A Year of Staying Fit

It's the perfect workout: It keeps you strong while pregnant, prepares you for labor and helps you snap back into shape after delivery.

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You want to keep fit while pregnant; that's a given. So you need to make some adjustments during the few months when your belly gets large, right? And then take it easy for a couple of weeks after the baby arrives, yes? No biggie!

Well, we suggest that there's a more holistic way of envisioning a fit pregnancy — think about it as a whole year of staying in great shape. And consider our pre-to-postpartum workout, designed by Fit Pregnancy fitness editor Linda Shelton, as an easy-to-follow blueprint for those 12 healthy months.

Why a year? Because the right exercise program can help you in three important ways. First, it will keep you strong and flexible throughout the nine months of your pregnancy and help you feel comfortable with your body as it goes through its miraculous changes. Second, exercise can prepare you for labor and delivery, whether that experience turns out to be a sprint or a long-distance run. Finally, after you give birth, you'll reap the benefits of all that prenatal conditioning because the proper moves can help you return to your prepregnancy shape and tone up for the heavy lifting of motherhood.

"Weight work strengthens you for the endurance of labor and delivery," says fitness pro Nancy Popp, who is featured on ESPN2's Crunch Fitness and in fitness videos such as the new Quick Fix series. Popp has done aerobics, strength training and even kickboxing while pregnant (her third child is on the way), yet the 36-year-old Long Island, N.Y., resident found that giving birth was tougher than she'd imagined.

"If I hadn't been in shape for my first baby, Shane, I probably would have given up and had a C-section," says Popp. He was facing toward her back, which made pushing difficult. "Working out has helped me deal mentally and physically with this latest pregnancy, especially since I have to take care of my other kids. You need to be strong to hold one baby and have another on your hip."

Benefits Galore

Don't just take our word for how great exercise is for pregnant moms — check out the research. A review by James Clapp III, M.D., in the journal Clinical Sports Medicine showed that the benefits include improved cardiovascular fitness, limited weight gain and fat retention, an improved attitude and mental state, easier labor and a quicker postpartum recovery.

Other current research has shown that women who continue to work out are less likely to deliver by Cesarean section than those who remain sedentary and that 10 weeks of moderate exercise during pregnancy can lower diastolic blood pressure in women at risk of hypertensive disorders. Prenatal exercise can even benefit your baby, according to Clapp. His review cites studies showing that the offspring of exercising moms are leaner at 5 years of age and have slightly better developmental outcomes.

Exercise after pregnancy is no less crucial to a woman's well-being. "Your abs, back and pelvic-floor muscles really take the brunt of labor and delivery," fitness editor Shelton points out. "The importance of postpartum exercise is to recondition your abdominals and pelvic-floor muscles and readjust your posture and body balance."

The Few, The Mighty

Shelton's workout program starts with just four multi-muscle moves that you can do throughout your pregnancy. These exercises work your legs, abs, upper back, arms and shoulders. Cardio work is also important, and tips for fitting it in are included.

For the postpartum weeks, Shelton offers six different moves to tone your body and recondition stressed muscles. You'll work your legs, arms, middle and back, tighten up your abs and pelvic-floor muscles, and pump up your "lifting" muscles so you can hold and feed that new baby.

"There are only a few exercises in this program, but they make the most of your time," says Shelton. "It's a little bit of effort for a lot of results."

Prenatal exercises

Do the following 4 exercises in the order listed 3 days a week on alternating days. As your pregnancy progresses, you may want to use lighter weights if you experience discomfort.

Sets and reps: On days when you're feeling tired, do 1–2 sets of 10–12 reps for each exercise; when you're feeling more energetic, do 2–3 sets of 10–12 reps. Rest 1 minute between sets. When using less weight, increase reps to 15.

1. SQUAT COMBO Stand facing the back of a chair with feet hip-width apart, legs straight but not locked. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging by your sides, palms facing in. Sitting back on your heels, bend both knees, lowering hips toward the floor no lower than 90 degrees (A). Contract your buttocks and return to standing position. Immediately step backward with left foot, bending both knees into a lunge position, keeping front knee in line with ankle, back heel lifted and torso straight (B). Straighten both legs and step forward to starting position. Continue to squat, alternating legs for lunges. After the last lunge, stay in a squat position. Put weights down and hold back of chair. Keeping feet flat on floor, sit back on heels and squat down to the floor so hips are close to heels (C). Stay in this birthing-squat position for 30 seconds, building up to 3 minutes. Weights: 5–10 pounds in each hand. Strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings and buttocks; opens hips; relaxes pelvic floor. Option: As your belly grows, stop using weights and hold the back of the chair for support.

2. ROW-AND-PRESS COMBO Sit on the edge of a chair, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging by your sides with palms in, bend forward from your hips so your chest approaches your knees (use a pillow on your thighs after 7 months). With arms in line with your shoulders, back straight and shoulder blades squeezed together, bend elbows back toward your waist (A). Keep weights in this position as you sit up and bring arms up in front of you, still bent (B), then straighten arms overhead (C). Lower arms until elbows are close by your sides, bend forward and repeat combo. Weights: 3–8 pounds in each hand. Strengthens upper and middle back, shoulders and biceps.

3. WALL ABS Stand with your back against a wall, feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, heels as close to the wall as possible. Place your fingertips behind your head. (As your pregnancy progresses, place feet farther from the wall.) Inhale, then exhale fully, pressing your navel back toward your spine (A). Hold this position and breathe for 10 seconds, then release. On the last rep, hold the position and round your upper torso into crunch position, keeping your lower back against the wall (B). Inhale, return to starting position and repeat. While you're resting between sets, do 10 Kegel exercises (see page 94), holding each for 10 seconds. Strengthens abs. Option: As your pregnancy progresses, do this exercise seated in a chair with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

4. STRETCH COMBO Stand facing the back of a chair. Hold chair with both hands, elbows bent. Place your feet in a modified lunge position, left foot in front of right, hip-width apart. Inhale, then exhale and round your spine (A). Inhale, straightening spine; then shift your body weight to your back heel and lift the toes of your front foot. Pull back on the chair lightly and "sit" back, stretching your hamstrings (B). Exhale, rounding spine. Repeat combo 5–6 times, then switch legs and repeat. Stretches back, shoulders and hamstrings.

Postpartum Exercises

Everything probably feels different to you now: your schedule, your house overrun with baby paraphernalia, your body. Especially your body. The muscles you used to hold your baby in and the ones you used to push her out no doubt feel overstretched and sore. These exercises recondition and strengthen muscles that have taken the brunt of pregnancy and labor. Most likely you'll be able to start them at 6 weeks (or earlier) after delivery, depending on how quickly you heal. Before you begin, check with your doctor.

Do the following 6 exercises in the order listed 3 days a week, with a day off in between. Do 1–2 sets for each exercise, resting 30–45 seconds between sets. Begin with the lowest number of reps listed and progress 1 or 2 reps at a time to challenge yourself.

1. CHAIR SQUAT WITH ALTERNATING KNEE LIFT AND PRESS Stand with your back to a chair seat, feet hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell on each shoulder, elbows bent. With weight on your heels, bend knees into a squat until back of thighs barely touch the seat (A). Using your buttocks and legs, return to standing, lift left knee to hip height and press arms overhead (B). Use abs to stay balanced. Lower arms, put foot on the floor and repeat the squat, alternating knee lifts. Do 10–16 reps. Recommended weight: 3–5 pounds in each hand. To progress: Extend foot so lifted leg is straight as you press up. Strengthens buttocks, quadriceps, hamstrings, shoulders and abs.

2. REAR LUNGE WITH HIP LIFT AND CURL Stand with feet hip-width apart, legs straight but not locked. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging by your sides, palms facing in. Contract your abs so your torso is strong and centered. Take a step backward with left foot, bending both knees so right knee is in line with ankle and left knee points down (A). Straighten legs, extending left leg behind you to 45 degrees without arching your back; at the same time, curl dumbbells up toward shoulders (B). Lower foot to floor and lower arms. Do 8–10 reps on each side. Recommended weight: 3–5 pounds in each hand. Strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings, buttocks, calves and biceps.

3. STANDING HIGH FLY COMBO Face the back of a chair at arm's length with feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent. Holding chair for support with right hand and a dumbbell in the left hand, bend forward from your hips until your back is parallel to the floor and your torso forms a straight line from head to hips. Let your left arm hang toward the floor, palm facing in. Keeping abs tight, lift elbow directly up so knuckles are pointing down at the top of the movement (A). Lower arm to starting position, then bend elbow up and out to the side, extending arm in line with shoulders, and squeeze shoulder blades (B). Lower and repeat entire combo for 8–12 reps per arm. Recommended weight: 3–5 pounds in each hand. Strengthens middle and rear shoulders and upper back.

4. PUSH-UP WITH LEG LIFTED Get down on all fours with hands under shoulders, arms straight but not locked, knees under hips. Extend right leg behind you at hip height so you're balanced on the left leg and your body forms one line from head to toe (A). Keeping abs contracted, bend your elbows, lowering chest to the floor (B). Press upward to starting position. Do 6–8 reps per side. Strengthens chest, front shoulders, triceps, buttocks and abs.

5. BENT-KNEE CURL-UP Lie on the floor faceup, knees bent, calves parallel to the floor. Place your hands behind your thighs (A). Press your legs away from you using your hands as resistance; at the same time, contract your abs and lift your head, neck and shoulder blades off the floor (B). This is a small movement; legs will stay bent. Relax to starting position and repeat. Begin with 8–l0 reps, building to 20. Strengthens abs.

6. ALTERNATE SINGLE-LEG REACH Lie faceup on the floor and bend knees in toward your chest. Lift your shoulder blades off the floor, contracting your abs, and place both hands lightly on your left leg just below the knee. Keeping your shoulders up by using your abs, extend your right leg out in front of you at about a 45-degree angle as you exhale, bringing navel toward spine (A). Inhale and switch legs, exhaling as you do so (B). Continue to alternate your legs. Begin with 10 reps (1 side is 1 rep), building to 20. Strengthens abs.

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