When you’re expecting, regular exercise can be one of the best things you can do for yourself and your baby. The right movement can give you more energy, relieve lower back pain (a common pregnancy woe) and help pave the way for postpartum weight loss.
As a personal trainer for over 12 years, I’m used to a daily training regimen and I love to use a variety of exercises to keep myself from getting bored. However, when I got pregnant, I felt limited as to what I could now do. No more high intensity training? Sad face.
My old way of training consisted of a lot of heavy weight lifting, plyometrics, calisthenics, interval training, and basically everything that’s a don’t for pregnancy.
Besides having to take my intensity down several notches, I’ve also had to focus solely on exercises that were not just safe, but also effective without straining my pregnant body.
Here’s a handy list for you of seven of my favorites that I used in the first trimester and beyond, all the way to now in my third trimester!
I’ll give reasons why each is superior to other choices you may have been using in the past and how much of each exercise you should do during your pregnancy.
I’m confident that by doing these regularly, you’ll be able to maintain your fitness throughout your full term in the safest way possible.
As a quick disclaimer: These exercises are best for moms who were already working out regularly pre-pregnancy. If you did not work out at all before getting pregnant, then now is not the best time to start, but if you still want to, then I urge you to seek help from a qualified trainer. Prenatal certified trainers can ensure you’re working out with the right form and choosing the right types of exercises, and also monitor your rest periods to make sure you don’t overdo it.
You can use all seven of these in the amounts below to make a complete full-body workout, or just pick your favorites and use them throughout your pregnancy.
Seated Cable Pull Downs
Pull downs are a much better option than pull ups for you during pregnancy. Even if you were doing pull ups regularly before pregnancy, I would have you switch to these instead. Pull downs work the same muscles in your back but with less stretch of your core muscles and abdominal skin, as well as with less risk of injury from falling or pulling a muscle. That may sound overly cautious, but now’s a good time to be overly cautious. Remember, pregnancy is not forever. You can get back to doing pull ups a few months after delivery.
With pull downs, you can go up in weight as heavy as you want to simulate the resistance you’d get by doing a pull up, but for most moms-to-be, doing higher rep sets of 15 or 20 is going to be better during this time than lifting as heavy as you can. Keep that in mind and decrease the amount of weight you’re lifting to allow for more repetitions.
Start by grabbing the handles, either of two separate cables or a bar attached to one cable. Take a seat on a bench low enough that your arms are fully extended and you feel some stretch. Pull the handles down toward the tops of your shoulders and flex your back muscles. Slowly return back to the starting position and repeat. Make sure not to grip the handlebars too tightly as this may overstress your hands, wrists, and forearms. You main focus should be on flexing your latissimus dorsi muscles that run down the sides of your back.
Complete 3 sets of 20 reps
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Choose seated exercises whenever possible rather than standing, especially if the weights will be over your head. In some cases, if you’re experiencing back pain, you may not want to do any overhead exercises at all, but, if all is well, these are great for keeping your arms and shoulders toned.
You definitely want to minimize the core activation; by sitting on a platform, you’ll automatically take some tension off the core. Ideally, use a chair with a back on it if you have access to one. Choose a weight that is lighter than you would normally choose and remember to inhale with each lowering of the weight and exhale with each press. Your breathing is always important with weight training but especially important during pregnancy.
Holding the dumbbells at shoulder-width just above your shoulders, check to make sure your posture is upright and you have a neutral curve in your lower back. Press the dumbbells overhead until your arms straighten completely. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position and repeat.
Complete 3 sets of 10 reps
Incline Bench Press
Guidelines for pregnancy include avoiding lying flat on your back; your growing uterus has the potential to put pressure on the main vein circulating blood back from the lower body, which can interfere with optimum blood circulation. Although the uterus is still small in your first trimester, you may as well get used to lying at a slight incline instead of flat. Trust me, eventually you will feel the weight of your big round belly.
So whenever doing any bench exercises, simply switch to an incline bench instead of a flat bench. I recommend using an incline of at least 30%.
Choose a set of dumbbells that are lighter than you would normally use.
To complete this exercise, start by holding the dumbbells with straight arms above your chest and bend your elbows to slowly lower the weights towards your shoulders. Once you feel a stretch across your chest, press the weights back up to the starting position and flex your chest and arm muscles. Inhale as you lower the weights and exhale as you press the weights up.
Complete 3 sets of 15 reps
Reverse Dumbbell Lunges
Choose reverse lunges over forward lunges. It’s good to get in the habit of transferring your weight to the back rather than the front. In a few months’ time, you’ll have quite a bit of excess weight pulling you forward, so choose exercises that encourage upright posture and work your posterior chain. Reverse lunges are great whether you’re pregnant or not, but they are the best and safest lunge form for pregnancy because of your new weight distribution.
Hold your Dumbbells by your hips and make sure your posture is straight with shoulders slightly pulled back. Keep your head up and your neck in a neutral position. Take a big step back and aim to make a 90-degree bend with both the front and back leg. Barely tap your back knee to the ground, OR if you are new to lunging, just lunge halfway down, then return to the standing position.
Complete 3 sets of 10 reps per side, alternating for 20 reps per set
Holding one dumbbell in a “goblet” fashion rather than holding two dumbbells or one barbell on your back is going to require less core stability than any other squat option, so this is the best way for you to be squatting with weights right now.
Hold the dumbbell by one end, tight to your body, with both hands right underneath your chin. Keeping the dumbbell where it is, squat down until your thighs are parallel with the ground. I recommend you keep your feet in a wide stance, as this will help later in pregnancy as your belly starts to grow. Pause when you reach the bottom, then press your heels into the ground to return to your standing position. Make sure that your heels do not lift off the ground, especially at the bottom position. Flex all your leg and butt muscles at the top and repeat.
Complete 3 sets of 15 reps
Single Arm Rows
Single arm rows are one of the best ways to work your back muscles during pregnancy. Strengthening your back will ultimately help your posture, which is being compromised by your growing breasts and belly. Using a bench to support you means less stress on your core, and by focusing on one side at a time you can really concentrate on your back muscles stretching and contracting.
To start this exercise, find a bench or platform that’s long enough to support your knee and hand on one side of your body. Come into an all fours position on the bench, then stick one leg out with your foot securely on the floor. Use that same side hand to grab your dumbbell. Row the weight up towards your armpit with your elbow coming up above your back. Flex your back muscles on that side while keeping the standing elbow in a strong and active stance. Do not rotate your body at all, and keep your chest facing down throughout the movement. Slowly return the dumbbell to the stretched starting position and repeat.
Complete 3 sets of 12 reps per side, for 24 reps per set
Tricep Cable Push Downs
Every mama needs to tone her triceps! This is one of the first places fat gets stored for women and it can be one of the saggiest muscles we have. Don’t let your beautiful mama triceps turn into bat wings. This is one of the best tricep exercises for pregnancy because it puts little to no stress on the core.
To do tricep cable push downs, find a cable with a high setting (it should be above your shoulder height) and attach a rope or straight bar attachment. Stand facing the cable, with an athletic stance, knees slightly bent, and grab onto the rope or bar and straighten your arms all the way down until your fingertips touch your thighs. Make sure that your arms straighten all the way; if your legs are blocking a full range of motion, then step back slightly. Flex the back of your arms as hard as you can and then slowly release by bending your elbows and returning to the starting position. Remember to keep your elbows close to your rib cage throughout the movement. You don’t want to move your entire arm—just the lower part, from the elbow to wrist.
Repeat and make sure to flex your triceps as hard as you can with each rep.
Complete 3 sets of 15 reps
(Your Next Workout: Do’s and Dont’s: Prenatal Workout Safety for the First Trimester)