growing strong

This strengthening program will prepare you for the rigors of delivery and motherhood.

During my second month of pregnancy, I developed morning sickness. But it wasn't just in the morning. I felt nauseated all day long. At first, I tried lying very still, with a cool cloth on my forehead. I nibbled crackers, put my feet up and tried not to think about my churning stomach. When that didn't work, I decided to return to my regular routine, which, depending on the day of the week, included running, using a stair-climbing machine, and taking step aerobics and body-sculpting classes at the gym.

Each time I exercised, my nausea disappeared, and I felt refreshed, rejuvenated and 100-percent healthy. Apparently, I'm not alone. Research shows that exercising during pregnancy has a number of benefits. "Exercise can help relieve morning sickness, constipation and lower-back pain," says James F. Clapp III, M.D., professor of reproductive biology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who has researched exercise and pregnancy for 15 years. "It also will help you sleep better. You'll feel like you have much more get-up-and-go. And you'll recover faster after you deliver."

Get fit to deliver Clapp's studies show that sustained prenatal exercise, such as running, aerobics and stair climbing, helps women deliver more quickly and easily, with fewer complications. About 80 percent of 250 women who exercised for 20 minutes at least three times a week at a moderate to high intensity had spontaneous vaginal deliveries, and the active phase of their labor was one-third shorter than that of women who were more sedentary. In addition, the use of forceps and the number of Cesarean sections were 300 percent greater among those in the study who didn't exercise.

Many women work out with weights during pregnancy to build strength and counteract shoulder and back pain caused by a growing tummy and breasts. "The focus is not on spot muscle toning," says Kathy Stevens, a Reebok master trainer in Palos Verdes, Calif., and mother of five, who designed the routine that follows. "The point is to use weights to strengthen your supporting muscles so you can keep your posture in alignment and handle the stresses that are placed on your expanding body." Stevens' workout can be done in the gym or at home. Because pregnant women tend to feel fatigued easily and should avoid straining tendons and joints, Stevens suggests using lighter weights and more repetitions initially. (Remember to stay off your back after the fourth month, because the pressure on your uterus can impinge on the inferior vena cava vein, which takes blood back to the heart.)

Find your workout level In general, if you worked out prior to your pregnancy, it's OK to continue — with your doctor's approval, of course. But if you haven't been exercising, some experts say it's a good idea to wait until the second trimester to begin. "Your baby is most susceptible to heat in the first trimester, and you're more likely to be fatigued," says Michelle Mottola, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and kinesiology at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. (See Level 1 and Level 2 instructions for our workout below.)

How do you know if you're overdoing it? If you can talk comfortably while you're working out, continue. But if you can't speak a full sentence without becoming breathless, you're pushing too hard. Also, drink water before, during and after exercise, so your body doesn't get dehydrated.

Exercise during pregnancy can provide a number of benefits, says Gayle Peterson, M.S.S.W., Ph.D., a prenatal development specialist and the author of An Easier Childbirth (Shadow & Light, $17.95). "During pregnancy, when your emotions fluctuate and your hormone levels change, exercise can stabilize your mood," Peterson says. "And women who exercise are more likely to look at their body changes as positive, and they are better prepared for the rigors of labor."

the program

This workout is designed to strengthen your torso so you can maintain good posture throughout the pregnancy. The exercises also will prepare you for carrying or lifting the baby afterward. Do them in the order listed, resting a minute between sets.

warm-up and stretching

Begin with 10–12 minutes of light cardio work, using a treadmill, bike or stepper set to low intensity. Follow each strengthening move with an "opposite direction" stretch: For example, after you've squeezed your shoulder blades together, reach forward to stretch your back. Hold each stretch to a point of mild tension for 5 deep breaths (about 20–30 seconds) without bouncing.


Relax, either in a seated or side-lying position, and take some deep breaths. Beginning with your feet and moving slowly up your body, contract each muscle group for a few seconds, then relax. Do 10 Kegel exercises in a row, holding each for 5 seconds. Complete your cool-down with a series of deep breaths. Inhale, hold for 5 seconds, then exhale slowly.


Do these exercises 2–3 days a week, with at least a day between workouts. Balance this workout with aerobic conditioning at least 3–4 days a week, even if it's just a 10-minute walk.


Consider yourself at Level 1 if you're fairly new to exercise or you have little or no experience in strength training. You are at Level 2 if you currently are strength training at least twice a week. Prior to beginning this program, seek your physician's approval, regardless of your level.

Level 1: Do 1 set of 15–20 reps with moderate weight. Reduce range of motion if necessary as pregnancy progresses. Add a second set of 8–12 reps when 1 set is comfortable. Increase weight by the lowest amount possible if you feel comfortable doing it. Do 5 sets of 5-second Kegel exercises between sets. Build to 10 sets.

Level 2: Do 2 sets of 8–10 reps with enough weight to make 10 reps challenging, then increase weight by the lowest amount possible. Do 10 5-second Kegels between sets.

choosing the correct amount of weight

Use the first set as a test of the suggested weight range. If you can do 20 reps easily, the weight is too light; if you can't get to 15, it is too heavy. Begin on the light side until you learn the exercises, then increase by 2- to 5-pound increments. As pregnancy progresses, you probably will need to lower your weight to accommodate your growing belly and comfort level.

the exercises

1. Isometric Neck Press (opposite page) Choose an overhead shoulder press or adjust the back of an incline bench to 90 degrees. Sit with your head and back against the pad, feet flat and hands resting on your thighs [A]. Press your head back against the pad and pull your chin in toward your neck, maintaining head alignment [B]. As you press, feel the back of your neck against the pad. Hold for 3 breaths; release and repeat. Strengthens neck muscles, counteracts stress of chin jutting forward as your belly grows. At home: Place hands behind head and press head against hands. Suggested weight: none.

2. High Seated Row On a low cable machine with a short bar attached, place feet hip-width apart (increase this width as your belly grows), knees slightly bent. Lean forward to grasp the bar, hands shoulder-width apart, then sit upright. Squeeze shoulder blades down and together behind you without moving arms [A]. Hold this position for 1 breath, then release. Repeat 5 times (all levels). On the last squeeze, bend elbows to bring bar to your ribs. Stay erect [B]. Return to starting position and repeat, squeezing shoulder blades before you move. Strengthens upper and middle back, shoulders and biceps; counteracts forward pull of upper body and shoulders from breast weight. At home: Do the same seated row using resistance tubing or do a bent-over row using a dumbbell. Suggested weight: 20–50 pounds.

3. Front Lat Pull-Down Sit on a lat pull-down machine with a long bar attached, knees under the pads at a 90-degree angle. Grasp the bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, arms straight. Lean slightly backward from your hips to start, feeling a full stretch in your back muscles [A]. First, squeeze your shoulder blades down and back; hold the position, then bring elbows down toward your sides, tightening the back muscles without changing hip position during the motion [B]. Straighten arms to starting position. Strengthens middle back, rear shoulders and biceps; helps reduce neck and upper-back tension; stabilizes back muscles to maintain standing and sitting without back support. At home: Hold resistance tubing in one hand, about head level; take other end with other hand and pull back toward your ribs. Suggested weight: 30–60 pounds.

4. Front Raises Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging by your sides and palms facing in toward thighs. Contract abs to tilt pelvis to a neutral position [A]. Squeeze shoulder blades together, then lift arms up in front of you to no higher than shoulder height [B]. Slowly lower to starting position. Avoid rocking your body forward and back as you lift. If you have trouble maintaining a neutral position, do a single arm at a time. Strengthens front shoulders to prepare for lifting and carrying your new baby. At home: Do the same exercise. If you don't have weights, use water bottles or soup cans. Suggested weight: 3–5 pounds.

5. Incline Fly Sit on an incline bench adjusted to a 45-degree angle with legs straddling the bench, knees separated. Holding a dumbbell in each hand with arms extended directly above midchest, keep palms facing in with a slight arc to your elbows [A]. Squeeze shoulder blades together, then lower arms out and down until elbows are even with your shoulders [B]. Press dumbbells directly back up to starting position and repeat. In your third trimester, you may need to elevate your feet on a box or step to relieve lower back and maintain alignment. Strengthens chest and front of shoulders in preparation for carrying and holding baby.

At home: Do the same exercise lying on the floor, propping head and shoulders up on pillows higher than your belly. Suggested weight: 3–15 pounds.

6. Standing Abs Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, arms hanging naturally by your sides or placed on your belly. Squeeze shoulder blades together to maintain upright posture [A]. Contract abs to tilt top of pelvis back and tailbone under [B]. Slowly release to neutral position without arching your back; repeat. This exercise also can be done with your back against a wall. Strengthens abdominals; counteracts forward pull of growing uterus; relieves lower-back stress. At home: Same exercise. Suggested weight: None.

7. Leg Press Adjust the seat of a leg press machine to 45 degrees and sit with feet hip-width apart on the plate, legs straight but not locked. Keep back against pad and grasp handles [A]. Bend knees toward chest until they are in line with hips [B]. Straighten legs to starting position and repeat. Keep knees and toes facing forward. Strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings and buttocks. At home: Do wall squats. Suggested weight: 45–135 pounds. Decrease weight as pregnancy progresses.

8. Cable Side Lifts Stand with your left side to a low cable pulley, left foot on a weight plate and ankle cuff attached to your right ankle. Adjust your distance so you're supported but still have a slight tension on the cable. Hold the bar with your left hand, right hand on your hips, keeping your hips square and chest lifted and your abdominals contracted [A]. Maintaining torso and hip alignment, slowly lift your right leg out and sideways, keeping your foot close to the ground for as long as possible before it leaves the floor. Focus on keeping your pelvis stable [B]. Return to starting position and do reps. Repeat with the other leg. Strengthens upper hip; focuses on standing leg alignment to help with overall pelvic stability. At home: Do same exercise at home by holding onto a wall and using an ankle weight or tubing. Suggested weight: 10–15 pounds.