the big 5

easy prenatal exercise essentials to get and keep you in shape


Lynn Chapman-Stern has more than a little insight into what makes a healthy pregnancy. Not only is she a swimmer, a runner and the mother of two, but she is also a certified nurse-midwife at Allen Pavilion of the New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. She’s there with women at the moment of truth: when their bodies perform the ultimate challenge of giving birth.

She’s also there afterward, when moms and newborns come in for postpartum checkups. “You need to be in good shape after you have your baby too,” says Chapman-Stern. “Don’t forget that lifting the baby will take a lot of strength.” That’s why the nine months of your pregnancy are an excellent time to be doing smart, safe exercises that will keep you in shape for the birth and beyond.

Here are the five basic areas you need to focus your pregnancy routine on:

1. Cardiovascular exercise is great for circulation, energy, stamina and weight control, says Chapman-Stern. “Walking is excellent. Very few women are going to get overly hot or dehydrated when they’re walking.”

2. flexibility and 3. leg strength will enable you to handle the positions of labor for hours at a time and also bounce back into an active life after the birth.

4. a strong back will help you deal with the extra weight in your uterus, which could otherwise pull you out of alignment.

5. well-toned abs will assist you in carrying the fetus, avoiding back pain and recovering your shape afterward.

The workout on the following pages represents every one of these must-do prenatal exercise categories, along with specific moves that Chapman-Stern recommends for each.

the plan:

These five fitness “must-dos” comprise a complete prenatal workout designed to be done three to five times a week. If you like, you can do the cardio element separately, but elements two through five

were designed to be done together as a single 20- to 30-minute workout.

1. cardio

Exercise Rx: Urban walk or nature hike

Why you need it: Cardiovascular exercise will help you maintain your current fitness level and gain a reasonable amount of weight during your pregnancy. It’s also a great way to keep your leg muscles strong and supple (important for labor) and energy levels high. We recommend a brisk walk or hike for the relaxation and psychological lift provided. You can also take this opportunity to get outside for some quality time with your partner or friends.

How to do it: Try to take a 20- to 30-minute walk 3–5 days a week. Aim to work up to 60 minutes on days when you have more energy; to achieve this goal, increase your time by l0 percent each week. Walk briskly. Adapt your pace based on your changing body, and remember to stay hydrated. If you’re in good shape, you can continue to hike throughout your entire pregnancy, but stay away from long climbs, which can be overtaxing. Hike on a stable trail, and wear good footwear and ventilated clothing. If going downhill feels harder on your knees as your belly grows, try zigzagging down the hill (descend diagonally to the right, then to the left). Stop if you feel fatigued, and make sure you don’t get so winded that you can’t talk easily. For variety and comfort, try swimming or riding an upright or recumbent bike in your first trimester or at the beginning of your second trimester.

2. flexibility

Exercise Rx: Calf/hip-flexor stretch

Why you need it: This stretch helps release tension in your ankles, Achilles’ tendon and hip flexors. It will improve flexibility in these areas, which should make walking (the cardio element of this program) and squats (the leg-strength/labor-prep element) easier and more comfortable. It may also help relieve leg cramps.

How to do it: Place hands on a wall at chest height. Separate your feet hip-width apart in a lunge position, left foot in front of right with your left knee bent in line with your ankle and right leg extended behind you, feet flat on the ground [A]. Lean slightly forward from your ankles so your belly falls forward and your forearms rest against the wall [B]. Press your hips forward, keeping your right heel on the ground; you’ll feel a stretch in your right calf and in the front of your right hip. Hold the stretch for 30–60 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.

3. leg strength

Exercise Rx: The combination squat

Why you need it: Whether you’re holding an infant in your arms or still carrying your baby around in your belly, kneeling and bending will require significantly more leg strength in days — and years — to come. The squat will give your legs extra power, and it’s perfect training for the increasingly popular natural birth-squat position. In fact, the last rep in this squat set is a full birth squat, which also improves hip flexibility for whatever birthing position you choose.

How to do it: Stand facing the back of a chair (or a pole), feet hip-width apart and legs straight but not locked. In the first and second trimesters, hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest them on your shoulders, elbows close to your sides; in the third trimester, forgo the dumbbells and hold on to the top of the chair (or pole) for support. Contract your abdominals to bring your spine to a neutral position (tailbone pointing to the ground). Keeping your body weight over your heels, squat until your thighs are as close to parallel to the ground as possible [A]. Straighten legs to return to starting position, and do 2–3 sets of l0–15 reps. (Pay close attention to your comfort zone as your pregnancy progresses; decrease the sets and weight accordingly.) Finally, do one full birth squat: Widen your legs to more than hip-width apart. Keeping your back straight and shoulders relaxed, drop your hips and lower your buttocks toward the ground. Hold this position for 30 seconds and relax your pelvic-floor muscles [B]. To come out of this position, drop forward onto your knees and use the chair (or pole) for support as you stand up. Aim to hold this position for an additional 15–20 seconds each week until you can hold it a full 3 minutes.

4. back strength

Exercise Rx: Spine extension

Why you need it: A strong back helps counterbalance the weight of your growing belly during pregnancy. It will also help support you through childbirth.

How to do it: Place both hands shoulder-width apart on a sturdy support that’s about chest height. Separate your feet about hip-width apart or slightly wider if it feels more comfortable. Bend your knees slightly. Inhale; then exhale and round your spine upward like a cat, letting your head drop naturally [A]. Inhale and move from a rounded-back position to a slightly arched back, pressing your shoulders back and away from your ears. (You’ll also feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings.) Hold the arch for 15 seconds [B]. Repeat this sequence 5–8 times.

5. belly strength

Exercise Rx: Supported crunch

Why you need it: Strong abs will provide support for your growing belly.

How to do it: Lie on your back with your head and shoulders propped up on rolled-up towels so they rest higher than your belly. Your knees should be bent and your feet flat on the ground, fingertips touching behind your head [A]. Take a belly breath to expand your belly; then exhale and pull your navel in toward your spine as you lift your head, neck and shoulders upward [B]. Lower slowly and do 2 sets of 16–20 reps, resting 1 minute between sets. (Note: In your first trimester, you may not need to elevate your head and shoulders on towels. If the crunch position feels too uncomfortable even with your head and shoulders elevated, sit cross-legged with your back against a wall and switch to belly-breathing exercises: Every time you exhale, focus on pulling your bellybutton in toward your spine.)