The pregnancy strength-training workout

6 exercises to get already-fit women ready for labor and motherhood

“Most women say that giving birth is the most difficult physical feat of their lives,” says Carolyn Appel, C.S.C.S., a New York City-based trainer, mom, and author of the forthcoming book The Little Book for Big Bellies. But while we prepare for most other fitness endeavors in life, labor is oft tiptoed around with ineffective ‘pregnancy lite’ workouts.

Appel’s opinion: “Women can and should handle much greater amounts of stress to prepare for motherhood.” Strength training, she says, is the way to go. It offsets typical pregnancy compensations like waddling, a downward pelvic tilt, an upward rib thrust, back pain, and muscle tightness that accompany weight gain.

Plus, the happy byproduct to strength training is that it can make labor shorter and less stressful and recovery speedier, Appel says.

Of course, pregnant bodies must make adjustments. For one, starting in the second trimester, women should exercise at 80 to 85 percent of the intensity they did pre-pregnancy (and in trimester one). In the third trimester, dial it back to 75 to 80 percent of pre-pregnancy intensity. Exceeding that amount late in pregnancy can increase intra-abdominal pressure, encouraging a condition called diastasis recti, which is when the six-pack muscles separate because of weakening of the tissue holding them together.

The Workout

The below moves are focused on strength, alignment, needs of labor, and life with a newborn. In trimester one, complete the workout twice a week (or up to three times, though many women experience fatigue and nausea) for three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions. In trimester two, do three workouts a week: one session of 3 sets of 15 repetitions, another with 3 sets of 10 reps, and a third of 4 sets of 6 to 8 repetitions. And in trimester three, do two workouts, each 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions.

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  • Hip Mobilizers 

    Hip Mobilizers 

    "It’s important to prepare your hips to be able to get into and out of those deep squat variations required by most labor positions," says Appel. 

    : Start with both feet together and take a big step out to the side so that your hip, knee, and ankle are lined up. Drop hips down and push back to starting position. To assist with the lowering, hold onto a TRX or pole (around belly height) as you sit down and back into a side lunge. Alternate sides. 

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  • Rolling 


    "One of the ways to minimize risk of diastasis recti is to avoid crunching motions," says Appel. “Practicing rolling to the side to push yourself up with your arms takes the strain off the belly.” 

    : Lie on your back. Bend your left knee with the left foot flat on the ground. Your left arm is at your side and right arm lays flat, extended at shoulder height. Use the left foot to push you towards your right side so that your shoulders are vertically stacked. Now push with your arms to get your trunk vertical. Do all the reps on this side, then repeat on the other. 

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  • Crib Reach 

    Crib Reach 

    “In order to avoid placing strain on your back when bending over, maintaining a neutral spine is critical once you get heavier,” says Appel. 

    : Rest two dumbbells vertically on a bench and another on the floor on the opposite side of the bench from where you are standing. Stand right in front of the bench while holding a medicine ball. Reach the medicine ball over the dumbbells on the bench and tap the one that is resting on the floor. Stand back up to a vertical trunk position. Maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement. Repeat.

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  • Turkish Getups 

    Turkish Getups 

    "As you get heavier, it becomes harder to lower and raise your body from the ground," says Appel. “Practicing level changes makes it easier to recover fallen keys or tie your shoes, and you’ll have an easier time maneuvering to the floor to play with your little one.” 

    : Sit with one leg extended out about 45 degrees and the same side hand on the ground directly under your shoulder. Your opposite knee is bent with your foot on floor and that side arm is straight overhead. Start by pushing your hips up as high as you can, then drop the knee of your extended leg underneath you and swivel to turn forward and stand. Reverse this movement on the way down. To make this more challenging, load your top hand with weight. 

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  • Standing Rows 

    Standing Rows 

    Pulling movements counteract the forward pull of the baby, breast weight, and common activities that encourage a rounded shoulder position, like texting. “Strengthening the postural muscles of the upper back and shoulders will go a long way in the fight for maintaining a neutral alignment,” Appel says. 

    : Stand facing a cable column (or resistance band) with the anchor raised to shoulder height. Hold the handle in front of you with a straight arm. Pull the handle to the outside of your chest and return to the starting position. Do all the reps on this side, then repeat on the other. 

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  • Farmer Carries 

    Farmer Carries 

    “Practicing walking with a load in one hand will not only help you resist getting pulled out of a neutral alignment during pregnancy, but it will prepare you to carry your little one with good alignment,” says Appel. 

    : Grab a 20- to 30-pound weight in one hand and hold it at your shoulder. Vertically align the ribs over the pelvis and walk 20 to 30 feet while trying to prevent the weight from moving around. Switch the weight to the other hand and repeat. 

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