Prenatal Strength Training Exercises

by Dr. Brittany Zis PT, DPT

Strength training is extremely important for women for so many reasons. Regular strength training helps to improve bone density, aiding in the prevention of osteopenia and osteoporosis. In addition, strength training can help prevent injury and pain by ensuring adequate muscle engagement during daily activities. Strength training can also help to maintain hormone balance...great even for preparing your body for conception! During pregnancy, our bodies change significantly. Our body composition changes as we gain weight, our center of mass shifts with our growing bellies, and our ligaments become more lax. Maintaining a strong core and good muscle tone to support our joints through these changes is very important to prevent or decrease pain and discomfort. In addition, we need a lot of strength postpartum to carry our babies, so if we stay strong throughout pregnancy our bodies will thank us when baby is here!

If you were strength training via bodyweight exercises before pregnancy, stick to that routine during pregnancy...don’t go trying to add heavy weights if you weren’t doing that before! If you were using resistance bands or weights pre-pregnancy, go ahead and continue if it feels right for your body and you have no exercise precautions or restrictions per your midwife or OB. It is important to remember that pregnancy is not necessarily the time to be striving for PRs in the gym. Maintaining strength while listening to your body is what’s most important. Walking is a great activity to help maintain endurance and strength and can be a nice addition to a pregnancy workout schedule.

Lastly, no matter what form of strength training you are doing, it is extremely important to be mindful of your breathing! How we breathe through movement and exercise can directly impact our pelvic floor. During pregnancy, the weight of the uterus puts much more pressure on the pelvic floor, which can lead to pelvic floor dysfunction and issues like pelvic organ prolapse, stress incontinence, or pain with urination or intercourse. There are various breathing techniques you can incorporate into your movements. An example includes relaxing your pelvic floor (letting it melt away or open up) while inhaling, and doing this during the non-exertion part of the movement. Then, exhaling during the exertion component of the exercise or movement, while drawing in your pelvic floor gently (think trying to hold back a stream of urine), being mindful not to contract strongly or forcefully.

The following exercises are excellent whether your goal is to strengthen your body while trying to conceive, to maintain strength and prevent pain during pregnancy, or for strengthening post-partum (once cleared by your provider). Several of the exercises can be completed without added resistance and all of them can be completed with the addition of resistance bands, dumbbells, or kettlebells. The number of repetitions and sets per exercise can vary depending on what your specific goals are or what your body needs. No matter what your exercise regime during pregnancy looks like, listen to your body, focus on your breath, and have fun!

 
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1. Squats - target your quadriceps and glutes.

You may complete with or without added resistance from resistance bands, dumbbells, or kettlebells.
Sit back to ensure activation of your glutes in addition to your quadriceps. Keep knees behind your toes.

 
 
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2. Deadlifts – target your scapular muscles, back muscles, glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, abdominals. 

You can complete with dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell. 

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3. Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts
– target your scapular muscles, back muscles, glutes, hamstrings, and abdominals. 

You may complete with or without added resistance from dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell. 

If using a dumbbell or kettlebell, hold the weight in the hand opposite of the leg you are standing on for counter-balance.  As your balance changes during pregnancy, hold onto a stable surface as needed. 

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4. Single Arm Rows

You may complete with a resistance band, dumbbell, or kettlebell. 

Keep your shoulders relaxed and lead the pull with your mid-back muscles. 

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5. Curtsy Lunges – target your quads, glutes, and hip abductors. 

You may complete with or without added resistance from dumbbells or kettlebells. 

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6. Overhead Triceps Extensions – target your triceps. 

You may complete with a resistance band, dumbbell, or kettlebell. 

You may stand or sit. If you’re having trouble keeping your abdominals active in standing, try sitting  to prevent pain in your low back. 

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7. Triceps Dips – target your triceps. 

Consider bending your knees during pregnancy to protect your low back. 

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8. Halos – Target your shoulders and abdominals. 

You may complete with a dumbbell or kettlebell. 

Repeat in both directions to target your shoulders and abdominals symmetrically. 

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9. Rainbow Hip Extensions – target your abdominals and glutes. 

Keep your abdominals engaged to prevent over-arching of your low back. 

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General exercises to avoid during pregnancy, especially as your belly is growing: 

  1. Push-ups, planks, sit-ups, crunches – anything that puts excessive stress on your abdominals! 

  1. Any activities where you are flat on your back for extended periods of time. 

  1. Plyometrics/jumping activities. 

  1. In general, be mindful of exercises that put a lot of strain or stress on your abdominals and a lot of forceful downward pressure on your pelvic floor. 

One last tidbit, ladies.

Be patient and gentle with your bodies. How we exercise during pregnancy may be different than pre-pregnancy. And how we exercise during pregnancy may change with each trimester and our changing bodies and energy levels. Enjoy the process, listen to your body, and do what feels good physically and mentally!  


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Brittany Zis is a Doctor of Physical Therapy in Atlanta, Georgia. She and her husband, Andrew, are expecting their first child in June of 2019. Brittany is passionate about women's health and wellness through all stages of life, especially prenatal and postnatal. Brittany strives to teach women how to care for themselves through these crucial stages in life through movement and exercise, nutrition, and self-care practices.

Her goal is to share tips that can be easily incorporated into busy family life to help women reach their highest potential of health and wellness.

You can find Brittany's tips shared regularly at @dr.brittany_pt on Instagram.

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