Pregnant woman running along a beautiful lake

Is it safe to exercise during early pregnancy?

Pregnant woman running along a beautiful lake
Exercise during a normal, healthy pregnancy is beneficial for both mum and baby

The answer is, yes! For a normal, healthy pregnancy, exercise is not only safe, it can help alleviate some of the common pregnancy pains, like lower back and pelvic pain. It can also help reduce unnecessary weight gain.

Pregnancy is split into three trimesters. Some Doctors even tout the “fourth” trimester as just as important for the babies development, being the first three months after baby is born.

Each trimester comes with it’s discomforts, and varying degree’s of changes for both Mum and the unborn baby.

The first trimester, weeks 0-12

The first trimester is generally considered the most exhausting. Your body is busy building the beginnings of a brain, nervous system, spinal cord, heart and a placenta to feed a little human during these three months. Your blood volume is also increasing to help transport extra nutrients to the uterus and foetus.

This is the trimester most often associated with morning sickness (I personally feel this should be just named “sickness”, as I felt nauseous around the clock with my first baby). Many women just feel crappy.

Nutrition should be carefully monitored during this trimester. Many Obstetricians recommend a pre-natal vitamin supplement rich in folic acid. You can learn more about folate in pregnancy here.

Exercise in the first trimester

A largely pregnant belly holding small blue dumbbells
Exercise in pregnancy is safe with the right care

If you feel well and have been exercising regularly prior to conception, exercise can continue as normal. Keep in mind that with an increase in blood volume, quite often breathlessness or dizziness can occur. Be careful not to over exert yourself, if this happens.

It’s also absolutely fine (and actually recommended) to begin exercise now if you haven’t before. However I strongly recommend working with a qualified pre-natal trainer.

In my experience, most women feel utterly exhausted in this trimester, and so it’s really important to listen carefully to what your body is telling you.

Prioritise good quality sleep over everything else, and if you’re not feeling crash hot, swap your normal session for some LISS exercise instead.

Some good options if you’re not feeling up to your usual routine include:

  • A brisk walk
  • A bike ride
  • Swimming gentle laps
  • Seated resistance training
  • Pelvic floor exercises (I did a whole blog post about Pelvic Floor Training– it’s never too early to begin)
  • Deep breathing

The second trimester, weeks 13- 26

This is the “fun” trimester for most women. Morning sickness generally fades between weeks 12- 16, the hard building work of the first trimester is done. There are no pains yet from the pregnancy hormones and a big belly, that are to come with the third trimester.

For a lot of Mums-to-be, this is the most common trimester to begin exercise

However, there are certain limitations that need to be observed when training now. Due to a growing belly putting pressure on the pelvis and lower back, sudden changes in position could lead to a drop in blood pressure, causing fainting. I recommend engaging the help of a qualified trainer now.

I use the “talk test” with my clients. If you can’t comfortably hold a conversation during the exercise, it’s too intense. If Mum can’t breathe, baby can’t breathe.

Note: the only exception to this might be elite athletes, or women who have a long history of regular, vigorous exercise. Even then, only with a normal pregnancy and the careful observation of a qualified health professional.

Generally the focus should be on building endurance in the postural muscles, hips and thighs.

It has been suggested that remaining active and upright during labour and delivery makes the whole process faster and less painful, so having good muscular endurance can help with this.

A blonde toddler cuddling his mothers pregnant belly and smiling

Exercises to watch out for:

  • Overhead pressing
  • Lying flat on your back
  • Abdominal exercises like crunches and planks

What exercises should be focussed on in the second trimester:

  • An endurance rep range (10-20 reps)
  • Postural muscles (especially upper back)
  • Hip and thigh muscles (especially glutes)
  • Standing exercises
  • Pelvic floor and TVA exercises
  • Deep breathing

The third trimester, weeks 27- to end

Usually by now, a belly will start to “pop” and tiredness will start to creep slowly back in. More because of frequent night time bathroom visits than anything else. Your body is also beginning to be flooded with large quantities of a hormone called relaxin which helps loosen a woman’s ligaments in preparation for delivery. Toward the end of this trimester, the baby turns upside down, and its head descends toward the bottom of the uterus in preparation for delivery.

NB: if a baby doesn’t turn, and Dr’s are unable to manually turn the baby, this is called a “breech” birth. A baby is either born bum first, or delivered by c-section in this case.

The combination of all these things, means aches and pains around the pelvis, tailbone and lower back are really common. Extra care needs to be taken by your trainer to modify exercises to account for this, and you should never exercise if it causes you pain.

Exercise in the third trimester

Pregnant women are more likely to tire quickly, and may be more breathless or prone to dizzy spells. Generally, rest periods increase or session durations decrease slightly for my clients now.

Try and avoid moving up and down off the ground too often. Performing a series of exercises while sitting, and then moving to standing, is generally going to be more comfortable and reduce a sudden drop in blood pressure.

What to focus on most:

  • Reduced ROM [range of motion] in movements
  • Avoiding unilateral exercises like lunges, step ups and split squats that “split” the pelvis
  • Focus on TVA and pelvic floor to support lower back
  • Breathing focus
  • Walking for shorter durations, but more frequently (i.e. 3 x 20 min walks, over 1 x 60 min walk each day)
pregnant lady cutting up a tomato, surrounded by vegetables and fruits
Keeping healthy throughout pregnancy creates the best outcome for both Mum and baby.

It’s recommended to exercise with the guidance of a pre-natal qualified trainer throughout pregnancy and beyond. If you’d like to know more about training through pregnancy, contact me here.

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Jess Neill

Jess Neill

I'm a Personal Trainer, Pilates Instructor and Pre and Post Natal Training specialist. I'm also a mother of two, and I live on the beautiful Northern beaches of Sydney. If you liked this post, don't forget to leave a comment and share! Subscribe to my monthly newsletter for the latest health and fitness news.

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