How Hard Should Your Pregnancy Workouts Really Be?

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Finding that sweet spot for antenatal exercise is a bit of a balancing act. We've got you.

Last updated: 9 November 2022
5 min read
  • If going hard in the gym is your thing, you don't need to slam the brakes just because you're pregnant—but you should keep your max effort at a 7 or 8 out of 10.
  • As you get further along, that 7 will feel a lot different to how it used to. Checking in with yourself during and after a workout can keep you from overdoing it.
  • Go at your own pace with workouts of all levels in the NTC App.

Read on to learn more …

Can You Do Intense Workouts During Pregnancy?

*This content is designed to inform and inspire, but it is not meant to diagnose, treat or give specific medical advice. Always check with your health care provider about how to stay healthy and safe before, during and after pregnancy.

If you all-caps LOVED hitting the gym pre-pregnancy, there's probably a big question looming for you now that you're working out with a baby on board: do I have to scale back the intensity of my workouts? And you'd be wondering this for good reason: lots of antenatal workouts are proudly advertised as "gentle" and "moderate", which may not be your preferred speed.

If you're exhausted or otherwise ready to dial it back a bit, do so. Otherwise, use rate of perceived exertion (RPE), a 0-to-10 scale where 0 is lying on the sofa watching Netflix and 10 is one of the hardest workouts you've ever done. Keep the intensity to no more than a 7 or 8 out of 10, says Amanda Williams, MD, a board-certified obstetrician-gynaecologist in Oakland, California, and a member of the Nike (M)ove Like a Mother advisory board. Sound different from the old heart-rate metric you've heard about? That's because that guideline is, well, old, says Dr Williams.

Of course, everyone's 7 or 8 will be different, and what feels like a 7 at 18 weeks pregnant might be a very different workout than what feels like a 7 at 32 weeks. "Pregnancy is like wearing a backpack, and every single week, we put a big rock in. By the end of your pregnancy, doing the same workload you were doing at 20 weeks is much, much harder because you're carrying that full backpack", says Catherine Cram, an exercise physiologist and the owner of Prenatal and Postpartum Fitness Consulting in Verona, Wisconsin. "You're not getting less fit. You're working harder".

So how do you adjust? It's really all about listening to your body. "It's individual, so you can work to your own comfort level", says Dr Williams. For starters …

1. Ask yourself how you're feeling during your workout.

"We want movement to feel good", says Jessie Mundell, a certified personal trainer and kinesiologist who specialises in antenatal and postnatal fitness in Kingston, Ontario. That might include faster breathing, burning muscles and sweating (you know you love it), all signs you're likely in the 6-to-8 RPE range. "But if you start experiencing other uncomfortable physical symptoms like lower back pain, pressure in the lower belly, round ligament–type pain or pelvic pain, ease off", says Mundell, even if you didn't hit the RPE you were targeting. "It's a question of should I go harder versus could I go harder", she says.

If you find yourself struggling to want to scale back, Mundell offers a bit of a mantra: "Pregnancy, in the grand scheme of things, is really a short time. We can always return to pushing ourselves once we've recovered".

Can You Do Intense Workouts During Pregnancy?

2. Make note of how the rest of your day goes.

Another thing to bear in mind as you find the right intensity for you is how you feel after your workout. You might have a great morning sweat but then feel absolutely drained by 2pm. It's easy to forget that your body is working every minute to sustain your pregnancy, and a workout that feels good while it's happening might end up pulling too much from your energy reserves, says Dr Williams. If in the 24 hours after your workout you notice unusual-for-you side effects like extra soreness, back pain, pelvic pain, exhaustion, an uptick in Braxton-Hicks contractions, or feeling dehydrated, it's a clue that your body isn't bouncing back the way it should, says Mundell. Rest and take it down a notch next time.

3. Don't beat yourself up if you accidentally overdo it.

What happens if you do go really intense one day (or … um … a few times) and get to a 9 or 10 RPE? The good news is, probably nothing major, says Dr Williams. Skiing, horseback riding and other workouts where you could fall and hurt yourself and/or the fetus are legitimately risky during pregnancy, regardless of intensity. As is lying on your back for long durations, which can reduce blood flow to you and your baby (make sure to change positions if you start to get dizzy). But when it comes to going HAM on your workout, "the main risk of overdoing it is dizziness or light-headedness for you", says Dr Williams. "Foetuses are pretty hardy".

If you start to feel woozy or like you can't catch your breath mid-workout, you guessed it: take a break until you feel normal again. And even though the baby isn't at much risk from one or two extra-hard sessions, try not to make overdoing it a habit. As we said, you don't want to be constantly emptying your tank; growing a baby is hard enough work on its own.

The bottom line is that you decide what feels right and manageable. Some people might feel great running long distances until late into their pregnancies; some might feel too much pelvic pressure to run at all. And if you've been pregnant multiple times, what feels like a 7 on the RPE scale might differ with each pregnancy. But if you're feeling good, you can keep on doing what you're doing. It's clearly working.

Words: Sara Gaynes Levy
Photography: Vivian Kim

CHECK IT OUT

For more antenatal wellness advice—and workouts that meet you exactly where you are today—start the expert-vetted Nike (M)ove Like a Mother programme in the Nike Training Club App. Then treat yourself to a new look from the Nike (M) collection.

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