With Mother’s Day having recently come and gone, this article is for those who currently are, are thinking of becoming, or may ever become pregnant. I would like to specially dedicate this article to my client, friend, and boss, Caitie Miller who is expecting baby #2 in October 2018 (congrats Caitie and Ed!)
The first question that most people have when it comes to training while pregnant is: is it safe? Not only is it safe to train while pregnant, it is highly recommended (1,2,3,4,5). This article will examine the benefits of training while pregnant, point out the risk factors and how to avoid them, and recommend the best type of training program for pregnant mothers.
Training while pregnant is highly recommended, provided certain precautions are met, and can cause major benefits for the health of mother and fetus both during and after the pregnancy. Weight gain is inevitable during pregnancy but studies showed that women who engaged in regular physical activity while pregnant gained 20% less compared to their non-training counterparts. Furthermore, those women who trained during pregnancy returned more near to their pre-pregnancy weights than those who did not, at their long term post-pregnancy checkups(6). In addition to body weight differences, women who train have been shown to have greatly reduced risk of Gestational Diabetes Mellitus (GDM) and Preeclampsia, a pregnancy related disorder characterized by high blood pressure and other signs and symptoms. Women who engage in exercise training during pregnancy tend to give birth to healthier children with greatly reduced incidence of infantile diabetes (4,5). Other benefits include reduced low back pain, stronger pelvic floors for increased contraction strength and control, better self-image, and decreased incidence of postpartum depression (7)
Although training while pregnant is approved and recommended, it must be done safely with certain precautions to ensure the health of both mother and child. Women should always obtain a physician’s consent prior to participating in any sort of exercise training program. Certain types of movements have been identified as harmful to either the pregnant mother and/or child and are thus contraindicated and should be avoided. One of the first considerations in designing a training program for a pregnant mother is her prior training status. A woman who begins exercise training once she becomes pregnant should adhere to stricter guidelines than a woman who has been moderately or highly trained prior to pregnancy (1,3). For the untrained woman who begins training while pregnant, it is generally advised to avoid intensities exceeding 70% of 1rm on any particular movement, nor should she be exerted to the point of cardiorespiratory fatigue such that she can no longer have a normal conversation. Most recent research suggests that if a woman has been previously trained at percentages greater than the aforementioned 70%, that there is no reason she should not do so once she becomes pregnant. (1,2)
Hyperthermia or excessive body heat is a potential issue that needs to be considered for training pregnant women. This is typically an issue in the first trimester and can be easily mitigated by training in a cool environment and avoiding excessive outdoor training especially in the summer months.
Other movements or exercises to avoid include lying supine (flat on the back), plyometric movements, Olympic weightlifting, any movement that would involve excessive breath holding (excessive being greater than 1-2 seconds), or any movement that would include excessive contact or compression to the abdominal region (1,2,3)
With the above guidelines for contraindications, the door is wide open as to what type of training a pregnant mother can be done. Much of it comes down to what type of movements she enjoys and what she can comfortably do. The ACOG recommends 150 minutes of low to moderate intensity aerobic exercise per week (3). Resistance training is also highly recommended in order to maintain bone and joint health, as well as muscular strength improvements and mitigate weight increases. Despite what may have been said, research suggests that it is perfectly safe for pregnant women to engage in full body resistance training at moderate or even high intensities provided the aforementioned conditions are met and that the prescribed movements and intensities are in-line with the mother’s pre-pregnancy fitness status (1,2,3)
An open line of communication between a trainer and client should always be maintained. Warning signs of which mother and exercise professional, if there is one, should be vigilant include: vaginal bleeding, regular painful contractions, amniotic fluid leakage, dyspenea (difficult or labored breathing), dizziness, headache, chest pain, muscle weakness, imbalance, and calf pain or swelling. If any of these signs or symptoms or observed, exercise should be discontinued immediately.
Schoenfeld, Brad. Resistance Training During Pregnancy: Safe and Effective. NSCA, 33:5, October 2011.
May, Linda. Exercise During Pregnancy and Post Partem. American College of Sports Medicine, 16:3, October 2014.
ACOG Committee. Physical Activity and Exercise During Pregnancy and the Post Partem Period. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. 650, December 2015.
Dempsey JC, Butler CL, Sorensen TK, Lee I-M, Thompson ML, Miller RS, Frederick IO, and Williams MA. A case-control study of maternal recreational physical activity and risk of gestational diabetes mellitus. Diabetes Res Clin Pract 66: 203–215, 2004.
Oken E, Ning Y, Rifas-Shiman SL, Radesky JS, Rich-Edwards JW, and Gillman MW. Associations of physical activity and inactivity before and during pregnancy with glucose tolerance. Obstet Gynecol 108: 1200–1207, 2006.
Pettitt DJ, Nelson RG, Saad MF, Bennett PH, and Knowler WC. Diabetes and obesity in the offspring of Pima Indian women with diabetes during pregnancy. Diabetes Care 16: 310–314, 1993.
Goodwin A, Astbury J, and McMeeken J. Body image and psychological well-being in pregnancy. A comparison of exercisers and non-exercisers. Aust N Z J Obstet Gynaecol 40: 442–447, 2000.