Cardio Modifications for Pregnancy

Do you absolutely love to take group fitness classes? If you’re feeling up to it, then cheers to that! Exercising during pregnancy, especially aerobic exercise, 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 cardio exercises in group fitness classes can prove challenging during pregnancy, as well as in the first few months postpartum. Exercises like jump squats and burpees are difficult for many people to do with proper form, let alone when you’re trying to work with all of the physical changes and challenges of pregnancy! 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

  1. Work at a level that feels “somewhat hard”: The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which publishes the official guidelines for exercise during pregnancy, advises women to work at a level that feels “somewhat hard” for their own bodies.  If you have ever heard of a guideline to keep your heart rate under a certain threshold (like 140 beats per minute), this is actually one of the biggest prenatal exercise myths out there!  It is an outdated guideline from 1985 that was eliminated after research showed that heart rate is NOT an accurate gauge of intensity during pregnancy (because there are so many other things going on in your body that cause fluctuations in your heart rate).  Instead, listen to your body!  It’s ok to break a sweat and feel like you’re working.  Just don’t take it to the point of breathless.
  2. Stay mindful of your decreased stability. During pregnancy, there is an increase hormone relaxin, which works to soften pelvic ligaments to better enable you to push your baby out.  While this is very helpful in delivery, it’s not so helpful in the 9 months leading up to it because it decreases your stability in your pelvic hip region, and makes you more susceptible to sprains, ligamentous tears, or other injuries.  Be very careful with moves that place your pelvis in an unstable position, like any sort of lunging movement, or quick changes of body position.  Relaxin continues to increase throughout your pregnancy, so as your belly grows (and throws off your center of gravity), your stability continues to decrease.  Therefore, you’ll have to be increasingly careful.
  3. Protect your core. Some downward-facing cardio moves, like burpees and mountain climbers, can put excessive pressure on your outer abdominal wall, making it difficult to maintain core engagement during these exercises. This not only increases your risk of developing Diastasis Recti but can also strain your lower back. Therefore, it’s important to stick to a level where you can keep those core muscles engaged. Focus on proper core engagement throughout your workout, and try some of the modifications below.

Modifications for 6 Common Cardio Moves

1. High Knee Runs: Yes, you could take these down by very lightly jogging in place.  However, these High Knee Marches are actually a more effective option because they get your whole body moving.  Also, if you focus on exhaling when you lift your knee, it adds some nice core work that you won’t get by just doing a light jog.


2. Jumping Jacks: Instead of regressing these by doing the common half-jack (which often may not feel like much of a workout!), try doing these Stepping Jack Squats.  They remove the impact, while still allowing you to get your heart going.  They also add some nice leg work!


3. Mountain Climbers: Mountain climbers can be a great cardio and core exercise, but they can be too intense on your core as your belly grows (remember tip #3!).  High Knee Marches are a great way to still get your cardio and core work without so much pressure on your abdominal wall.  Just be sure to exhale as you lift your knees and inhale as you lower.

4. Burpees: Burpees are a great full body cardio and strength exercise, but they can be too intense during pregnancy.  You have a few options for regressing these.  One option is to simply remove the impact by stepping your feet out and in and removing the jump at the end.  As your belly grows, however, the burpee plank position may be too intense on your core.  So instead, remove the plank and focus on one squat with a touchdown (to get the lower body work), then stand up and perform two High Knee Marches (to get the core work).

5. Jump Squats: Jump squats can also be a great cardio and strength exercise, but the high-impact nature makes them too intense as your pregnancy progresses.  Take these down a notch by doing these Squats with Overhead Reach.  You can even raise up onto your toes when you stand.  You can further regress these by just doing a half squat and bringing your hands to your knees instead of the ground.

6. Jump Lunges: These can definitely be too intense for pregnancy – not just because they are high-impact, but also because you have to be careful with lunging movements due to your decreased stability (remember tip #2!). Take these down a notch by focusing on Reverse Lunges.  Or, to further regress these, try Knee Repeaters. You can adjust your intensity on these by how high or low you stand on that supporting leg.

Unfortunately, it’s tough to receive individual attention during group fitness classes, because even a great instructor still has to manage an entire class. It’s also tough to know what level of intensity is safe for you, especially when you read articles about the horrors of Diastasis Recti side-by-side with articles about women completing marathons in their third trimesters!  Use the three tips in this articles as guidelines, and above all else, listen to your body!  What feels fine one day may not feel fine the next.  Remember that as your pregnancy progresses, your body will be working harder on its own (in fact, by your third trimester, your body will basically be performing a low level of exercise at all times – even while you’re at rest!).  Therefore, you’ll naturally have to take down your intensity to compensate.  Of course, if you listen to your body, it will tell you this!