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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 need to be regressed or eliminated 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

  1. 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.  If you’ve ever heard the guideline to keep your heart rate below 140 beats per minute during pregnancy, that’s actually an outdated guideline from 1985 from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).  The most recent ACOG guidelines from 2015 instruct women to use Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) instead.  In other words, listen to your body. For simplicity, PROnatal Fitness uses a 1-10 RPE scale where 1 is barely working and 10 is your absolute max capacity.  For a group fitness class, you can work between a 6-8 RPE on that 1-10 scale (even an 8.5 for the very fit). There is no research at the very high intensity levels (closer to 9), so we don’t recommend taking that risk.
  2. Be mindful of decreased stability. During pregnancy, a hormone called relaxin continues to increase throughout — softening your joints, ligaments, and connective tissue to allow your body to adapt to your growing baby and to provide added mobility for childbirth.  Unfortunately the side effect is that it tends to increase your mobility and decrease your stability. While relaxin affects your entire body, you’ll likely feel it primarily in your pelvic hip region, especially with your growing belly tipping your pelvis forward and shifting your center of gravity.  Relaxin impacts every woman differently, but as a global rule, it’s best to avoid ballistic single-leg movements (like jump lunges).
  3. 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.  The suggestions below are designed to help you manage IAP when it comes to cardio moves, but check out this post on Core Exercises to Avoid for more information.

Modifications for 6 Common Cardio Moves

1. High Knee Runs: We actually have two different alternatives for running in place.  The first option is this Football Run below, which keeps impact minimal, but still gets your heart pumping.  Want even more? Add some punching arms like we show in this video.  For a different alternative that completely removes impact, see #3 below (High Knee Marches).

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 these Stepping Jack Squats.  They remove the impact, while keeping the cardio work and target your lower body as well.  Just be sure to maintain neutral alignment (avoiding the rib flare) and keep your knees in line with your toes.

3. Mountain Climbers: Mountain climbers can be a great cardio and core exercise when you are not pregnant.  However, once you develop a belly, this downward facing plank-like position elevates IAP too much, which can lead to Diastasis Recti. Instead, opt for these High Knee Marches.  They not only provide a great cardio benefit, but also add in some nice core work when you keep your body in proper neutral alignment and exhale while lifting your knees.

4. Jump Squats: While jump squats are safer than jump lunges (because your pelvis is in a stable position with your weight evenly distributed), the impact can become too much as your belly grows and your alignment shifts.  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 — even raising up onto your toes. Take it down by decreasing your range of motion — perhaps only coming to your knees. Inhale on the way down, exhale as you reach up.

5. Burpees: The common regression for these is to avoid going all the way down to the ground, and also step-back into the plank instead of jumping the feet back. This may work fine when your belly is smaller (provided your body is in neutral alignment and you understand proper core activation), but as your belly grows, you’ll need to eliminate the plank-like position altogether.  Instead, the Reach Down & Up (from above) is an excellent alternative.

6. Jump Lunges: These should be avoided throughout pregnancy due to the effects of relaxin.  Even if your body is accustomed to this movement and you haven’t been feeling the effects of relaxin much, because the effects of relaxin continue to increase, it’s best not to take the risk.  There are plenty of other beneficial exercises.  For example, you could remove the impact and focus on Reverse Lunges.  Or, if these are challenging to do at a quicker pace, try these Knee Repeaters.  They really get your heart pumping, and you can increase the challenge by going lower on your supporting leg.  This is a very customizable movement that will really help you “feel the burn” if you want it!

You can use these go-to moves in place of any other cardio move as well.  Remember, when in doubt, it’s better not to risk it with impact or movements that could elevate IAP too much.  Also, it’s best to prioritize strength training above all else because you will need greater strength to carry around the increased weight.  So, you could always swap in a strength move if you don’t feel comfortable doing the cardio option the instructor gives.

Want more help in optimizing your workouts for pregnancy? Consider working with an PROnatal Personal Trainer.