Written by Hollie Grant Published on 30th August 2023

This blog was updated on 08/30/2023

Congratulations! You’ve found out you’re pregnant, you’ve Googled baby names, and you’ve worked out your due date. Next come the less exciting tasks like finding out which cheeses you can no longer eat, and what to give up over the next 9 months. Exercise is definitely something you can continue, however, and is even thought to make for a speedier, and potentially easier, labor. 

Having said that, the idea of working out while pregnant can seem a little scary, and it doesn’t help that there’s a lot of conflicting advice online. We’ve teamed up with Pilates instructor and mom-to-be Hollie Grant to get the expert guide on what exercises will see you through each trimester and which symptoms they’ll help to relieve. 

Which month to start exercising during pregnancy?

In theory you can start exercising from the first trimester, although it’s always best to discuss this with your doctor beforehand. If you regularly worked out before you became pregnant, you can continue to exercise during pregnancy — but be mindful that you’ll likely need to adapt the types of exercise you do and the intensity levels.

In fact, there are many benefits of exercising while pregnant. Not only is it great for keeping your body as nimble as possible and reducing accompanying physical symptoms such as constipation and back pain, but continuing to do something you enjoy throughout your pregnancy is great for your emotional well-being, too. 

First Trimester Workouts: Weeks 0 – 13

What are the main symptoms during the first trimester?

You may not even realize you’re pregnant until the end of this trimester, but with the invention of handy apps and fertility trackers, some of us will know before our body has even clocked that we are pregnant. 

Some of the symptoms you might experience include:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting

  • Smell sensitivity (that makes nausea worse)

  • Lethargy

  • Sore or swollen breasts

It’s often the trimester that feels most challenging, especially when you’re unable to admit to your friends and family why you can no longer stand the smell of garlic! However, adopting a first trimester workout routine can help to provide some relief.

How to exercise in early pregnancy

This trimester can be the most confusing as you adjust to your first few months of pregnancy. However, as long as your doctor gives you the go-ahead and you feel well enough to do so, you can continue to exercise as you would have done before. A few considerations, however;

  • Stick to exercises you know: Avoid starting new exercises during pregnancy. You should really continue with workouts you’re familiar with to be on the safe side.

  • Stay as cool as possible: It’s important to prevent your core temperature from getting too high during pregnancy, as this carries a greater risk of miscarriage. Avoid exercising in very hot weather or in heated studios.

  • Focus on non-contact exercises: Avoid exercises that are high impact, such as contact sports, or those that can put excessive pressure on the body. Plus, always remember to warn your class instructor that you’re pregnant.

  • Consider low-impact workouts: Low-impact aerobic or cardio exercises such as walking, swimming, or yoga can be great during pregnancy, as this requires the heart to pump oxygenated blood to the muscles that are in use.

  • Adapt your current weight training routine: Continuing weight training can strengthen your abdominal and back muscles, increase your stamina for labor and delivery, and even boost your mood, but you may need to adjust the weight you’re lifting — check with your doctor before weightlifting during pregnancy.

Which exercises should I focus on during early pregnancy?

Use your first trimester to lay the foundations for the rest of your pregnancy. This means prioritizing the muscles that are going to be put under the most strain, namely the abdominals and the pelvic floor. In your second trimester you will be advised to stop doing abdominal exercises, so make use of the opportunity you have now.

You can try these kinds of exercise during early pregnancy:

  • Walking: If you’re experiencing low energy or nausea, walking is a gentle exercise that will get you moving without overexerting yourself. 

  • Abdominal exercises: You can strengthen the rectus abdominis muscles (your 6-pack abs) and your transversus abdominis (your corset abdominal) to help prepare your core for the changes that come with a growing bump.

  • Pilates: Regular Pilates sessions can be incredibly beneficial at this point, as its main focus is on improving posture and toning the core and pelvic floor.

  • Running: If you were a runner or jogger before you got pregnant, it’s safe to continue during early pregnancy and is a great aerobic workout as long as you feel okay.

Second Trimester Workouts: Weeks 14 -  27

What are the main symptoms during the second trimester?

For many women, this is when they start to feel more ‘normal’ again, and the nausea and vomiting from trimester 1 start to subside. You may also find your energy levels pick up. 

However, symptoms that are common in this trimester include:

  • Pains on the side of your belly caused by your expanding womb (known as ‘stretching’ pains or round ligament pain)

  • Sore breasts

  • Frequent need to urinate (overactive bladder)

  • Stress incontinence

  • Constipation

  • Back ache

How to exercise safely during the second trimester

You may find that you now have more energy compared to the first trimester and wish to increase the frequency of your workouts. However, there are a few changes that will need to be made to your routines:

  • Reduce the intensity of your workouts: As pregnancy progresses, you want to begin reducing the intensity of your workouts, so listen to your body! It’s okay to do exercise that is cardiovascular, but you should still be able to hold a conversation and breathe without issue. I like to think of an effort scale of 1-10, where 1 is no effort or movement at all and 10 is you exercising flat out — aim to stay around the 4-6 mark.

  • Avoid exercising on your back: From around week 16 you should avoid exercises that require you to lie on your back. It’s recommended that you avoid lying on your back for extended periods of time so, in general, I would avoid it completely (or only do it for a maximum of 3 minutes).

  • Cease abdominal-focused exercises: During the second trimester you should also avoid performing any abdominal exercises that require you to engage your rectus abdominus (your 6-pack abs) while your muscles start naturally separating. 

Which exercises should I focus on during the second trimester?

It’s around this time that you may be starting to experience aches and pains, especially in your back and pelvis. As your bump grows, your center of gravity changes and puts more pressure on the lower back. Try to focus on:

  • Exercises that reduce back pain: Gentle pelvic tilts, cat stretches and glute activation exercises (which are often practiced in yoga) will help to reduce the tension in your lower back.

  • Supporting your body weight: As your bump grows it’s important to support your body weight when you exercise during pregnancy. Swimming is a great option that can relieve joint discomfort — it can also be highly therapeutic and meditative.

  • Staying hydrated and taking regular breaks: During your second trimester and beyond, it’s important to stay hydrated and take breaks when necessary. This will help with back ache symptoms and general low energy.

  • Strengthening pelvic muscles: It’s never too early to start improving your pelvic strength to reduce incontinence and help with childbirth. Practicing kegel exercises during early pregnancy through to your third trimester will improve your results.

Third Trimester Workouts: Weeks 28 – 40

What are the main symptoms during the third trimester?

Well first of all, you’ll definitely have a bump now. Your baby’s movements will be obvious and at times uncomfortable, and there’s a possibility you might be starting to get pretty tired again. Other symptoms might include:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Swollen feet and ankles

  • Braxton Hicks contractions

  • Lethargy

How to exercise safely during the third trimester

It’s around this time that expectant moms may want to start to ease off the frequency of their workouts and conserve their energy. Much of the advice is similar to trimester 2, but you should also consider the following:

  • Keep doing low-impact activities: By this point, you shouldn’t be doing any exercise that’s high intensity. Instead, focus on walking, swimming, stretching or low-impact versions of other activities.

  • Watch out for signs of Pelvic Girdle Pain (PGP): Avoid positions where your feet (and legs) are very far apart, as this can increase your risk of developing PGP.

  • Change positions in yoga and Pilates slowly: To reduce dizzy spells and avoid using your abdominals too much, take things slowly. It’s okay to take as many breaks as you need!

What should I focus on during the third trimester?

In your final trimester, it’s wise to think ahead to labor. We want our baby in the best position possible for safe labor: head down and its body facing your spine. Some great things to focus on are:

  • Changing your position: Spend some time on your hands and knees. This gives your baby maximum room to rotate into the optimal position.

  • Staying active unless you’re in pain: Try not to spend too much time reclining on your sofa. Tilting your pelvis backward for long periods of time can cause the baby to face the wrong way (towards your belly button). If you feel comfortable enough to do so, try to go for gentle walks and lie on your side when resting.

  • Keeping up your pelvic floor workouts: When doing your pelvic floor exercises, it’s wise to focus on the complete release of the pelvic floor now. This will be needed in the final stages of labor to allow the baby to pass through with minimal damage to the muscles.

What exercises should you avoid while pregnant?

Working out while pregnant can be great for your physical and mental well-being, while there are plenty of exercises that are still possible during pregnancy. That said, there are also activities that you should avoid. The most important thing to consider is your safety, of course — so it’s important to seek advice from your doctor and adapt your usual workout routine.

Exercises to avoid during pregnancy include:

  • Any contact sports, such as soccer, volleyball and basketball.

  • High-intensity workouts such as crossfit, HIIT, and boot camps. 

  • Exercises that put you at risk for falling, such as skiing, off-road cycling, and gymnastics.

  • Exercises that put you at higher risk of getting hit in the abdomen, such as kickboxing or ice hockey.

  • Activities that force you to bounce heavily, including horseback riding and trampolining.

  • Scuba diving, which could put your baby at risk of decompression sickness, or any sports where you’re required to hold your breath.

  • High-altitude activities like mountain hiking.

  • Hot yoga, or any activities carried out in very hot temperatures.

Please remember that everybody (and every body) is different, and every pregnancy is unique. Work closely with your doctor and midwife to ensure you’re aware of any contraindications to exercising, and if you’re safe to do so, listen to your body throughout. An active pregnancy is one of the kindest things you can do for your body. Good luck.