Exercise during pregnancy has a myriad of benefits, including reducing aches and pains, decreasing complications, improving the health of your baby, and helping you with a speedier recovery after delivery.
However, many traditional cardio exercises should be regressed or avoided as pregnancy progresses due to the body’s alignment shifts, decreased stability, and increased intra-abdominal pressure. Luckily, you can adjust almost any exercise to a level that suits your needs.
See below for some basic guidelines for cardio exercise during and after pregnancy, as well as some modifications for common group fitness cardio exercises.
Cardio Exercise Guidelines
- Listen to your body (not a heart rate monitor): During pregnancy, your heart rate response to exercise becomes more variable. This means that your heart rate is no longer an accurate gauge of your exertion. Use the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) instead — staying between a 6-8 on the 1-10 scale (up to 8.5 if you are accustomed to high-intensity exercise).
- Be mindful of decreased stability. During pregnancy, a hormone called relaxin works to soften the joints, ligaments, and other connective tissue, to allow the body to adapt to carry a growing baby, and to provide the laxity and mobility needed to deliver baby. A consequence of this soft tissue laxity is that it can lead to increased mobility and decreased stability. Relaxin impacts every person differently. Just be mindful that you may feel a bit more “wobbly,” especially in your pelvic hip region. If you do feel a bit less stable, regress single-leg moves like lunges. As a general rule, it’s best to avoid ballistic single-leg movements (like jump lunges).
- Carefully manage your intra-abdominal pressure. Intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) is a critical concept to understand during pregnancy. You need a certain amount of pressure in your core, but if too much pressure builds up, then you can experience issues like Diastasis Recti or Pelvic Floor Dysfunction. A growing belly elevates your IAP, and therefore you will need to begin regressing or avoiding movements that further elevate that IAP beyond the levels caused by the belly. Always watch for signs of coning in your belly as a key indicator a movement is not appropriate for your body.
Modifications for 6 Common Cardio Moves
For each high-impact move below, we listed an alternative move that accomplishes a similar goal, in a more pregnancy-safe way. Have fun experimenting with these. Each can be customized to dial intensity up or down. You can also use these moves in place of other cardio moves as well.
1. High Knee Runs: We often see people modifying this high-impact cardio move by doing a lighter jog in place. While this is fine if that feels ok, we’d actually recommend the High Knee Marches below. These not only remove the impact altogether, but they can actually get your heart pumping even more than a light jog. So, they can be a more effective cardio option. Exhale every time you lift your knee and be sure to keep your trunk in neutral alignment (avoid hunching when you lift your knee).
2. Jumping Jacks: While the common no-impact regression for jumping jacks is often that lovely “half-jack,” this just reminds us too much of 1980s aerobics and it may also not feel like much of a workout. Instead, try this Squat with Side Step. It removes the impact, while keeping your heart pumping, and also adds some great lower body work. You’ll see in this video how it can be a strength move if you hold a weight, and a cardio move if you remove the weight and pick up the tempo.
3. Mountain Climbers: Mountain climbers can be a great cardio and core exercise when you are not pregnant. During the second trimester (or when you have a small/medium belly), begin regressing these by removing the impact and performing in a slower, more controlled fashion. Once your belly gets larger, or if you see any signs of coning in your belly, opt for the High Knee Marches shown in #1 (which combine cardio + core with the high knee lift). Or, for another great cardio + core exercise, try the Diagonal Lifts below. You can use any type of 3-5 lb weight, or no weight at all.
4. Jump Squats: You can remove the impact, but keep the challenge, with this highly customizable Reach Down & Up move. For the highest intensity version, perform this with a full range of motion, and pick up your tempo. Take it down by decreasing your range of motion — placing your hands above your knees or on a stool. Inhale on the way down, exhale as you reach up. Keep you spine in neutral alignment (avoid rounding forward to make your hands touch the ground). Only lower as far down as you can go without rounding forward.
5. Burpees: We have two options for these. The first regression is to avoid lowering all the way to the ground, and to step your feet back one at a time. As your belly grows, begin to perform the plank portion on an incline (if accessible) as shown in this Modified Incline Burpee below. Focus on a strong exhale as you extend into the plank position, and ensure your body is in neutral alignment (straight line from ear-shoulder-hip-knee-ankle).
If the incline plank is still too much, or you don’t have access to a surface for this, try the Cardio Chair Getup Variations below. Like burpees, this is a great total body cardio exercise. Go for the Knee Lift Option to provide some added core work. Inhale as you sit, exhale as you stand.
6. Jump Lunges: We recommend avoiding these throughout pregnancy due to potential pelvic instability from the hormonal changes. Even if you’re not feeling the effects of relaxin, your hormones continue to change, so we just don’t feel it’s worth the potential risk, especially when there are other beneficial moves that can accomplish the same goal. For a different lower body + cardio option, try Knee Repeaters. This move really gets your heart pumping, and you can increase the challenge by going lower on your supporting leg. Exhale every time you lift your knee and keep your spine neutral (avoid hunching over).
Understand the Moves to Avoid by Trimester
For more information on movements to avoid, or regress, by trimester grab our Moves to Avoid by Trimester Guide. You’ll learn what moves to avoid (or regress) by trimester, with evidence-based information as to why. You’ll also receive a summary chart so you have all the information at your fingertips.
Get Complete Training Programs
Remove all the worry about what to avoid or modify, and get safe and highly effective workouts throughout your pregnancy journey with our Prenatal Self-Guided Training Programs. Just select the program that’s right for you based on your stage when starting and you’ll be guided through a comprehensive training program tailored to your stage. Or, for more personalized support, you can work with one of our expert PROnatal Personal Trainers.
Interested in Coaching Pre & Postnatal Clients?
If you are a health & fitness professional interested in learning how to coach pre & postnatal clients, explore our Pre/Postnatal Professional Education. We offer a Specialist Course for trainers & coaches looking to specialize in this population and a Mini Course for group fitness instructors who just need the basics. We also offer simple training guides to get you started.