Can you lift weights when pregnant or do you have to endure nine months without strength training? According to most experts, lifting weights is a great way to stay fit during pregnancy—as long as you stay within certain limits and get the green light from your healthcare provider. “Exercising during pregnancy, including weight training, comes with many benefits, such as help with labor and delivery, with improving your stamina, and strengthening back muscles to limit back pain,” explains Dr. Alison Mitzner, MD.
Not only can strength training help you stay mentally strong, it may also improve physical stamina as your body changes month-to-month. Most importantly, prenatal exercise can help you retain muscle mass and overall fitness levels. Here’s everything you need to know to safely lift weights when pregnant.
Note: If you are pregnant, always consult with your doctor or OB/GYN before starting any new workout regime.
Stick to lighter weights or bodyweight.
“Research has shown that women who exercise regularly are less likely to develop gestational diabetes, and on average have shorter labors, less constipation, and less swelling in the extremities,” says Dr. Jamil Abdur-Rahman, MD. “However, all pregnant women, regardless of whether or not they lift weights, are at an increased risk for musculoskeletal injury. This is because the placenta produces a hormone called relaxin, which relaxes the body’s joints. This is critical since the pelvis needs to expand to accommodate the growing uterus and baby, and to allow the baby to pass through the birth canal during delivery.”
What does all of that have to do with lifting weights? According to Dr. Abdur-Rahman, it means pregnant women are simply at higher risk for strains, sprains, and injury. Additionally, “repetitively lifting excessive amounts of weight diverts important blood flow from the uterus to the active skeletal muscles, which can result in depriving the baby of oxygen and nutrients.” It may also place extra pressure on pelvic organs, increasing the risk of preterm labor.
Still, Dr. Abdur-Rahman says weight lifting is completely safe during pregnancy, as long as it is done in moderation. He also recommends sticking to weights under 30 pounds and emphasizes staying hydrated.
If you’re not sure about how much weight to lift, Aaptiv trainer Jaime McFaden suggests exploring bodyweight workouts as a safe option as well. “I am a huge fan of bodyweight exercise during pregnancy,” she says. “Using your own body as resistance against gravity is a great way to stay in shape. There is nothing wrong with lifting weights during pregnancy, but overall, bodyweight workouts are another super accessible option.”
Avoid prone positions or laying flat on your back.
“Dependent upon your fitness level, after the first trimester you avoid any prone position (laying stomach down) workouts unless they are elevated or on a wall,” says Aaptiv trainer Candice Cunningham. “This is due to an increased risk of diastisis recti.” And laying on your back during the second and third trimesters is problematic because of a major vein, called the vena cava, that carries deoxygenated blood to the heart, says McFaden. Dr. Mitzner explains the weight of the uterus can put pressure on this vein, and interfere with blood flow to the baby.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t lift weights when pregnant. Just modify with sitting, upright, or inclined positions. “The changes to a woman’s pregnant body means the center of gravity shifts forward, and there is ligamentous laxity due to hormonal changes, so exercise that strains the low back should be limited or modified,” notes Dr. Judith Meer, PT, DPT, CSCS. “Think bent over rows using a bench support and dumbells instead of a barbell and bending at the hips.”
As for weight machines, proceed with caution. Ditch machines that press against your belly, like a seated row machine or abdominal machines. Skip overhead lifts to avoid increasing the curve in your lower spine, too. Finally, Cunningham suggests steering clear of things like box jumps—which isn’t a traditional machine movement—to avoid injury and limit compression around the belly.
Use the “talk” test.
If you lift weights when pregnant, both Dr. Meer and Dr. Mitzner warn against exercising to the point of breathlessness, in order to ensure you and baby get enough oxygen. “You do need to ensure you don’t hold your breath,” says Dr. Mitzner. “This can increase your blood pressure and intra abdominal pressure, potentially lower oxygen to the baby—and also make you lightheaded.”
Not sure if you’re overdoing it? If you can hold a casual conversation during your workout, while feeling adequately challenged, you’re probably okay. Aim for breathing hard, but not feeling out of breath, and give yourself plenty of rest breaks for recovery during and between workouts.
Listen to your body.
“The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines have changed over the years,” says McFaden. “Before 1985, it was not even recommended to exercise, and now doctors suggest exercising during pregnancy, as long as you have no medical condition. The key is listening to your body.”
“In our litigious society, most medical providers want to be very cautious—unfortunately, this has created a generation of pregnant women unnecessarily fearful of exercise,” says Dr. Meer. “But strength training is certainly fine to do during pregnancy, especially if the woman in question lifted weights and had an active gym routine prior.” Meer goes on to emphasize that unless your doctor explicitly mentions you should refrain from exercise (because of medical conditions, such as placenta previa or a high risk for early labor), movement is key to mental and physical health for moms-to-be.
Focusing on maintenance is key for staying fit during pregnancy. “Pregnancy should not be a time to start anything new or increase your regimen as far as weight training, but rather a good time for maintenance at your current level,” agrees Dr. Mitzner. “You can do more reps at a lower weight and still have great benefits. If you feel any pain or fatigue, decrease your weights. Take time to rest between workouts, as well. You can safely lift weights when pregnant, as long as you follow the necessary guidelines and get the okay with your doctor. Be sure to listen to your body, take breaks, and don’t push yourself.”