In the past, pregnant people have been cautioned against strength training — the thinking was that it could lead to injury and be harmful to the pregnancy. Sure, strength training (or doing any type of exercise) incorrectly can result in injury, but that doesn't mean you should necessarily avoid lifting weights.
If you have a normal pregnancy — meaning you don't have any complications and your doctor has given you the thumbs up to break a sweat — you shouldn't shy away from hitting up the weight room or breaking out your dumbbells at home.
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Try This 20-Minute Prenatal Dumbbell Workout
To help you stay strong throughout your pregnancy, Betina Gozo, CPT, a certified pre/postnatal trainer and author of The Woman's Guide to Strength Training, put together this 20-minute prenatal strength workout.
All you need is a pair of moderately heavy dumbbells (but feel free to grab lighter weights if needed). The exercises should feel challenging, yet doable with the weights you choose. Be mindful of the weight you're already carrying (aka your baby bump). How heavy you choose to lift may not be the same load you were able to lift pre-pregnancy.
Make sure to consult your doctor before you start any new workout routine, especially if you are pregnant. More than anything else, listen to your body. You want to avoid extra strain on your abdominals during pregnancy, so avoid holding your breath during exercise or doing moves that isolate or put too much pressure on your abs.
1. Front-Rack Sumo Squat
Gozo recommends the sumo squat during pregnancy, because it allows more room for your belly and hips as you squat down, offering a little extra comfort.
Squats are not only a highly functional movement pattern, but they help build strength and stability in your legs and hips, Gozo says. In pregnancy, the hormone relaxin increases, which loosens up your ligaments and joints in the pelvic area to accommodate your growing baby.
"Relaxin relaxes the ligaments in your pelvis, so building stability is important during this time. I specifically prescribed a front-rack position because it encourages you to engage your core and keep your posture up," she says.
- Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart, toes turned out slightly.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand by your shoulders in the front-rack position.
- Keeping your back straight and bracing your core, sit your hips back and bend your knees over your toes to squat down.
- Lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or as low as you can comfortably go).
- Push your feet into the ground to stand back up, squeezing your glutes at the top.
2. Supported Bent-Over Row
Rows are excellent for building a strong back, which helps you maintain good posture as your belly grows, Gozo says. Doing rows in a supported position, such as the staggered stance in this move, helps alleviate any added strain on your lower back.
- Stand in a staggered stance, stepping your left foot back behind the right.
- Hold a dumbbell with your left hand and rest your right hand on your right thigh.
- Hinge your torso forward, maintaining a soft bend in your knees. Keep your back flat and make sure your head and neck are aligned with your spine.
- Extend your left hand toward the ground.
- Drawing your shoulders back and down, pull the dumbbell toward your midsection, keeping your elbow close to your side. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blade toward the midline of your spine.
- Then, lower the back down with control. This is 1 rep.
- After you finish all your reps, switch sides.
3. Suitcase March
"As a new mom, you'll be doing a lot of carrying on one side while holding a bunch of stuff on the other," Gozo says. "I love this functional movement that incorporates a small balance aspect in it."
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Hold one dumbbell with your right hand in the front-rack position at your shoulder and another dumbbell with your left hand by your side.
- On an exhale, draw one knee up toward your chest while maintaining a neutral spine.
- Lower your foot back down to the ground and repeat with the other leg.
- Do 12 to 15 reps, then switch arms in the front-rack position.
If you aren't able to balance, simply hover your foot off the ground a couple of inches instead of drawing your knee up to your chest.
4. Front Raise
You'll be lifting your baby up... a lot, and this classic shoulder exercise mimics that exact movement.
"I call this one the 'stinky baby.' Strengthening your shoulders is so important, because as a toddler mom whose kid poops sometimes up to five times a day, this move has been a must in my routine," Gozo says.
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand by your sides.
- Brace your core and draw your shoulders back and down.
- Lift the weights with your arms straight out in front of you until they reach shoulder height, palms facing each other.
- Lower them with control back down to the starting position.
"I do the neutral grip versus your palms facing down to emulate the position your shoulders will be in when you're holding your baby," Gozo says.
5. Sumo Romanian Deadlift
Strengthening your hamstrings and glutes is important as your center of gravity changes, Gozo says. This move also replicates picking up your baby from the floor — and their toys and bottles.
- Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart, toes turned out slightly.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand between your legs.
- Push your hips back and bend your knees slightly as you lower the weights toward the floor with a flat back.
- Brace your core and press your feet into the ground to push your hips forward and return to the starting position, squeezing your glutes at the top.
6. Low to High
This woodchop-inspired exercise trains rotation through your core, but it's also great for activating your leg and back muscles.
"This is an underrated move that I always think should be included in pregnancy. It's a great total-body movement that works your legs, biceps, back and shoulders," Gozo says. "Plus, it helps with your proprioception (awareness of your body in space) and mobility through your hips and upper back."
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold one end of the dumbbell in each hand.
- Get into a quarter squat and rotate your body to the right with the weight outside of your right knee. Your hips and shoulders should be facing the right side.
- Pull the weight up and across your body, rotating your torso and legs to the left side with the weight overhead, past your left shoulder. Keep your core tight and pivot through your legs as you travel in a diagonal line.
- Reverse the movement and pull the weight back down to the starting position.
- Do 12 to 15 reps on one side, then switch sides.
Be careful not to twist your torso too far on this move; only go as far as is comfortable. You want to avoid any compression of your abdomen.
Benefits of Exercise During Pregnancy
"As your belly is growing and your body is changing, keeping it strong can help combat the aches and pains that can happen and can keep your posture strong as your center of gravity changes," Gozo says.
Although there are few studies about the effects of resistance training during pregnancy, there haven't been any adverse outcomes reported, according to a September 2016 review in Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Strength training during pregnancy is also functional: Think about the strength it takes to carry heavy car seats, hike up flights of stairs with a stroller and carry out countless tasks while holding a baby in your arms. What's more, growing and maintaining muscle can improve your health and help prevent some common pregnancy complications.
"Maintaining a regular strength routine during pregnancy can also help you sleep better, boost your mood and confidence throughout the day and may also help prevent or treat gestational diabetes or pregnancy-induced hypertension," says Gozo, who is currently expecting.
A November 2018 review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that pregnant adults who did 140 minutes a week (28 minutes for 5 days a week) of moderate-intensity exercise, including aerobic and strength training, reduced their odds of developing gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and gestational hypertension by 25 percent.
"There also have been studies that showed that there can be benefits for baby, too. It may help with improving the baby's ability to manage the stress of labor and possibly reduce the child's chances of diabetes or other metabolic diseases later in life," she says.