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The Keys to Effective Strength Training

As we discussed in Why Strength Training is Critical During Pregnancy, strength training can be the key to mitigating pregnancy pains and injuries, facilitating an easier labor (for you and your little one), and helping you manage the very physical tasks of early parenthood.

In this post, we’ll focus on 3 keys to success to ensure you reap the benefits strength training has to offer (during prenatal and postpartum training).

1. Establish a Foundation First

Prior to adding load, it is essential to first make sure that your body is in alignment, your deep core muscles are well-functioning, and you are moving with proper mechanics. For help with this, learn how to get your body in neutral alignment and master the move we refer to as the #1 most effective core exercise (360° Breathing). These fundamentals are imperative, and should be incorporated into every movement you do.

2. Utilize “RPE” to Gauge Your Exertion

“RPE” (Rate of Perceived Exertion) is the official ACOG guideline for gauging exertion during pregnancy. It involves listening to your body and gauging your exertion by how you feel. 

We use the 1 – 10 RPE scale where 1 = minimal effort and 10 = maximum effort. In general, a good guideline is to stay within a 6 – 8 range during pregnancy. Remember, this is all based on how YOU feel. What feels like a 6 for you earlier on in your pregnancy might feel like an 8 later (and it can change from day to day). You can also imagine how RPEs will vary highly from person to person given differences in activity history, pregnancy experience, etc.

In general, we recommend lower RPEs (6 – 7 RPE) if you are just starting out and working on mastering the fundamentals. Once you progress onto strength-building, you can increase the intensity (7 – 8 RPE). If you are accustomed to higher-intensity work, you can go up to an 8.5. We do not recommend going higher than this, as there is no research validating the safety of working beyond this level.

How do you know what RPE you are working at? Use the number of reps you are able to do to determine your RPE. Below are the rep ranges for various RPEs.

    • 7 RPE = 12 reps
    • 7.5 RPE = 10 reps
    • 8 RPE = 8 reps
    • 8.5 RPE = 6 reps

This means, for example, if you are only able to do 8 reps of a movement (before breaking form or getting too fatigued to continue), you were likely working at an 8 RPE.

3. Balance Your Movements Across These Five Categories

In order to ensure a balanced workout, try to cover the 5 categories below when you do your workouts. Each of these categories represents a foundational pattern that we encounter in our daily lives, so incorporating all these categories into a workout helps you move through your daily life with more confidence, strength, and safety.

      • UPPER BODY PUSH: Moves that involve moving an object away from your body (or moving your body away from an object) like push-ups, dips, and triceps extensions. These movements primarily target your chest, triceps, and shoulders.


      • UPPER BODY PULL: Moves that involve pulling an object towards your body (or pulling your body towards an object) like rows, reverse flyes, and bicep curls. These moves primarily target the lats, traps, biceps, and forearms.


      • LOWER BODY UNILATERAL: Single-leg moves, or moves in which both legs may be working, but they are not moving in the same way — like lunges, single-leg deadlifts, and step-ups. NOTE: Avoid this category if you are experiencing SI joint pain or any other pelvic girdle pain.


      • LOWER BODY BILATERAL: Lower-body moves where both legs perform the same movement at the same time, like squats and deadlifts.

      • CORE: While any movement can be a core movement (since the core is involved in most movements), we define this category as those movements that specifically target the core. For help with some highly beneficial core exercise ideas, see this post on 12 Moves to Build Core Strength. For a list of the core exercises that should be regressed or avoided at different stages of pregnancy, download our FREE Movements to Avoid Guide.

After selecting at least 1 movement from each of the 5 categories, you can always add one more that you enjoy. TIP: Upper body pull moves are always great choices during pregnancy and postpartum to help counteract the forward flexed position that early parenthood often places you in (with all the carrying and feeding!).

Perform 2 – 3 sets of each move per session while keeping your RPE in that 7 – 8 (up to 8.5) range. Base your reps on the RPE you are working at. So, if you’re working at a 7, that would be 12 reps. If you are working at a higher intensity, like an 8, that’s only 8 reps.

Get Complete Training Programs (or Learn How to Create Them)

To learn more about how to train safely & truly effectively during pregnancy, check out the Guide to Prenatal Exercise. You’ll get all the information you need in one place, with detailed guidance on workout planning, and access to a video exercise library.

You can get done-for-you workouts that help you build that foundation first, then progress you safely onto strength training utilizing the success strategies above by utilizing one of our prenatal self-guided training programs. Or, for a more personalized approach, visit our Find a Coach page to work with an expert who can create, and take you through, a customized training program.

Are you a Health & Fitness Professional?

If you are a health & fitness professional interested in learning more about coaching pre & postnatal clients, explore our Pre & Postnatal Professional EducationWe offer in-depth education to become ProNatal Certified for those looking to specialize in training this population, and a Mini Course for GroupX instructors who just need the basics.