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. Like something magical was going to happen overnight between 19 weeks and 6 days and 20 weeks.
And I bet you know where I’m going with this: this advice is all outdated. It’s 2020 and we know better. Strength training has SO many documented benefits for the pregnant body and the pregnant body is not quite the fragile flower it was once presumed to be.
And by the way, there is no correlation between lifting weights and premature labor.
If there is any concern at all regarding strength training 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 manage the extra strain on your body and reduce your risk of incurring long-term damage.
General Tips for Lifting During Pregnancy
Here I’ll offer a few general tips to improve your prenatal strength training experience, and then I’ll dive into some specific ways to modify the bread and butter moves of strength training for pregnancy.
1) First, learn a coordinated breathing strategy.
I teach the Connection Breath (also commonly called Piston Breathing), which is essentially a kegel coordinated with a diaphragmatic breath. I cue my clients to exhale with a kegel during the hard part of an exercise (exhale on exertion). You can learn more (and I recommend you do!) by checking out The No B.S. Guide to Breathing.
2) Next, Think about your body alignment through the full range of motion of your exercises.
While there is no “optimal” alignment that applies to every body, many people can benefit from exploring a “stacked” posture; that is, ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles in line. Sometimes we also call this a neutral posture as your pelvis and spine are in the middle of their range of motion. If you are working in a hip hinge, you can focus on being stacked at the top of the movement, and maintaining a neutral posture through the movement.
3) Finally, Listen to your body.
While this might be the most clichéd advice given to pregnant people, it’s actually the most important. What does it actually mean? If you are noticing any symptoms of leaking pee, pain or pressure in your vagina, or doming through your abdominal midline, you need to change what you’re doing in a way that minimizes or eliminates the symptom. 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!
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.
Squat or Deadlift 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 pregnancy progresses. Perform body weight squats with a mini-band around the knees to create a different types of resistance. Explore other complimentary hip-hinge movements such as banded good mornings, band pull throughs or hip thrusts.
Modifying Rowing Exercises during Pregnancy:
1) If you have been performing bent-over rows, consider transitioning to supported rows.
2) Use a suspension trainer, which allows you to dial in your incline and resistance to fit your body where it’s at in its pregnancy
3) Adjust your load and explore banded row variations that can be completed in standing or seated positions.
Modifying Presses for Pregnancy:
1) Consider eliminating overhead presses during the second trimester 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 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
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 breathing through the entire range of motion.
Check out this article for a deeper dive into the range of breathing strategies that are available to you:
Stay tuned for info on adjustments to your core training during pregnancy. In the meantime, if you want more, download my free Trimester-by-Trimester Guide to Pregnancy Exercise Modifications. This guide contains my best and most up-to-date recommendations on prenatal exercise and modifying your movements for where you are in your pregnancy.
My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things.
✨If you have questions about exercise or pelvic health pertaining to pregnancy or postpartum.
✨If you’re local (Seattle's Eastside: Redmond, Bellevue, Kirkland and surrounding areas) and interested in working with me on a custom personal training plan.
✨If you’d like help finding a qualified pregnancy or postpartum personal trainer near you.