Strength training in pregnancy

Strength exercises are activities that strengthen your muscles. They include the use of weights, swimming, walking uphill, yoga and even digging the garden. They will improve your muscle tone and build stamina, which will help you during labour.

Other activities that strengthen your muscles include using the stairs, working with resistance bands and using free weights or weight machines.

Using weights and doing other kinds of strength exercise during your pregnancy will help you avoid aches and pains as your bump grows. It will also help strengthen your body for labour and for all the lifting, carrying and pram-pushing you’ll be doing after your baby is born.

If you can, include body weight exercises in which your weight provides the resistance, such as push-ups, pull-ups, as well as squats and lunges.

How should I use weights safely during my pregnancy?

There are some weight exercises that are not recommended when you’re pregnant, so it’s very important to talk to an expert at your gym or fitness centre before you get started. For example, you should avoid:

  • cross-fit type training, which encourages the use of lifting heavy weights in a timed circuit.
  • general circuit classes using bar bells and fast movements
  • exercises that use heavy bar bells behind your neck after 12 weeks (you can use dumbbells instead).
  • deadlifts, clean and press, and upright rows as there is a risk of the bar touching the baby bump - these exercises need control correct technique, correct knee and shoulder alignment – but in pregnancy this is difficult.
  • weighted sit-up exercises after 12 weeks
  • rotation abdominal machines.

Whether you’re used to weight exercises or not, always remember to tell the instructor you’re pregnant.

There is no specific guidance about the weights you should use while you’re pregnant – one person’s light weight can feel heavy to another person. To avoid straining your joints, use weights that feel light to moderate to you rather than heavy. A good rule of thumb is that you should do more repetitions with lighter weights. Ask your instructor or the gym staff if you’re not sure which weights or machines you should use.

Follow these tips:

  • Don’t over-exert yourself or strain too much.
  • Avoid lifting weights while lying on your back after the first 12 weeks of your pregnancy (exercises to strengthen the chest and arms, such as the chest press and chest fly, can be performed on an incline bench from 12 weeks and with a further incline from 20 weeks.
  • Be careful lifting weights over your head in the last three months. Don’t use heavy weights, don’t hold your breath (Valsalva manoeuvre) and consult gym staff about technique. Swapping to front shoulder raises and lateral raises to shoulder height is preferable.
  • It’s common sense but be careful with free weights. You don’t want them hitting your stomach by accident.

Which areas should I concentrate on?

The areas to concentrate on strengthening in pregnancy include:

  • your hamstrings
  • your quadriceps (front thigh)
  • your gluteal muscles (buttocks)
  • your ankles
  • your upper back (rhomboids, trapezius and posterior deltoids)
  • the deep abdominal muscles of the transverse abdominis.
  • Your pelvic floor

 Download and print your weekly exercise goal plan

Breathe easy

Make sure you don’t hold your breath when you’re lifting weights – your body needs oxygen while you’re working out. Holding your breath can also lead to an increase in blood pressure, which is not good for you or your baby. This is known as the Valsalva maneuver. It disrupts blood flow to the uterus. It also raises intra-abdominal pressure causing undue pressure on the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles.

What are resistance bands?

Resistance bands are stretchy bands that you pull in various positions to exercise different muscle groups. There’s no chance that they will fall on your bump so they are a safe alternative to free weights. They come in different strengths – some are easier to pull against, some are harder. As with weights, always seek advice from a trainer before doing exercises using resistance bands and tell the gym staff or class teacher that you’re pregnant.

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  1. NHS Choices  [accessed 23 February 2015] ‘What are strength exercises?’, NHS Choices: 
  2. RCOG (2006) Exercise in Pregnancy: Statement No. 4, London, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists: 
  3. ACPWH (2013) Advice for Physiotherapists and Other Health Professionals: Fit and Safe to Exercise in the Childbearing Year, London, Chartered Society of Physiotherapy/Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Women’s Health: 
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Last reviewed on February 1st, 2015. Next review date February 1st, 2018.

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