8 Exercises to Avoid as a Pregnant Athlete

8 Exercises to Avoid as a Pregnant Athlete

Written by Kat Suchet - Owner of Hatch Athletic

It's time to debunk the fact from the fiction about what REALLY are the high intensity functional exercises you shouldn't do in pregnancy, and WHY.

1. Exercises for Time

This is no longer a race. Don't be tempted to ever choose intensity over integrity of movement - you're now working out with different principles in mind. My feeling is as most of us haven't got a lot of experience exercising whilst pregnant most of us can't be absolutely certain we aren't straining or overdoing it. So mama, I'd say intensity should be the first thing to go. Your goals for exercise should now be about feeling good, maintaining your fitness levels and muscle mass, maintaining good posture, developing superhero pelvic floor control and keeping gestational diabetes at bay.

You should also steer clear of DOMs inducing volume. DOMs (delayed onset muscle soreness) means you've been lifting or exercising to the point of breaking and building new fibres and is largely present after a very high volume of reps or after some very heavy lifting. You aren't building muscle mass anymore and this should really be the last thing on your mind. No DOMS in later pregnancy is anything much to be proud of.

2. Any exercise which compromises your posture

You're something like 3 times more likely to have a fall when you're pregnant. That just goes to show how 'off' your spatial awareness and balance is when you have a bun in the oven. Add weights or highly skilled movements into the mix and you do enter a high-risk category for injury, more high-risk than your normal gym bunny. Careful to all those 'butt-winkers' at the bottom of a squat - keep it high enough that you retain pelvic control. Turn it into a box-squat if you can't be sure. Also, are you a bum-clencher? Diane Lee - the women's pelvic health guru - has a lot to say about these and it's very common in athletes. When you're standing still, or rising from a squat or a deadlift do you find you overly squeeze your butt? Many athletic folk have this tendency and it leads to hyperextension at the front of the hip which puts extra strain on the low back. Get someone to check for you. This will only get worse in pregnancy so nip that in the bud now. Common pregnancy injury areas to be mindful of if your posture isn't spot-on are back and neck injuries, exacerbation of pelvic girdle issues and compromise to that sacred pelvic floor.

Pregnant dumbbells

Common movements where it all goes wrong: deadlift, back squat (perhaps sub it out for a front squat in the third trimester or do box-squats), kipping (which can force you into a backbend and can stretch the abdominal wall unnecessarily) and olympic lifts (your centre of gravity and your bar path will change - is it worth having to completely relearn how to lift again postpartum?)

3. Any exercise which can cause coning

Coning is your body's way of telling you that the linea alba - the connective tissue that connects your abdominals - is under undue pressure. It literally looks like your belly is cone shaped, or there may be a little bulge from the middle section of your tummy. Don't panic if you see it, just take that as your body's way of telling you to stop that exercise for now. The linea alba does an awful lot of stretching whilst you're preggers and the last thing you want is to over-do it by putting extra force through the midline. Coning is an indication that a) you're not maintaining good pressure control within your abdomen and therefore could be compromising your pelvic floor, and b) exposing your linea alba to too much force. Common movements which add undue pressure to the midline in pregnancy are:

a) Prone loaded positions (planks, push up positions, burpee, mountain climber, etc) - scale it to incline versions or stop them altogether if need be

b) Abdominal loading exercises (sit-ups, v-ups, hollow holds, candlesticks, etc)

c) Athletes take note: Coning can also be common in overhead hanging exercises such as pull ups, toes to bar, rope climbs, ski erg and also with some women (like me towards the third trimester) in horizontal pulling positions like rowing. 

Everyone is different. Keep watching your belly and be mindful to stop certain movements if need be. Keep a little list of exercises you should personally avoid so you can learn about your body and how it's responding to your pregnancy. 

4. Valsalva breathing or breath holding

Big loud noise coming from your mouth as you rise from a squat? Breath holding before completing a heavy lift? STOP. Now that you're pregnant and hopefully still lifting (great!) you need to learn to breathe differently. Valsalva breathing is a strategy reserved for maximal or submaximal loads, so mark my words in point 1. You really don't need to be aiming for a 1RM right now, so reduce the load a little and increase your reps, introduce a tempo if you like but don't valsalva breathe and don't lift anything that demands it. It will compromise your pelvic floor.This advice was seriously lacking when I was pregnant: Learn to breathe for your pelvic floor on all resistance work.

Breathe in and relax your pelvic floor on the eccentric part of the lift (i.e. downward part of a squat), breathe out and squeeze your pelvic floor on the concentric part (i.e upward part of the squat). Use this breathing pattern for ALL resistance work. Breathe out and squeeze your pelvic floor to pull a deadlift, in to lower the weight to the floor. Breathe in and release your pelvic floor on the downward kettlebell swing, breathe out and squeeze for the upswing.

This includes moving equipment around the gym and getting on and off the floor. In and out of bed. And on and off the sofa in week 40!

I'd also go so far as saying it's more important to learn to release your pelvic floor than it is to squeeze as athletes many of us will be used to be squeezing our pelvic floors like crazy! Timing is key, especially with functional movements that happen quickly. Do make sure your squeeze is timed with the effort phase. 

5. High Impact

Impact will put added pressure on that precious pelvic floor. As you start to grow bigger, swap box jumps for step-ups, running and double-unders for air-bike, and be wary of explosive movements in some lifts i.e. jerks and snatches.

(Image from Hatch Athletic)

Yes some mums-to-be will be running until their waters break, but my advice is stop it now. An athlete's pelvic floor control may not be as iron-clad as expected. Especially if you're very low body-fat. If you have ever had amenorrhoea (stalled periods) your lower oestrogen levels may actually mean your pelvic floor control is weaker than average. 

6. Split stance or single leg work IF you have pelvic girdle symptoms

Ah pelvic girdle pain (PGP) can be the pits. You may find you have to reign in much of the single leg loaded exercises like lunges, split squats and larger step ups if you have pubic symphysis pain or pelvic girdle pain. This will be on a case by case basis, change it up if it aggravates. Sometimes flare-ups can take 24hrs to show themselves so try to identify what exercises you did the day before that may have exacerbated things. Good news is PGP nearly always resolves after delivery, so get yourself a silly calendar and start striking off those days. 

7. What about lying on your back?

The jury is out these days. Research in 2015 in the US suggests it's absolutely fine for women doing exercise to spend shorter periods on their back. I think the basic no-go guidelines are there for sleeping or spending a prolonged period of time there, which can potentially compromise the blood flow in the major arteries and veins that run through the abdominal cavity.

Having read around and also talked to a few medical professional friends the current opinion is if it's for exercise alone and you don't have any symptoms of dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath or pain then you're fine to keep on going (e.g bridging which can be fab for pelvic floor, low back and core). 

8. Any exercise that causes chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, headache, swelling of the legs, leaking of urine, or of fluid from the vagina. 

You're all educated individuals so I won't patronise you but I gotta say it from a safety perspective. Don't take any unnecessary risks ladies. It's never worth it.


Kat is the director of Hatch Athletic - a new and exciting postpartum training program for athletic/strong mamas. Kat is a physiotherapist, CrossFit athlete and coach and most importantly a mama. She has designed this medically-approved 12 week postpartum program specifically for fit new mums who have desires to return to their sport with bulletproof pelvic health. The program is ideally suited for the healing postpartum body, the athletic body and the mind. Check it out at www.hatchathletic.com or pop Kat an email kat@hatchathletic.com to find out more.