Exercises to Build Strength During Pregnancy

If you’re having a normal, healthy pregnancy, you may want to add some low-intensity strength training and daily exercise to your regimen. Pregnancy isn’t the time to take up new or strenuous sports, but with your health provider’s okay, you can begin strengthening the muscles in your upper and lower body — you’re going to need them!

During pregnancy, the extra weight in your belly and your breasts can cause you to hunch over and round your shoulders. Developing the muscles in your back and shoulders will improve your posture and make it easier to carry your baby, but that’s just one payoff. After your baby is born, you’ll be amazed at how often you need upper body strength just to get through the day. Holding your baby to feed her, lifting her onto the changing table a dozen times a day, and carrying endless baskets of laundry will be so much more comfortable if your muscles are ready for it.

You also need a strong pair of legs. Your legs are your foundation: They support your belly, your baby, and your back. As pregnancy progresses and your abdominal muscles are stretched to their limit, strong legs become essential.

Moves that require you to use several muscles at once are ideal for your upper and lower body because in just a couple of moves you can work most of the major muscles in your body.

Here are some simple, effective exercises to strengthen your upper and lower body. Aim to do 8 to 15 repetitions of each at least twice a week. Start with one set, then work up to two. As your pregnancy progresses, hold on to the back of a chair if you need extra support during the leg exercises. Before each workout, warm up with a 5- to 10-minute brisk walk. The equipment used in these exercises is inexpensive and can be found at regular retail outlets.

Best exercises during pregnancy

Seated high row (strengthens your lats and upper back): Sit on the floor with your legs out in front, knees slightly bent. Keep your spine in a neutral (straight) position. Wrap an exercise tube around your feet at the arches. Cross the tube so it makes an “X” over your legs, and hold a handle in each hand. Pull the handles back, keeping your elbows up and back rather than out to the sides. Your upper arms should be perpendicular to the floor, shoulder blades down. When you’ve pulled back as far as you can, “scrunch” your shoulder blades together. Return to the starting position and repeat.

Overhead press (strengthens deltoids and triceps): Sit in a chair or on a bench with your spine in a neutral position. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand (1, 2, 3, or 5 pounds). Bend your elbows so the weights are at shoulder height and slightly to the side. Exhale and press straight up and overhead, keeping your elbows straight but not locked. Lower with control. Inhale and repeat. Focus on keeping your spine and neck neutral, your shoulders relaxed. Don’t allow your neck to jut forward. Repeat.

Alternating biceps curl (strengthens biceps): Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, knees slightly bent and your spine in a neutral position. Hold a dumbbell in each hand (start with 3, 5, or 8 pounds) with your hands at your sides, palms facing your thighs. Lift up the weight in your right hand first, turning your wrist toward the right so your palm faces up as you lift the weight toward your shoulder. Rotate back to the left as you lower the weight. Repeat with your left arm, rotating out to the left on the way up and in toward the right on the way down. Alternate to complete 15 repetitions for each arm. If you can easily complete 15 repetitions, use heavier weights.

Dancer’s plié (strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings, inner thighs, buttocks, calves and shins, increases leg circulation, improves balance): Hold a 5- to 8- pound dumbbell in each hand. Stand facing the back of a chair, with your feet more than hip-width apart, feet and knees comfortably turned out. Contract your abdominals and lift your chest, keeping shoulders relaxed. Bend your elbows so the weights are at each shoulder, palms facing in. (If you need the support of the chair, do not use weights — hold on to the back of the chair instead.) Bend your knees, keeping your feet on the floor, spine erect and body weight balanced over your heels. Lower your torso as far as you can without changing your back or hip position. Straighten your knees, squeezing your inner thighs and continue without pausing, rising up onto the balls of your feet. Lower feet and repeat. (Note: If you get calf cramps from rising on your toes in the later months, skip that part of the sequence.)

Skater’s lunge (strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings, buttocks, upper hip and inner thighs): Stand with hands on your hips, or hold onto the back of a chair. Shift your weight to your left foot so only the toes of your right foot touch the ground; your right knee is bent. Tighten your abdominals to maintain a neutral spine, then bend your left knee as you press your right foot out to the side at a diagonal to your body. Return your right foot to the start position, straightening your left knee. Repeat, then switch legs. Do the same with the opposite leg.

Leg lift crawl (strengthens buttocks and hamstrings): Get down on all fours. (This will encourage your baby to rest in the correct head-down position while you do the exercise.) Keep your weight evenly distributed and your arms straight. Moving slowly, raise your left knee and bring it toward your elbow, then straighten your leg and extend it out and back. (Don’t lock your knee or arch your back.) Hold for the count of five. Return to start, repeat 5 to 10 times. Switch legs and repeat.

Workout tips:

  • Always exhale on exertion.
  • Focus on keeping your abdominal muscles tight, which helps keep your spine in a neutral (not arched, not hunched) position.
  • Never lock your knees; they should always be in a semi-relaxed position.


Interview with Mary Yoke, M.A., a fitness expert and author of Methods of Group Exercise Leadership. Yoke holds multiple fitness certifications, including from the American Council on Exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine and the Aerobic Fitness Association of America, and is an adjunct professor at Adelphi University on Long Island.

Interview with Debi Pillarella, M.Ed., a pre- and postnatal fitness instructor, and fitness director at The Community Hospital, Fitness Pointe, in Munster, Indiana. She is certified as both a group fitness professional and a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise. She is the author of the “Adventures in Fitness for Kids” series and co-author of Fitness Stepping.

Anthony, Lenita. Pre- and Post-Natal Fitness: A Guide for Fitness Professionals from the American Council on Exercise. American Council on Exercise. Healthy Learning Books and Videos

Planning for Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. New American Library.

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