How to Adapt Your Workout to Pregnancy

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Pregnancy changes everything, especially your body. Many women want to stay active but are unsure how or even if they can continue exercising. Fears of hurting the baby are piled on top of fears of losing the pre-baby body forever. It can be pretty overwhelming and stressful, which is the last thing you want when you’re pregnant. So we talked to three pregnancy fitness experts to find out how to adapt your workout when you’re exercising for two.


Dr. Lindsey Mathews, D.C., founder of Birthfit specializes in functional movement training, “Our goal is to empower women so they feel comfortable exercising throughout their pregnancy and also during birth and post-partum.”


Dr. Mathews recommends alternating days of heavy weight-bearing exercise with lighter activity like swimming or yoga. She loves Every-Minute-On-The-Minute, or EMOM workouts for expecting mamas. For example: You could do a medium/heavy farmer’s carry for one minute, followed by five, strict pull-ups on the next minute, she says. “This is a good way to practice your skill without going too high in intensity, because it forces you to rest.”


According to Dr. Mathews, as soon as you get a belly you should limit your barbell work. This is because you don’t want your bar paths to change. This can lead to developing bad lifting habits that stick. Instead, she recommends switching out the barbell for kettle bells or dumbbells, which give the same results. And although every woman’s capacity is different, Dr. Mathews keeps all of her clients on a strict, 4-day max workout schedule. She allows her clients to use one of the other three days for light activity, like yoga or walking, but they must reserve the other two days for rest, relaxation, and restorative practices like massage and meditation.


Erica Ziel is a certified personal trainer and founder of Core Athletica Inc. and Knocked-Up Fitness. Because some traditional pilates moves aren’t ideal for expecting mothers, Zeil describes her prenatal training as “pilates-infused” fitness.


Zeil focuses on deep core stimulation work, using positions that activate the pelvic floor and the transverse abdominal muscles. Examples include kegals, squats and lunges. She also recommends full-body moves like side planks and upper body moves.


According to Zeil, you should steer clear of anything that puts you in a crunched position that creates intra-abdominal stress: crunches, teasers and deep twists are no-nos. She also advises to avoid jarring movements or anything that requires quick changing of motion.


As opposed to higher intensity workouts like weightlifting or spinning you might wonder how you could go wrong with yoga. For the most part, yoga is great for soon-to-be-moms but there are a few positions and conditions you want to be mindful of (pun intended).


Mary Beth LaRue, yogi, life coach, and co-founder of Rock Your Bliss also recommends lunges and squatting for pregnancy, along with balancing poses like dancer, warrior 2, triangle and tree, and (my personal favorite) supta baddha konasana – the technical term for laying on your back like a frog. As you get farther along in your pregnancy, LaRue advises you use supports like bolsters and blocks, especially when lying down, and rather than lying on your back in shavasana, Zeil says to lay on your left side with a bolster or blanket supporting your head and in between your legs.


LaRue recommends avoiding a really heated practice especially in the first trimester – this can be a hot yoga class or a more intense practice that builds a lot of heat on its own. You can take on more heat in the second trimester, but the highest risk of miscarriage is before week ten she says, “During this time women should be encouraging an optimal environment in the uterus.” Like Zeil, LaRue advises women to avoid positions like deep twists, that create pressure on the midsection. As for inversions, those are a personal choice. There is a chance that the baby could breach, but according to LaRue, some women who know their bodies very well can practice inversions safely.


“If you love spinning, you’re conditioned for the sport and it feels good for you, then go for it,” says Zeil.


Zeil recommends adjusting your seat and handlebars so that you’re not so rounded forward – remember we want to avoid anything that puts your belly in a crunched position. She also says you may need to back off on your intensity towards the end of your pregnancy. How do you know if you’ve gone too far? Zeil, along with the rest of the experts, says you should always be able to carry on a light conversation. If you’re huffing and puffing, you’re working too hard.


Get dehydrated. If you’ve ever been to a spin class you know that spinning makes you sweat, and we’re not talking a glowy dew. It’s more like a torrential downpour coming from places you didn’t even know could perspire. Dehydration could send you into preterm or false labor says Zeil, so if you’re sweatin’ to the oldies make sure you’ve got plenty of H2O on hand at all times. And here’s a little tip from us here at SmartyPants – add a pinch of sea salt to your water. This will help you retain the water better.


“For me, it’s just something that makes me feel better, it’s the one time I feel like I’m still being me” said Desiree Ficker, professional triathlete, marathon runner and founder of Fit Fickers, a children’s running and triathlon group in Austin, TX.


Ficker, who’s currently pregnant with her second child, keeps her runs to about five to six miles a day, sometimes going a bit longer but only if she feels like it. For Ficker, running actually helps alleviate morning sickness. She recommends fartlek, or interval-style workouts where you alternate 30 seconds of running with one minute of walking or light jogging. This way you’re giving your body time to rest. If you have access to hilly terrain, she likes to run up the hills and walk down, which offers cardio plus a bit of strength training. Ficker is a fan of incorporating strength training into her workouts, usually ending her runs with some lunges or squats, plus a side or two of sporadic pushups throughout the day. “It’s important to keep your legs and core strong as your belly gets bigger and strength training is a great way to do this.”


Like all of our other experts, Ficker says the most important thing is to avoid getting too hot, noting that she often switches up running with swimming, as a great way to get cardio without the danger of overheating. So make sure if you’re going out for a jog you have plenty of cold water on hand. If you feel yourself getting hot, Ficker says to pour water over your head and wrists, which are cooling points that will help keep your internal temperature down.


Since we’re talking prenatal exercise we think it’s worth addressing the fear of diastasis recti, or abdominal separation. This is when the right and left sides of the rectus abdominus muscle separate and it happens to about 1 in 3 pregnant mothers. A popular theory is that exercise during pregnancy can cause or make this separation worse. According to the experts this isn’t exactly true. Separation occurs when your muscles are weak so you want to focus on strengthening them – the trick is knowing how.


The dreaded belly bulge is often caused by overtraining your obliques and rectus abdominis – the muscles on the outside, and not paying enough attention to the transverse abdominals (TVA) – the ones on the inside. The TVAs are the ones you use when you suck in your stomach, so both before, during and after pregnancy, focus on activating these muscles in everything you do, from sneezing, coughing and laughing, to getting out of bed, picking up your baby (or any other kind of weighted object), and even going to the bathroom.


  • Avoid movements where the upper body twists like triangle pose.
  • Any move or position that stretches your belly outward like lying backward over an exercise ball, or yoga postures like cow pose, up-dog and any kind of backbend.
  • “Belly breathing
  • ”Exercises that put you in a crunched position like traditional crunches, oblique crunches, “bicycles”, pilates teasers or roll ups.
  • Pilates mat and reformer exercises that utilize the “head float” position, upper body flexion, or double leg extension.
  • Lifting and carrying very heavy objects
  • Intense coughing without abdominal support


Although each of our experts had some specific tips for their sport of choice, they agreed on their most important pieces of advice:


A good rule of thumb when you’re exercising and pregnant is to make sure you can always carry on a conversation. “If you’re gasping for breath, you’ve gone into the red zone” says Ficker. According to all our experts, the point of prenatal fitness is not setting world records, but just doing some kind of activity that makes you feel better – not worse. Dr. Mathews also notes that 20-30 minutes after you work out you should be able to feel some movement in your belly. If your baby’s movement is slower than normal, get checked out by your doctor.


Make sure you keep plenty of water on hand and if you feel like you’re overheating, stop. How hot is too hot? The Conversation Rule is a good measure – if you can’t form a sentence you’re probably too hot, but common sense also goes a long way here. Practicing yoga sculpt in a 110 degree room is probably not a good idea… Or doing anything in 110 degrees for that matter.


Last but certainly not least. In fact, this is the most important rule of all and probably the hardest to follow. Each expert we spoke with had the same thing to say: it depends on the woman. Some can go hard-core all the way up to when they’re in the stirrups, while others can barely make it off the couch. The pregnancy fitness spectrum is huge and there’s not much you can, or should do to try and change were you’re at on it.

This can be hard for fitness fanatics. Typically you push through the hard workouts and feel great when you do, but this is one time when you need to quiet the voices in your head and listen to the one in your body. “Your body is really good at telling you what’s working” says Ficker, “it won’t let you go too hard in a way.” So if you feel worse during or after your workouts, you might need to modify or try something different. Mathews recommends doing some simple squats to get the blood flowing, while one of Zeil’s favorite pregnancy exercises is walking. She advises everyone to err on the side of doing too little rather than too much. The key when pregnant is movement, not setting your personal best. So go for a stroll, a swim, even a supported savasana, as long as whatever you’re doing makes you feel good.


Know any expecting mamas? Share this with them!

What about you? Are you pregnant or have you been? How did you get your workout on? We’d love to hear your tips and suggestions in the comments!


Grace is a graduate of Duke University and certified Nutritional Therapist. You can find more from Grace at