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7 Strength-Training Exercises You Can Do While Pregnant to Prepare for Labor

Exercising during pregnancy is a hot topic. For years, women were told to take it easy and not to exercise for fear of hurting the baby or themselves. Even one practitioner I saw during my first pregnancy told me I was being selfish for wanting to continue working out while I was pregnant.

But luckily that trend is changing.

Experts have learned over the years that not only is exercise during pregnancy safe, it’s healthy and important for both mom and baby. Exercising during pregnancy can improve circulation, decrease aches and pains, increase endurance, and improve sleep. And most importantly to me, it helps you prepare for the what is potentially the greatest physical event of your life: childbirth.

Every labor is different, but they all have the potential to be an endurance event involving strength and stamina greater than any workout I’ve known. I was never happier about the obscene number of squats my prenatal yoga teacher made me do during my first pregnancy than I was when I was deep in the midst of an exhausting natural labor with my son.

I know I never would have been able to do it had I not prepped for it physically. So this time around, I’m viewing exercise not only as something healthy I can do for myself and my baby, but as training: training for labor.

Here are some generally safe strength exercises you can do during pregnancy to help you prepare for and ease labor, birth, and recovery. Of course, you should check in with your own doctor or midwife before starting any exercise routine, and always listen to your body.

Try to perform these exercises daily, or a minimum of three times a week. Start with one round of each exercise and repeat as able. You can start these from early pregnancy and continue throughout (though you may have to decrease intensity as you get further along in your pregnancy), using your body and judgment as a guide as to how many reps, how often, and what size weights to use.

1. Cat/Cow Stretch

Image Source: Heather Neal
Image Source: Heather Neal

The Cat/Cow Stretch, where you alternately arch and curve your back, is a great stretch for the end of pregnancy and can also provide relief while laboring. Stretching and working both the core and back muscles is helpful for supporting your belly and easing discomfort during labor.

To do:

  1. Position yourself on your hands and knees.
  2. Slowly round your spine towards the ceiling, lowering your head and buttocks.
  3. Return to starting position.
  4. Gently arch your back, reaching the top or your head and your pelvis upwards.
  5. Return to starting position.

Repeat approximately 10 times.

2. Front Squat

Image source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Heather Neal

Squats might be the number one exercise you can do to prepare for labor. Building strength and stamina in your legs will help get you through the duration of labor without getting too tired.

To do:

  1. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes facing forward and knees stacked above toes.
  2. Bend at the knees, reaching back with your buttocks as if you were going to sit in a chair, keeping chest and shoulders upright. If using weights*, hold them at shoulder height.
  3. Return to starting position.

Repeat 10 to 25 times.

*If using weights puts too much pressure on your knees, do them without added weight.

3. Farmer Walk

Image Source: Heather Neal
Image Source: Heather Neal

This one looks and sounds easy but don’t be fooled. This is another great one to not only build up strength in your legs for laboring, but also a good way to do standing core work. A strong core will not only help with pushing, but supporting your back and growing belly.

To do:

  1. Holding a weight* in each hand, extend your arms straight by your sides.
  2. Engage your core by pulling your belly towards your spine, then walk forward.

The number of reps you do will depend how much room you have to walk, but aim for 10 to 20 laps across the room, increasing as you feel stronger.

*Start with light weights around 5 pounds and increase as necessary. Feel free to get creative with what you hold if you don’t have any weights.

4. Military Press

Image Source: Heather Neal
Image Source: Heather Neal

While this exercise does work your arms and shoulders, doing it with proper posture and alignment will also help build and stabilize your core. Traditional core work like sit-ups and crunches are discouraged during pregnancy, so this is a good alternative. You may not think you need arm strength during labor, but using a variety of positions can be helpful and you’ll never know when you need to lean your weight onto your upper body. Plus, it’ll help for when it’s time to carry the baby around.

To do:

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hold light weights* by your shoulders.
  3. Push weights up until arms straighten, then slowly lower back down. Be sure to keep your core engaging as you raise the weights.

Repeat 10 to 15 times.

*Start with 5 or 10 pound weights, and increase as needed.

5. Lunge

Image Source: Heather Neal
Image Source: Heather Neal

Lunges help build leg and glute strength, which can help support the back and core as well. Make sure you don’t bend your knees past your toes though, or it could put too much strain on them. Remember, labor is an endurance event and the more stamina you have, the easier time you’ll have.

To do:

  1. Start by standing with your feet together, hands on hips (or holding light weights by your sides).
  2. Step forward with the left foot, bending at both knees. Aim to keep knees around 90 degrees, pointing directly over your toes. Make sure you don’t bend your knees past your toes though, or it could put too much strain on them.
  3. Return both feet together then repeat with the right foot extending forward. You can opt to do the lunges standing in places or walking across the room.

Repeat 10 to 15 times on each leg.

6. Sumo Squat

Image Source: Heather Neal
Image Source: Heather Neal

Sumo squats are great to do in addition to front squats, or as an alternative when front squats aren’t working for you anymore. Sometimes that belly just gets in the way! Sumo squats use a wider stance with toes turned out, which leaves more room for your belly as you squat down and puts less pressure on your knees.

To do:

  1. Stand with feet about two shoulder-widths apart, toes facing out.
  2. Place hands on hips (or hold light weights).
  3. Bend deeply from the knees, keeping chest and shoulders upright.
  4. Lower as far as you can, then push up to your starting position.

Repeat 10 to 25 times.

7. Glute Bridge

Image Source: Heather Neal
Image Source: Heather Neal

Not only will a strong buttocks help with labor and pushing, it will help support your lower back, taking some of the pressure off as you work to support a growing belly.

To do:

  1. Start lying on your back.*
  2. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the ground a few inches away from your buttocks.
  3. Push into your feet and squeeze your glutes to raise your butt off the ground, creating a flat plane from your knees to your shoulders.
  4. Lower to starting position.

Repeat 10 to 15 times, or see how long you can hold it before fatiguing and aim to beat your time each rep.

*If you are past your first trimester or are uncomfortable on your back, do this in an inclined position. 

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