When I got pregnant eight months ago, I thought I knew everything there was to know about prenatal workouts. After all, I’ve been working at Women’s Health for years, and know the general rule—that you can typically keep doing the type of exercise you did pre-pregnancy but shouldn’t, oh, start training for your first marathon or pick up a CrossFit habit.
But the more I exercised while pregnant, the more it felt like everyone was saying “you’re doing it wrong.”
“If there’s a possibility of pregnancy, don’t do upward dog” said one prenatal yoga teacher. Apparently that could increase my risk of diastasis recti, an unpleasant condition in which your abs muscles separate—who knew?
Later, I was told the planks, side planks, and pushup exercises I’d been doing at home could also cause diastasis. So I asked my doctor if this was legit.
“You can still do pushups?” she asked, surprised. “Yeah, you probably want to stop.”
The truth, as I’ve become increasingly aware, is that there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to the question “What types of exercise can you do while pregnant?” But! There is some key info that can help you answer that question for ~you~.
First things first: No, it’s not dangerous to exercise while pregnant. There are actually tons of health benefits.
Doctors told women that it was unsafe to exercise while pregnant until…wait for it…1985. I learned this fun fact from Raul Artal, M.D., a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and women’s health at Saint Louis University. Artal is also the gyno who reviews and updates the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) guidelines for exercising while you’re expecting.
“There was that belief that any physical activity could be harmful to the fetus,” he says.
Luckily, now we know that staying active while pregnant (as long as your doctor doesn’t tell you otherwise) comes with a ton of benefits for both you and baby. Artal says it can:
Ease pregnancy-related aches and pains
Promote a healthy rate of weight gain
Decrease your likelihood of complications like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia (a sudden increase in blood pressure in the second half of your pregnancy)
Avoiding those scary conditions is definitely good for baby, and Artal says exercising while you’re expecting is also linked to delivering a baby at a healthy weight and reducing the odds of a C-section.
Plus, staying active can just make you feel better. “Many women find that, unless they’re profoundly exhausted, working out can really energize you,” says Mahri Relin, a pre- and post-natal exercise specialist and owner of Body Conceptions by Mahri.
That said, there are certain exercises you should avoid while you’re pregnant.
1. You’ll want to skip hardcore impact sports. James Pivarnik, a professor of kinesiology and epidemiology at Michigan State University who’s been studying prenatal exercise for more than 30 years, says the (perhaps obvious) goal here is to steer clear of anything that could cause a blow to your baby bump. (That’s why the ACOG recommends against sports like downhill skiing, legit boxing, and even volleyball.)
2. Don’t do exercises on your back for extended periods of time. These can be risky starting in your second trimester, because the uterus presses on a vein that pumps blood to your heart, says Artal, and you don’t want to cut off your circulation and decrease your blood pressure. (The key words here are “for extended periods of time”—you don’t have to freak if you accidentally wake up on your back or do a deadbug and then realize you probably shouldn’t have.)
3. Lifting heavy can be problematic for the same reason. If too much blood is diverted to your muscles, says Artal, the baby may not get enough. He recommends doing more repetitions with lighter weights (staying under 10 pounds is a good rule of thumb—and he said lifting toddlers who are too young to walk is also generally okay).
4. Hot yoga is a no-go. Basically anything that gets your body temperature too high or could dehydrate you is going to compromise functions like your circulatory system—and you don’t want to risk that when you’re staying safe for two, says Pivarnik.
5. Take it easy with the abs work. This is because of the aforementioned diastasis recti concerns. “That’s when the muscles separate a little bit—not a lot—and what can lead to that is if women are still doing a lot of crunches and moves like that,” says Pivarnik. While you can look into surgery or physical therapy after your pregnancy to treat diastasis, both Artal and Pivarnik say prevention is your best bet.
“Diastasis is actually very common for all women by the third trimester,” says Rehlin, who recommends ditching exercises like situps or lifting from the upper body starting in the second trimester. “When you do those types of moves later in the pregnancy, that, in addition to the way the growing baby puts pressure on you, encourages the split of the muscle.”
6. Remember: If it hurts, don’t push it. This is a time when your body is going through lots of changes—hormones are making your ligaments loose, and your balance is changing, among other issues—which is why you will likely need to ease up on your normal routine, even if you’re super-fit. “If it’s not comfortable, don’t do that move,” says Pivarnik. “Even if it’s something you could do before, maybe you can’t do it now. That’s fine.”
Artal seconds that: “If it hurts, stop,” he says. “Pushing on can just cause more damage.”
Other types of exercise are safe for most pregnant women.
Even women who didn’t exercise regularly before pregnancy can safely start if they stay in close contact with their doctors, says Artal.
“I actually think it’s a good time to start because you see a physician about once a month,” he says. “There’s almost no other time when you get as much medical supervision.”
Types of exercise that get the green light from ACOG include:
Yoga and Pilates with modifications
To make sure instructors will be able to give you safe modifications, call your studio or gym in advance to ask about their certifications, suggests Rehlin. And of course, “make sure that that studio and the instructor are very well aware of the pregnancy when you get there, so they can make sure to modify.”
You can also look for an instructor specifically certified by Get Fit for Birth, recommends Joanie Johnson, founder of Fit Pregnancy Club in New York City.
There are tons of pregnancy-safe workout moves you can do at home.
While abs workouts may be off-limits, moves that strengthen your arms and back are great prep work for being a mom. “They are definitely going to get a workout once that baby arrives,” says Johnson.
She also recommends focusing on glute work. “Your glutes help support and bring stability into your pelvis, which is going through a lot of changes and shifts right now.”
Also, a quick note about kegels: While you may not think of them as workout fodder (I know I certainly didn’t before I became pregnant), all of the experts I spoke with emphasized how key they are for “training” to deliver your baby—so it’s a good idea to add them to your routine.