Pregnancy and Exercise - Can I keep working out?

Do a simple google search on training during pregnancy, and you aren’t going to find a lot of substantial material. Sure, you will find plenty of articles telling you to walk or do yoga during pregnancy, but you will be hard-pressed to find articles on actually training during pregnancy. We are a sports performance gym; we focus on performance. We're going to walk through training during pregnancy and how you can legitimately train with "a bun in the oven". And by train, I mean lift heavy, play sports, go hiking, and stay strong. This article won't get into the detailed science and research on the physiologicial response to exercise when pregnant, but stay tuned for that article. 


The 1st trimester is characterized by morning sickness and fatigue. This is significant for several reasons. First, a lot of pregnant women actually lose weight during their first 12 weeks of pregnancy because they either aren't able to eat, or aren't able to keep food down. This can be problematic when talking about training. We all know that consuming enough calories in is vital to being able to train hard. Most of us don’t actually find out we are pregnant until 4-8 weeks into pregnancy, so that really only gives us around 4-8 weeks of feeling really crappy. Obviously this isn’t the case for some women; some feel sick even into the 2nd trimester.

The following are some tips that I, a Sports Performance coach, can give you to battle through the 1st and 2nd trimester. The tips go along with some common questions I had while being pregnant. These are not based on medical advice and do not come from a doctor. But I think training during pregnancy is not only possible, but can be beneficial for mom and baby. 

Tip #1 - workout with training partners or join a class

During the 1st trimester, I found it really hard to keep my intensity high during workouts. I joined my husband a few times a week in his Crossfit workouts, played volleyball, and did anything active where I was around people. I definitely think we need to listen to our bodies here at points of extreme fatigue, but for me it was usually a choice of laying on the couch and feeling sick or working out and still feeling sick. Either way I was going to feel sick, so it was rational to just workout through it. On days I felt good, I stuck to my normal programming and lifted on my own (squatted, did single leg work, did power work, etc). But on bad days, I just got in the gym with my husband and did the workout that was written on the board. And I didn’t feel bad for maxing out on reverse lunges with the weight I used to use for my warm-up. I just made sure I kept moving and modified when I needed to. I also found it was harder to breath in the first trimester. Our bodies are increasing our blood volume and making all sorts of changes, so I assume this is where that came from. Moral of the story, decrease your intensity where needed and grab a buddy to help motivate you. *The pic below is of me playing in an AVP tourney in San Francisco (I found out I was pregnant during this tourney). 


Tip #2 - Get in calories however you can

- Why do I not have an appetite?

I met with a Kate Machado, a Registered Dietician and the sports nuntritionist for the University of San Diego. I told her that I wasn't craving anything and having a hard time eating, and when I was eating, it was things like plain bagels and cream cheese, pizza, cheeseburgers and fries, bean and cheese burritos, and anything Italian (especially lasagna or ravioli). Basically I ate anything that was calorically dense. She laughed at me and said there’s a very simple reason for that. When you are pregnant, your digestive system slows to absorb all nutrients and it is hindered in its digestion because it is getting squeezed out of its spot by your uterus and baby. Plus you are taking prenatal vitamins (high in iron) which can slow down digestion. So Kate informed me that I was eating calorically dense foods, because there’s not room for all that fiber rich food in your stomach and intestines. Your body wants to get the most bang for its buck. So Tip #2 is simply eat when and what you can. Try to sneak in some veggies and fruits (I found fruit really easy to eat), but don't stress about eating your normal chicken and brown rice with veggies. Try to get in some simple fiber rich fruits that won’t fill you up as much as big salads - think pears, berries, beans, bananas, apples and so on. 

Tip #3 - Lift heavy 

- Is it safe to lift while pregnant?

I found 2nd trimester was the time for me to keep lifting heavy. I wasn’t as strong as pre-pregnancy, but I found I had lots of energy and could keep doing everything. I even played in an AVP (professional beach volleyball tournament) when I was 4 months pregnant. And then another open tourney when I was 5 months. The doctors say don't do any activities that involve impact or landing on your belly. For most of us, that means you can keep doing pretty much everything you were doing (unless you are a UFC fighter). Most every site I looked at said you should keep exercise intensity to a level where you can have a conversation. I mean, come on! If you can have a full conversation, then you are not working out, you are just getting in some activity. Don’t get me wrong, activity is great. But it shouldn’t replace working out every day of the week.

When I started to up my lifting, I did start having some groin/adductor issues. After a 2 hour session of beach volleyball or after doing single leg work (split squats, lunges, step ups), my adductors would be so sore I walked like an old grandma. I saw my friend Ben who is a movement specialist and he told me my glutes weren't firing and my adductors were taking the brunt of the work. He showed me a few exercises, and I incorporated some glute work I use with athletes, and pain was gone. Consult an expert in your area, or if you are in the San Diego area check out his site Just before I saw him, I found a site that looked really legit and talked about how the pelvis becomes unstable during pregnancy and so we should avoid single leg work and deep squatting. I thought I was going to have to ditch single leg work and squatting until post-baby, but thanks to Ben, he showed me a lot of muscular issues during pregnancy can be alleviated by strengthening other areas.

Tip #4 - Keep training your core

 - What core exercises can i do?

At 5 months pregnant, I had to stop doing regular pushups. I’m tall and have a long torso, and have always fatigued in my abs when doing pushups. So I got to a point where it just didn't feel quite right to do regular push-ups. I also didn't do the normal no-no’s; sit-ups, cruches, v-ups, basically anything on your back. I did keep doing wall-bugs, because they felt fine and I wouldn't spend more than 30 seconds on my back. There are a bunch of other things you can do instead of floor based work. My favorites during pregnancy were rollouts (barbell and ab-roller), eccentric pull-ups (for sets of 3-4), and anti-rotation exercises, and farmers carries variations. My abs also get smoked from doing front squats, so I kept front squatting. Obviously, all women are created differently and some things aren't going to feel good for some body types. My biggest tip is to keep training and modify where you need. 

Tip #5 - Incorporate interval training

- How hard can I work out?

I found that endurance based work was really tough on my body. My heart rate had increased from 45 BPM to 55-60 BPM. That difference for me made a big difference in endurance based work. My body preferred to work at an intense level, and then recover. They say your blood volume increases by 50%, so that’s a ton of extra blood cursing through your vascular system. I had one instance where my heart went crazy and was skipping beats, and I think it was because my heart rate was elevated for too long. So take away point here is to REST in between sets or sprints or whatever you are doing. Allow yourself some recovery time. With your interval work, consider using sled pushes, the ski erg, a rower, an assault bike, battle ropes, hill/stair sprints or something along those lines. 

Higher impact training, especially running, didn't feel great on my joints. But most of us are carrying an extra 10-20 extra pounds in the 2nd trimester, so that is to be expected. I started swimming at around 5 months pregnant because I was preparing to be very large in a few months. I figured I would start the habit of getting in the pool and swimming some laps. I think I did more floating then actual swimming at first, but you got to start somewhere. Rec centers are fairly cheap (mine is 3$ a swim), so consider finding a local rec and hopping in the pool. 

It's remarkable how different each pregnancy is and how each body reacts differently. Our bodies were created to create life, and that’s incredible. Every hormonal change, every increase in blood volume, the loosening of our ligaments and tendons, is all created to form a baby safely and then deliver the baby to the outside world. It’s a miracle. We were given a gift. So when I am working out, I tell myself that I am teaching this baby to either be lazy or to work hard (within reason). Find that balance between rest and recovery, and still pushing yourself in the weight room, on the field, on the treadmill, in the pool, or wherever you choose to make gains. :) 

The next article in this series will cover what science and research says about training during pregnancy. And then shortly after, training during the 3rd trimester, so stay tuned!