Is it safe for me to exercise while pregnant?
Updated: Jan 14
And other questions answered by Danielle Van Der Leest / @dani.activewomen, founder of Active Women SG @activewomensg
Years of experience:
4 years in personal training, 2.5 years specializing in prenatal and postnatal fitness
Girls Gone Strong, Julie Wiebe’s Piston Module 1, Julie Wiebe’s Female Athlete Ready for Impact, Julie Wiebe’s Pelvic Floor Piston Foundation, FIT Singapore - Women’s Fitness Specialist, Precision Nutrition Level 1, ACE American Council on Exercise Certified Personal Trainer, ACE American Council on Exercise Pregnancy and Postpartum Instructor Training, Spartan - SPARTAN SGX, CPR/AED
Common prenatal misconception: It’s not safe for me to exercise if I’m pregnant
If you are experiencing a healthy pregnancy and your doctor hasn’t raised any concerns, then you can exercise as long as they have given you the green light. Check with your doctor and listen to them. Of course, if you feel unwell, nauseous or dizzy, like I did during the first trimester of my second pregnancy, then it’s best to rest. If you are exercising while pregnant, please understand that your pregnant body is vastly different from your pre-pregnancy body and you cannot expect to be exercising at the intensity you were exercising at before you got pregnant. Take it slow while exercising and modify your routine to suit your pregnant body.
"Many pregnant and postnatal women find that they can no longer lift as much as they used to, pre-pregnancy, which is completely normal and not something they should beat themselves up over."
The intensity that you can exercise at while pregnant depends on how fit you were before you became pregnant. I had a lot of people tell me that I shouldn’t be carrying a 12kg kettlebell during my second pregnancy. It really depends on your past experience. I’m used to carrying heavy weights because I am a personal trainer and my first child, who I carry sometimes, is now 12kg. If you work an office job and the heaviest thing you’ve carried is your handbag, then please do not carry a 12kg kettlebell while pregnant. But if you’ve been training prior to pregnancy and are used to doing 30kg squats, then go ahead and continue doing weighted squats during pregnancy after you’ve been cleared by your doctor. But please take it slow and go with a lighter weight. Many pregnant and postnatal women find that they can no longer lift as much as they used to, pre-pregnancy, which is completely normal and not something they should beat themselves up over.
You can modify exercises to make them less intense, such as doing push-ups on your knees, not squatting too low and using lighter weights. You can also shift your focus to areas of the body that are particularly important for pregnant women. This includes the upper back, because women tend to hunch more while pregnant and after giving birth; the glutes, because they support your entire body, and the arms, because mothers need arm strength to carry their baby (who will only get heavier!) after giving birth. You can also work on your core, but refrain from doing traditional core exercises like planks and crunches.
I do not recommend planks and crunches during pregnancy and for a year after giving birth. When you do a crunch, or plank, you create a lot of inter-abdominal pressure within your entire core, all the way down to your pelvic floor. Because of the amount of strength required to perform these exercises, if you do not properly engage your core while doing them, other parts of the body like your back and shoulders will try to compensate for it, making them more susceptible to injury. Furthermore, doing planks and crunches improperly can worsen diastasis recti, the partial or complete separation of the abdominal muscles that meet at the midline of your stomach, a common side effect of pregnancy.
I also do not recommend any high impact, repetitive exercises like running and skipping rope. High impact, repetitive exercises tend to be uncomfortable for both pregnant and postpartum women because of the pressure it exerts on their pelvic floor, which makes it difficult for them to hold in their pee. Experiencing leakage and having to run to the toilet because you cannot hold your pee in during exercise is a sign that you need to slow down. Finally, don’t do any exercises that put you and your baby in harm’s way. For instance, even though some indoor rock climbing and bouldering gyms now offer harnesses for pregnant women, you still face the risk of slipping and falling and bumping your body against the wall.
Common postnatal misconception: I can go back to doing any exercise at any intensity after giving birth as long as my gynae has cleared me for exercise
Gynaes will tell you that you’re cleared for exercise if you’ve had a normal delivery and are recovering well from it, but few specify the kind of exercise that you can do. Exercise, as we know, comes in many different forms and intensities. Just because the doctor has cleared you for exercise, it doesn’t mean that you can do any kind of exercise. For example, a yoga class may consist of core exercises like planks that you are not ready for. Doctors are not fitness experts who are able to evaluate your fitness levels; their primary responsibility is ensuring your pregnancy, delivery and recovery goes smoothly. Your postpartum body is still very weak and incapable of handling the intensity of the exercises you did before getting pregnant.
Even a common, accessible exercise like running is not recommended until at least 16 to 20 weeks after you’ve given birth. When you start running again, take it very slowly. Don’t immediately go into a five-kilometer run. Start out with an interval run alternating between two minutes of walking and one minute of jogging. Do it for ten minutes and assess how you feel after. If you experience any heaviness or pain in your pelvis or incontinence, stop. These are signs that your body and your pelvic floor is not ready for this level of intensity yet.
Do not rush into exercise after giving birth, and do not chase the level you used to train at before getting pregnant and giving birth. Too many new moms injure themselves after rushing into exercise. Incorporate it slowly. Start with functional movements like squats and lunges that you do in daily life. If everything goes well, then you can do more.
Recommended resources for pregnant and postnatal women:
If you’re unsure of the credibility of information you find online, verify it with your gynae, physiotherapist and/or pre and postnatal fitness coach. If you do not have access to any of these, check the source of the information. Does it come from someone qualified like a doctor or is it from an Instagram influencer who has no professional training? Do they cite any research to back up their claims? These questions should help you evaluate information more critically.