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How to exercise safely at the different stages of pregnancy

How to exercise safely at the different stages of pregnancy

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, or potentially easier labour; yet it can seem a grey area online with conflicting advice. 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 bring relief to.


Trimester 1: Weeks 0 – 13


What are the main symptoms?

You may not even realise you are pregnant until the end of this trimester but with the invention of fantastic 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
  • A strong sense of smell (that makes nausea worse)
  • Lethargy
  • Sore or swollen breasts

This is 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.


How to exercise safely.

This trimester can be the most confusing. In theory, as long as your doctor gives you the go-ahead, you can continue to exercise as you would have done before.  A few considerations, however.

  1. Pregnancy is not the time to start a new form of exercise. You should really continue with forms you have done before to be on the safe side.
  2. It’s important to prevent your core temperature from getting too high during pregnancy as there is a greater risk of miscarriage. So, avoid exercising in very hot weather or studios that use heat.
  3. Avoid exercises that are high impact such as contact sports or those that can put excessive pressure on the body. And always remember to warn your class instructor that you are pregnant.


What should I focus on?

Use your first trimester to lay the foundations for the rest of your pregnancy. This means prioritising 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.

  1. 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.
  2. Pilates can be incredibly beneficial at this point as its main focus is on improving posture and toning the core and pelvic floor.
  3. Get practising your Kegel (pelvic floor exercises) whilst you don’t have the weight of a heavy baby bearing down on it. Kegel exercises should be a combination of rapid, short pulses and longer, slower contractions. Elvie Trainer is a great device to give your a helping hand and keep you motivated.


Trimester 2: Weeks 14 -  27


What are the main symptoms?

For many women this is when they start to feel more ‘normal’ again and the nausea and vomiting from trimester 1 starts to subside. You may also find your energy levels pick up. However, symptoms that are common in this trimester include:

  • Stretching pains or round ligament pain
  • Back ache
  • Stress incontinence
  • Frequent need to urinate
  • Constipation


How to exercise safely.

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

  1. As pregnancy progresses you want to begin reducing the intensity of your workouts. It’s ok 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.
  2. From around week 16 you should avoid exercises that require you to lie on your back. The NHS recommends avoiding lying on your back for ‘extended periods of time’ which isn’t particularly useful. So, in general I would avoid it completely (or only do it for a maximum of 3 minutes).
  3. You should also cease any abdominal exercises that require you to engage your rectus abdominus (your 6-pack abs). As your baby grows these muscles will naturally separate (diastasis recti) and we don’t want to strengthen them whilst in this altered state. Avoid any exercises that cause your tummy to dome or make a pointy ‘toblerone’ shape.


What should I focus on?

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 centre of gravity changes and puts more pressure through the lower back. Try to focus on:

  1. Gentle pelvic tilts, cat stretches and glute activation exercises, which will help to reduce the tension in your lower back.
  2. Swimming is a great option at this point as it supports the weight of the body and can relieve joint discomfort. Many women also find it therapeutic and meditative.
  3. A gentle morning stretch routine is great now that sleeping positions are altered. Due to the hormone relaxin your body is more flexible when pregnant so be wary of overstretching and damaging your joint ligaments.


Trimester 3: Weeks 28 – 40


What are the main symptoms?

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.

It’s around this time that women may want to start to ease off the frequency of their workouts and save their energy.  Much of the advice is similar to trimester 2 but also consider:

  1. Avoiding exercise that puts a strain on the pelvic floor as this will be under significant strain already.
  2. Watch out for signs of Pelvic Girdle Pain (PGP) and avoid positions where your feet (and legs) are very far apart as this can increase your risks of developing PGP.
  3. Change positions in yoga and Pilates slowly to reduce dizzy spells and avoid using your abdominals when getting out of bed and out of the bath, as we still want to avoid any doming of the rectus abdominis.


What should I focus on?

In your final trimester it’s wise to think ahead to labour. We want our baby in the best position possible for a safe labour: head down and its body facing your spine. Some great ways to encourage this are:

  1. Spend some time on your hands and knees. This gives your baby maximum room to rotate into the optimal position.
  2. Try not to spend too much time reclining on your sofa. Tilting your pelvis backwards for long periods of time can cause the baby to face the wrong way (towards your belly button).
  3. When practicing 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 labour to allow the baby to pass through with minimal damage to the muscles.



Please remember that every body is different and every pregnancy is unique. Work closely with your doctor and midwife to ensure you are aware of any contraindications to you exercising and if you are 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.

Pilates instructor Hollie Grant’s Pilates PT studio has twice won the Tatler Gym Award for ‘London's Best Pilates Studio’. Learn more about Hollie and The Pilates PT Method Online® here.