Pregnancy Articles

A Pregnant Woman's Guide to Strength Training

Guidelines and Tips for Building Strength During Pregnancy

Every movement we make - from walking to driving - involves our muscles. Muscles are unique. They have the ability to relax, contract, and produce force. With appropriate exercise - strength training - muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones all become stronger.

Strength training (also referred to as weight lifting, weight training, body sculpting, toning, and resistance training) is the process of exercising with progressively heavier resistance for the purpose of strengthening the musculoskeletal system. It's an essential part of a complete fitness program. But if you don't know anything about strength training, where do you start? Right here! This guide will tell you everything you need to know to begin and modify your strength training program for pregnancy. Pay particular attention to the Pregnancy Tips in this article, which will help keep you and your baby safe during exercise.

Pregnancy Tip: Many women choose to continue their strength-training programs while they are pregnant in order to maintain muscle strength and endurance. Weight training is beneficial for pregnant women, as it provides you with the strength you need to compensate for posture adjustments and weight gain that occurs with pregnancy. It is safe and beneficial for most pregnant women to continue or even start strength training during pregnancy, as long as you follow the following guidelines. Always check with your doctor before starting any exercise program during pregnancy.

There are 4 principles of strength training:
    1. The Tension Principle: The key to developing strength is creating tension. Tension is created by resistance. Resistance can come from weights (like dumbbells), specially-designed machines (like those in gyms), resistance bands, or calisthenics (the weight of your own body).

    2. The Overload Principle: This principle says that in order to train the muscles, they must work harder than they are accustomed to. This "overload" will result in increased strength as the body adapts to the stress placed upon it.

    Everyone begins at a certain level of strength. To become stronger, you must regularly increase the tension (see #1 above) that the muscles work against, causing them to adapt to a new level. As the muscles respond to an overload, they become stronger.

    3. The Specificity of Training Principle: This refers to the fact that only the muscles you train will respond to the demands placed upon it. By regularly doing biceps curls, for example, the muscles involved (biceps) will become larger and stronger, but curls will have no effect on the muscles that are not being trained. Therefore, when strength training, it is important to strengthen all of your major muscle groups.

    4. The Detraining Principle: After consistent strength training stops, you will eventually lose the strength that you built up. Without overload or maintenance, muscles will weaken in two weeks or less! This is the basis behind why individuals lose muscle mass as they age - they are detraining by exercising less frequently.
Designing Your Own Strength Training Program
When starting a strength training program, keep in mind the F.I.T.T. Principles (frequency, intensity, time and type).

Frequency: How often should I strength train (number of sessions per week)?
  • Aim to train each muscle group at least two times per week. One day per week may help you maintain your current level of strength, but it will not be enough to build muscle.
  • Rest 1-2 days in between strength training sessions. Rest days give the muscles time to repair themselves from small tears that occur during strength training, and this is how you get stronger. For example, if you do a full body routine on Monday, don't strength train again until Wednesday or Thursday (1-2 days). If you decide to split up your strength training (due to time, schedule, personal preference), it's okay to lift two days in a row-as long as you are working different muscles (i.e. upper body on Monday and lower body on Tuesday).
Intensity: How much weight or resistance should I lift?
  • The amount of resistance you use should challenge you without excessive strain. It should be moderate so that you feel some muscle fatigue. Many women do not lift to fatigue, mostly because they don't know that they are supposed to. They tend to just lift the number of reps that they have subscribed to and stop. If you're new to strength training, it will take some trial and error to find the proper weight to lift. This intensity goes hand in hand with the number of reps you do (see Time section below).
  • The amount of weight you lift can be incrementally increased as it begins to feel easier.
  • Pregnancy Tip: Avoid maximal static lifts. They may cause a sudden increase in blood pressure, and force you to use a valsalva maneuver (holding your breath and bearing down). If you have to hold your breath and bear down to be able to lift a weight, it is too heavy, and is unsafe during pregnancy.
  • Pregnancy Tip: Maximal lifts may place extreme stress on the lumbar spine and other joint areas. Pregnancy can create added stress on these joints and increase the risk of injury when they are overloaded, so avoid lifting maximum weights.
  • Pregnancy Tip: If strength training causes muscle soreness during pregnancy, reduce the weight you lift, not the number of repetitions.
Time: How many repetitions and sets should I do?
  • Going from the starting position, through the action and back to the starting position counts as one repetition (rep). Most people lift somewhere between 8 and 12 reps. Eight to 12 reps equals one set. Most people do 1-3 sets of a particular exercise, depending on their goals and time available. One set of 10-12 repetitions is sufficient for strength gains in strength training as long as you continue to increase the weight you lift.
  • Rest 30-90 seconds between sets. You can use this time to stretch the muscle you are working and catch your breath or get a drink of water. The longer you rest, the more strength you will have to finish out your next set just as strongly as the previous one-which will aid in your strength development.
  • You still want to lift resistance that is heavy enough to fatigue you at the end of your set (See Intensity above).
Type: What types of exercises count?
  • Work every major muscle group when strength training: arms, chest, back, core, and legs. The idea is to achieve balance. The same goes for the upper and lower body. Don't neglect one or the other just because one is more important to you. This can create imbalance and set you up for injury and pain.
  • Strength training can be done with a variety of equipment such as resistance bands, a stability ball, dumbbells, barbells, or body weight.
  • Pregnancy Tip: After the first trimester of pregnancy, women should not lie in the supine position (on your back). Instead of lying flat on a bench or mat, you can either eliminate the exercise or modify it so that you are lying on a stability ball, which is safe during pregnancy.
  • Pregnancy Tip: If a particular exercise causes pain or discomfort after modifications, stop performing it.
General Cautions for Strength Training
  • Pregnancy Tip: Always discuss your fitness program with a healthcare provider to make sure it's safe. You can continue your pre-pregnancy strength training program during pregnancy, but you should closely monitor your physical response to exercise and modify or eliminate exercises that cause pain or increased muscle soreness.

  • Pregnancy Tip: One set of 10-12 repetitions, 2-3 times a week is sufficient for strength gains for beginners.

  • Use proper form. Performing exercises in proper form is very important-not only to isolate the muscle you are training, but also to prevent injury.

  • Pregnancy Tip: Improper lifting techniques may aggravate back problems and increase soft tissue injuries, so practice caution. Eliminate equipment such as belts that wrap firmly across the abdomen during pregnancy.

  • Strength training machines (in gyms) usually have detailed instructions and pictures on them. They are set up to put your body in proper form and isolate the right muscles, making them a great choice for beginners because they require less skill and are easily controlled.

  • When exercising on your own (with body weight, bands or dumbbells), form becomes even more important because there is nothing to support you or make you move properly. Use a mirror and supportive equipment (like benches), if possible. Always watch the alignment of the joints and their relationships: shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should be aligned. Your back should remain flat and your abs should be contracted to help support the lower back.

  • Pregnancy Tip: Modification of weight training exercises (such as dropping down in weight level or repetitions, or adjusting positioning to make room for an expanding tummy) may be needed as pregnancy progresses.

  • Breathe properly. People tend to hold their breath during strength training, which can be dangerous. But breathing properly helps deliver oxygen to the working muscles (which will also give you energy) and get rid of the waste products more efficiently. Exhale fully on the exertion phase of the lift. The exertion phase is the hardest part-usually the phase where you are lifting the weight (as opposed to releasing it). Inhale deeply on the easiest phase-usually the release or the return to the starting position.

  • Always warm up and cool down. You should always start with a warm up with 5-10 minutes of light cardio to get your blood flowing and muscles warm. Finish your strength training session with a 5-minute cool down. You can stretch between exercises, when your workout is complete, or anytime that your muscles are warm.
Using these principles and guidelines should allow you to either begin or continue a strength training program that is safe, effective and beneficial during pregnancy.
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About The Author

Nicole Nichols
Nicole earned her bachelor's degree in health promotion and education, specializing in exercise and fitness, from the University of Cincinnati. She maintains several fitness certifications, including prenatal and postpartum exercise design.
Nicole Nichols

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