Exercises to Build Strength During Pregnancy | Health, Medicine and Fitness

Dana Sullivan

If you have a normal, healthy pregnancy, you may want to add some low-intensity strength training and daily exercise to your regimen. Pregnancy is not the time to start new or strenuous sports, but if your healthcare provider is okay, you can start toning the muscles in your upper and lower body – you will need them!

During pregnancy, the extra weight in your belly and breasts can cause you to slump over and around your shoulders. Developing the muscles in your back and shoulders will improve your posture and make it easier to carry your baby, but that’s just one result. After your baby is born, you will be amazed at how many times you need upper body strength to get through the day. Holding your baby to feed her, lifting her on the changing table ten times a day, and carrying endless baskets of laundry will be so much more comfortable when your muscles are ready.

You also need a strong pair of legs. Your legs are your foundation: they support your belly, your baby and your back. As the pregnancy progresses and your abs are stretched to the limit, strong legs become essential.

Moves that require you to use multiple muscles at once are ideal for your upper and lower body, as you can work most of the major muscles in your body in just a few moves.

Here are some simple, effective exercises to strengthen your upper and lower body. Aim to do 8 to 15 reps of each at least twice a week. Start with one set and then work your way up to two. As your pregnancy progresses, hold on to the back of a chair if you need extra support during the leg exercises. Warm up before each workout with a brisk walk of 5 to 10 minutes. The equipment used in these exercises is inexpensive and can be found in regular stores.

Best Exercises During Pregnancy

Seated high row (strengthens your lats and upper back): Sit on the floor with your legs forward, knees slightly bent. Keep your spine in a neutral (straight) position. Wrap an exercise tube around your feet at the arches. Cross the tube so that it forms an “X” over your legs and hold a handle in each hand. Pull the handles back and keep your elbows up and back instead of to the side. Your upper arms should be perpendicular to the floor, shoulder blades down. When you’re pulled back as far as possible, “knead” your shoulder blades together. Return to the starting position and repeat.

Overhead press (strengthened deltoid and triceps): Sit on a chair or bench with your spine in a neutral position. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand (1, 2, 3, or 5 pounds). Bend your elbows so the weights are at shoulder height and slightly to the side. Exhale and press straight up and overhead, keeping your elbows straight but not locked. Bearing with control. Inhale and repeat. Concentrate on keeping your spine and neck neutral, your shoulders relaxed. Do not let your neck stick out forward. To repeat.

Alternating bicep curl (strengthens the biceps): Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, knees slightly bent and your spine in a neutral position. Hold a dumbbell in each hand (start with 3, 5, or 8 pounds) with your hands at your sides, palms facing your thighs. First, lift the weight in your right hand, turning your wrist to the right so that your palm is facing up as you lift the weight toward your shoulder. Rotate back to the left as you lower the weight. Repeat with your left arm, turning to the left on the way up and to the right on the way down. Alternate to complete 15 reps for each arm. If you can easily complete 15 reps, use heavier weights.

dancer’s plié (strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings, inner thighs, glutes, calves and shins, increases leg circulation, improves balance): Hold a 5- to 8-pound dumbbell in each hand. Stand facing the back of a chair, feet more than hip-width apart, feet and knees out comfortably. Tighten your abs and lift your chest, keeping your shoulders relaxed. Bend your elbows so the weights are at each shoulder, palms facing in. (If you need the support of the chair, don’t use weights — instead, hold on to the back of the chair.) Bend your knees and keep your feet on the floor, spine erect, and body weight balanced your heels. Lower your torso as far as possible without changing your back or hip position. Straighten your knees, squeeze your inner thighs and continue without pausing, standing up on the balls of your feet. Lower the feet and repeat. (Note: If you get calf cramps from standing on your toes in the later months, skip that part of the sequence.)

skater’s lunge (strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, upper hip, and inner thighs): Stand with hands on hips or hold onto the back of a chair. Shift your weight to your left foot so that only the toes of your right foot touch the ground; your right knee is bent. Tighten your abs to maintain a neutral spine, then bend your left knee as you press your right foot diagonally on your body to the side. Return your right foot to the starting position and straighten your left knee. Repeat and then switch legs. Do the same with the other leg.

Crawling leg lift (strengthens glutes and hamstrings): Sit on all fours. (This will encourage your baby to rest head down in the correct position as you do the exercise.) Keep your weight evenly distributed and your arms straight. Moving slowly, lift your left knee and bring it toward your elbow, then straighten your leg and extend it out and back. (Do not lock your knee or arch your back.) Hold for a count of five. Return to start, repeat 5 to 10 times. Switch legs and repeat.

  • Always exhale with exertion.
  • Focus on keeping your abs tight, keeping your spine in a neutral (not flexed, not flexed) position.
  • Never lock your knees; they should always be in a semi-relaxed position.

Interview with Mary Yoke, MA, a fitness expert and author of Methods of Group Exercise Leadership. Yoke holds multiple fitness certifications, including from the American Council on Exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the Aerobic Fitness Association of America, and is an adjunct professor at Adelphi University on Long Island.

Interview with Debi Pillarella, M.Ed., a pre- and postnatal fitness instructor and director of fitness at The Community Hospital, Fitness Pointe, in Munster, Indiana. She is certified as both a group fitness professional and a personal trainer by the American Council on Exercise. She is the author of the “Adventures in Fitness for Kids” series and co-author of Fitness Stepping.

Anthony, Lenita. Pre- and Post-natal Fitness: A Fitness Professional’s Guide from the American Council on Exercise. American Exercise Council. Healthy learning books and videos

Planning for pregnancy, birth and beyond. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. New American Library.

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