When I told my grandmother that I was pregnant with my daughter, her first piece of advice to me was to stop lifting weights.
She recounted a story about how she went into early labor with my uncle because she was hanging curtain rods. She was adamant; I should just take it easy for the next 6 months.
She meant well, and so did my OB-GYN who told me to stop lifting more than 15 lbs overhead after 20 weeks of pregnancy. And I bet you know where I’m going with this:
This advice is all outdated.
We know better.
Lift weights. It’s good for you.
The pregnant body is not the fragile flower it was once presumed to be. And the benefits of strength training during pregnancy far outweigh any cons.
During pregnancy, strength training:
1) Helps preserve your core and pelvic floor function
Combining intentional breath work with strength training helps maintain, improve or retrain the reflexive action of your core and pelvic floor.
These muscles need to be strong to support your body during pregnancy and during your return to higher impact activities after pregnancy.
2) Keeps you moving well
It’s a great way to minimize muscle imbalances and compensatory movement patterns that develop during your childbearing year.
Targeted strength training will also help you improve stability around joints and compensate for the extra looseness or instability your body incurred by pregnancy hormones (–> relaxin).
3) Keeps you prepped for the demands of pregnancy and parenthood.
You’re lifting stuff day in and day out, right? You might as well train for it.
4) Brings you joy.
If lifting is a hobby or a part of your lifestyle, you don’t have to stop just because you’re pregnant.
And let’s just get this out of the way: There is no correlation between weight training and premature labor.
If there is any concern at all regarding weight lifting in pregnancy, it has to do with the excess strain that can be applied to the core and pelvic floor during exertion.
The concern is about you. Not your baby.
And there are many, many ways to mitigate the strain on your body and reduce your risk of incurring long-term damage.
Hot Off The Presses
In case you need a little proof-in-hand:
A 2023 study, the first of its kind, provided optimistic data for pregnant people who engaged in a heavy weight lifting routine right up until delivery.
With respect to typical reproductive complications (e.g. preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, preterm labor) and pelvic health outcomes (primarily, urinary incontinence), engaging in Olympic lifting, Valsalva or supine weight lifting had NO significant impacts.
A limitation of this study is that discussion of pelvic health only includes urinary incontinence. Data on birth injury, perineal tearing and rates of occurrence of Diastasis Recti were collected, but not discussed. Prolapse wasn’t addressed at all.
From the supplemental data provided by the studies authors, it looks like there may be small (negative) impacts of Olympic lifting on rates of perineal tearing, prolonged labor and diastasis. I’d love to see them address this in the future.
Given that there is still limited information on the impacts of heavy weight lifting on pelvic health outcomes beyond incontinence, I’d still urge a vigilant approach to weight lifting during pregnancy.
Keep lifting. But learn how to do it safely, and be honest with yourself if you experience signs or symptoms of pelvic floor or core strain.
General Tips for Lifting Weights During Pregnancy
Here I’ll offer a few general tips to help you lift weights safely during your pregnancy. In the next section we’ll go into specifics around the deadlifts, squats, pushes and pulls.
1) Learn a coordinated breathing strategy.
The key to managing strain on your pelvic floor muscles is by learning to co-contract your core muscles (diaphragm, abdominal muscles, pelvic floor) during exertion. You’ll do this with a coordinated breathing strategy.
I teach the Connection Breath, essentially a pelvic floor contraction (kegel) coordinated with a diaphragmatic breath.
The Connection Breath taps into your body’s stability system- its natural weightlifting belt. It ensures your pelvic floor has adequate support to handle lifting heavy things.
I cue an exhale with a pelvic floor contraction (kegel) during the hard part of an exercise (exhale on exertion). But that’s not the only breathing strategy out there.
I offer a complete tutorial for the Connection Breath in The No B.S. Guide to a Stronger, Drier Pregnancy and Postpartum.
2) Consider your body alignment.
While there is no “optimal” alignment that applies to every body, many people can benefit from exploring a “stacked” alignment.
In a stacked alignment, your rib cage is “stacked” directly over your pelvis and your ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles fall in a vertical line.
Sometimes we also call this a neutral posture as your pelvis and rib cage are in the middle of their range of motion.
As you lift, you’ll want to maintain the stack between your rib cage and pelvis while under load.
3) Listen to your body.
While this might be the most cliched advice given to pregnant people, it’s actually the most important.
What does it actually mean?
If you are noticing any symptoms of leaking urine, pain or pressure in your vagina, or doming through your abdominal midline, you need to pay attention.
These symptoms are a signal that you need to manage your intra-abdominal pressure in a different way.
If you have the nagging sense that something isn’t right? Listen to it- don’t push through like you might if you weren’t pregnant!
Need professional guidance? If you’re lifting heavy during your pregnancy, I encourage you to consult with a pelvic floor physical therapist. You may also want to seek guidance from an experience prenatal personal trainer.
The Specifics: Exercise Modifications For Pregnancy
As your pregnancy progresses, you will need to make changes in order to continue to lifting safely. How do you know when you need to make changes? Listen to your body. Let your symptoms guide you. And be HONEST with yourself.
Here are a few more specific tips on how to modify the staples of any strength training program, the hip hinge, squat, rows and presses, for pregnancy.
Squats or Deadlifts During Pregnancy
Modifying Moves on the Hip-Hinge Continuum
1) Adjust your set-up stance.
You may need to bring your feet wider or turn your feet out a little bit more to make room for your baby. Check out the following videos that demonstrate a standard stance deadlift and the wide-stance (sumo) deadlift.
2) Adjust your range of motion:
- As you set up for a deadlift or squat, place your weights on a platform so you aren’t lifting from the ground.
- To limit range of motion in a squat pattern: perform a quarter squat or squat to a bench.
- To limit range of motion in a deadlift pattern: perform a Romanian deadlift instead of lowering each rep to the ground.
3) Modify the load:
Use a lighter weight or no weight as your progress through your second and third trimesters.
Perform body weight squats with a mini-band around the knees to create a different type of resistance. Explore other complimentary hip-hinge movements such as banded good mornings, band pull throughs or hip thrusts.
Resistance bands, lighter weights or even your own body weight are a great addition to your strength training arsenal as the months tick by.
Modifying Rowing Exercises during Pregnancy:
1) If you have been performing bent-over rows, consider transitioning to supported rows.
Modifying Pressing Exercises for Pregnancy:
1) Consider eliminating overhead presses during the second trimester or once your baby bump is visible.
Modify your breathing strategy or begin phasing out overhead lifts if you are feeling any pressure in your vagina or pelvic floor. or if you are finding you need to thrust your rib cage out to achieve overhead mobility.
2) Perform overhead presses from a seated position, which may provide more support to your abdominal muscles and pelvic floor.
3) Perform supine presses (chest presses) at a 15 degree or greater angle beginning between 21-26 weeks of pregnancy.
The Master Variable: Switch Up Your Breathing Strategy
And what if none of these tips do the trick?
Whether you are hinging, squatting, pushing or pulling, you might benefit from a new breathing strategy.
Your breathing strategy is the master variable that can make a major impact on every move you do. If you have been exhaling on exertion, try exhale just prior to exertion or exhale through the entire range of motion.
🖐🏼 Before you go:
What advice were you given around lifting weights while pregnant? Were you told to avoid lifting weights altogether? Were you given specific limits?
Please share your experience in the comments below!
Prevett, C., Kimber, M.L., Forner, L. et al. Impact of heavy resistance training on pregnancy and postpartum health outcomes. Int Urogynecol J (2022).
Rock-solid core and pelvic floor function are the foundations of an ACTIVE pregnancy and STRONG postpartum recovery.
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