What might be the benefits of weight training, and other forms of exercise,
in the months leading up to childbirth? This was a question asked of me by
my wife recently.
She is pregnant and like most women wants to ensure the
good health of both herself and the baby she is carrying. This prompted me
to research the area of pre-natal exercising. I found that it is beneficial
to exercise while pregnant for a number of reasons.
Indeed, those who
exercise while pregnant enjoy many advantages over their non-exercising
- Fewer problems experienced during childbirth
- Enhanced post natal recovery
- Lower incidence of backaches and less severe headaches
- Enhanced body image
- Feelings of wellbeing and happiness, and a positive self image
- Increased energy levels
- Increased flexibility
- Increased aerobic capacity
- Better circulation of blood to the extremities
- Greater muscle strength and coordination, which helps with adjusting to
increased bodyweight and changes in balance.
- Pregnancy-related constipation avoidance
Although these benefits can be realised through exercise, certain guidelines
do need to be followed. A pregnant woman is quite vulnerable and precautions
need to be taken to ensure that certain exercise stresses do not have a
After all, pre natal exercise should be directed toward
muscle strengthening to minimize the risk of joint and ligament injuries.
This article will provide guidelines on pre-natal exercise and other health
As a woman undergoes her special metamorphosis, as the
pregnancy draws near, exercising might prove to be most beneficial in
assisting overall pre-natal health and a successful birth.
The Why & How Of Pre-Natal Exercise?
The changes associated with pregnancy can cause a multitude of problems for
the child-bearer. Many of these problems are related to a weakened
musculature as a result of inactivity coupled with the additional stress
placed upon the body as a result of pregnancy related weight gain.
in general, and weight training in particular, can strengthen supporting
muscles and lessen the back pain and overall muscle and joint weakness
associated with pregnancy. The best exercises are ones that do not cause
In particular, avoid any exercise that involves lying on the front,
as this will place pressure on the abdomen and cause pain. Instead,
exercises should focus on the muscle groups that undergo pregnancy related
The following exercises, with their corresponding body parts, are advised:
Exercise ball crunches and for the abbs: training abbs while pregnant can
be problematic as the inferior vena cava is compressed when the back is in a
It is better to execute the crunch on an exercise ball in a
supine (facing up) inclined position. The back muscles also benefit from
this particular exercise through increased strength and flexibility.
abductor/abductor and abb work also play a part in reducing lordosis of the
As the fetus grows, the abdominal muscles are stretched and weakened
and this causes the lower back muscles to shorten. Additional stretching of
the hip-flexor muscles will prevent exacerbating the lordotic condition.
Exercise ball squats for quadriceps: hormonal (relaxin) increases result in
softer connective tissue surrounding the joints, so try to refrain from deep
knee flexion and, instead, concentrate on the upper part of the movement.
The exercise ball makes an excellent substitute for a regular bar squat and
is a much safer option. The regular squat forces the wrist into a flexed
position and this causes numbness and tingling in someone who is pregnant.
The oedema (tissue swelling) associated with pregnancy causes compression of
the median nerve in the wrist and when the wrist is flexed these symptoms
Light weights should be used for all exercises to prevent any unnecessary
stresses or strains. The rational for using these exercises exclusively, as
part of the weight training component of an exercise routine, is they focus
primarily on the areas that tend to weaken the most due to pregnancy.
extra weight of the breasts during pregnancy tends to pull the shoulders
forward shortening the pectoral muscles and overstretching and weakening the
rhomboid and trapezium muscles in the back (Kyphosis).
During the preceding
exercises one should therefore try to really stretch the muscles being
worked. Also, worth noting is the value of moderation. It is best not too
train to hard for too long as this may cause additional stress and negate
the session's benefits.
Three full-body sessions per week, provided weights are light and motivation is high will be sufficient.
Although this article, strictly speaking, is about the benefits of weight
training for the pregnant woman, it is worth mentioning the value of
Aerobic training will assist the weight training sessions as it
would in a regular exercise regime. Waste product removal, fat loss and
enhanced cardiovascular function are three benefits to be gained from
aerobic work. A 20-30 minute walk three to four times per week should be
Guidelines & Precautions
Now that the exercises and training recommendations have been determined,
certain guidelines need to be followed.
In response to a pregnancy a woman will undergo a series of changes that may
impact exercise safety. Probably the most significant of these changes are
During pregnancy, blood volume increases approximately 40%
and the more blood that has to be circulated the faster the heart has to
beat to complete this job. Heart rate and cardiac output increase as a
result. Dizziness may also occur as a result of the additional pressure
placed on the large veins in the back region that take blood back to the
heart from the lower extremities.
This can have implications when training,
and, as such, it is advised not to engage in work that involves lying on the
back and elevating the legs.
In terms of cardiac output, it is best to
monitor exercise intensity and keep track of heart rate. Heart rate should
not exceed 140 beats per minute for longer than one minute as this could
result in increased cardiac output and fatigue. Follow all exercise with at
least ten minutes of cool down work to restore heart rate.
Metabolism and hormonal changes also occur during pregnancy. A woman's core
temperature will rise as a result of an increased metabolic rate and this
could have serious consequences in terms of foetal health.
A significantly elevated body temperature can cause foetal damage making this particular
problem precarious to say the least. The most vulnerable period is the first
trimester (the first four weeks). To counter any potential problems drink
plenty of water before, during and after training, avoid exercise in hot
humid environments and stop often during the session to stabilise
The hormonal changes specifically revolve around the hormones
estrogen, progesterone, relaxin and elastin. Connective tissues and joints
are softened and relaxed in preparation for childbirth, dur to the interplay
of these hormones, making a pregnant woman more susceptible to injury.
To counter these problems never overextend or engage in deep flexion of any
type, warm up for longer than usual and avoid high-impact exercise that
requires jarring, jumping or forceful movements.
In addition to pregnancy related changes and their considerations, one
should also be mindful of the following.
- Do not hold breath but continually breath throughout. In general, exhale on
- Drink plenty of fluid before during and after training to prevent
- Check for abdominal muscle separation weekly. During pregnancy hormones
cause the centre seam in the abdominal muscles to soften and stretch as the
baby grows and the abdomen expands.
- Ab training, as explained, should help
to prevent separation but if it does the following can be done to correct
it: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your
hands on your abdomen with your fingertips pointing down toward your pubic
bone. Exhale as you slowly lift your head and shoulders while pressing down
and in with your fingers - that will encourage the abbs to reconnect.
- Activities which require coordination and precise balance should be avoided.
Increased weight, softening and increased mobility of joints and ligaments,
and shifting centre of gravity may alter ones ability to coordinate muscles.
- Muscles should be appropriately stretched before and throughout training.
- It might be wise to reduce energy output as pregnancy progresses. A larger
energy output will be required as more weight is gained and fatigue will
occur more readily.
- And most important of all: consult with your physician before undertaking
any training program as there might be certain contraindications that only a
qualified physician can identify.
During pregnancy blood sugar levels typically drop quite significantly.
Blood sugar levels will also fluctuate. In addition, noradrenaline (a
hormone responsible for sending blood sugar into cells to be utilised) will
be released during exercise.
The blood stream becomes dramatically low in
blood sugar as a result of this and the aforementioned pregnancy related
blood sugar lowering.
A pregnant exerciser who trains too hard for too long
may feel dizzy and lose concentration as the brain uses only blood glucose
(sugar) for energy. This could result in injury or worse. To avoid these
consequences: eat about two servings of a high complex carbohydrate food
(rice or potato for example) between 60 to 90 minutes prior to training.
During training, and indeed, pregnancy, correct nutrition is paramount.
Folic acid will help to maintain overall health in general and reduce the
possibility of neural tube defects (spina bifida and anencephaly) in
particular. 400 micrograms per day is recommended.
Folic acid is a member of
the B-complex family of vitamins and can be found, naturally occurring in
green leafy vegetables, legumes and dried beans. Certain breakfast cereals
contain sufficient folic acid.
Folic acid can also be consumed in supplement
form or easier digestion and convenience.
Pregnancy is a special time, belied by the turmoil that takes place in a
woman's body. Hormonal, cardiovascular, metabolic and blood sugar changes
create an environment where additional care needs to be taken, in particular
when it comes to exercising.
Rather than stop completely and forgo the
wonderful benefits of exercise, it is best to continue on, using the
modifications suggested in this article. An expectant mother can enhance her
transformation while maintaining her beauty and grace through exercise.
- Douglass, A.(2000).The Mother of All Pregnancy Books: The Ultimate Guide to
Conception, Birth, and Everything In Between: Macmillan: USA.
- Douglass, A. & Sussman, J.(1999).The Unofficial Guide to Having a Baby.
Hungry Minds INC: USA.
- Saulitis, M.(2004). Pregnancy and Exercise. Life Matters. [On line]
- Baby Center. (2004). Fitness During Pregnancy. [On line]
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