about post-pregnancy and exercising, check it out here.

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