Best and Worst Exercises for Pregnancy Third Trimester, According to an Expert

When everything feels harder but you still want to get in a third-trimester workout, these moves can help prep you for labor, childbirth, and beyond.

a pregnant person doing biceps curls with five-pound weights
Photo: Getty Images/JGI/Jamie Grill

If you've ever left a prenatal yoga class feeling, well, underwhelmed — or left a workout class wondering if you really should be doing a certain exercise with a baby on the way — that's only natural. Figuring out what a third-trimester workout should look like can be difficult.

"There has been an overabundance of caution with respect to pre- and postnatal exercise recommendations," says certified strength and conditioning specialist Carolyn Appel, C.S.C.S., director of education for PROnatal Fitness, a fitness company aimed at preparing pregnant people for childbirth and parenthood. "Up until recently, the commonly dispensed advice from doctors to pregnant women has been to take it easy and minimize exertion," she says.

But now, that's changing. Professional athletes and celebs have brought attention to working out, even intensely, during the nine months of pregnancy, and research finds that movement has enormous benefits for both parent and baby (woo!).

One reason why working out into your third trimester can be so beneficial? "When you stress yourself consistently, you become better able to tolerate greater amounts of stress," says Appel. "Therefore, continuing to put the work in when the going gets tougher in the third trimester will actually create a more resilient body that will be better able to handle everyday activities," she adds. Even more: You don't have to lift massive weights to get benefits. "Just doing bodyweight or lightly weighted squats will probably feel like work," notes Appel.

But in the third trimester, exercise also just feels harder. You weigh more. You're likely dealing with heartburn. You always have to pee. What once felt good (running, maybe) just doesn't anymore. And as it turns out, certain moves are more beneficial than others during this precious time period. So what should you do — and what should you skip?

In particular, focusing on deep core strength — which is vitally important for resisting the alignment and pressure changes linked with a heavier bodyweight, says Appel — and pelvic floor relaxation is key for a third-trimester workout. Alternatively, certain movement patterns (such as plyometrics) might be best reserved for post-baby.

Here, five third-trimester exercises that prep parents-to-be for childbirth, parenthood, and beyond — and five movement patterns you might want to think about putting on hold, outlined by Appel. Her general rules of thumb for pregnant people in the homestretch: (A) if it doesn't feel good, don't do it; (B) if you can't do something with good form, don't do it; and (C) if you leak while you're doing a certain exercise, table it.

And remember: Before working out during pregnancy, always be sure you're cleared by your doctor.

5 Best Exercises for the Third Trimester of Pregnancy

Pushing Prep

In order to maximize your body's rhythms and strengths during pushing and labor, you want to exhale while maintaining a relaxed pelvic floor as the baby passes through the birth canal, says Appel. This move helps you learn how to do just that. "Any tension held in the pelvic floor will be added resistance to the body and baby's efforts," she notes. Practice this pushing prep at the beginning of a workout, on rest breaks, or even during the end-of-workout stretch.

A. Inhale by expanding the ribcage 360 degrees, then exhale a stream of air through pursed lips.

B. After a few breaths like this, recreate the sensation as if peeing. The type of release needed to pass urine or stool is the lengthening of the pelvic floor, which is the sensation to aim to feel and maintain while breathing in and out.

Single-Arm Supported Fly

"Most of early motherhood is spent in a chronically rounded-forward posture with the upper body," says Appel. "The shoulders, elbows, and wrists are in a flexed position due to all the hours of feeding, holding, and carrying around a newborn," she explains. Extension-based patterns such as flys counteract those forces, she says.

A. Stand with feet hips-width apart and knees soft, holding a light dumbbell in one hand. Hinge at hips with soft knees, flat back, and neutral neck, leaning torso forward about 45 degrees. Place unweighted hand on a chair or stand in a split squat stance with hand on front leg. Let hand with weight hang directly below shoulder, palm facing inward to start.

B. Keeping a slight bend in elbow of weighted arm, exhale while lifting arm up laterally in a wide arching motion, stopping when arm is at shoulder height. Lower arm back down to complete the rep.

C. Exhale while lifting up and inhale while lowering down. Point thumb upward to increase focus on shoulder external rotation. Switch sides; repeat.

Birthing Squat

"During labor, women typically seek out certain positions that help alleviate the pain of the contractions while also facilitating the descent of the baby," says Appel. "The deep squat is one such labor position that often feels good to get into — and the more women practice it leading up to the big day, the more pain-management options they will have when they need it most," she explains.

A. Start on all fours and push back into a squat position.

B. Hold the position while incorporating twists with one arm straight up in the air or do standing deep squats by starting standing and lowering into the position.

Bathtime Kneel

"One of the activities new moms will be doing quite a lot of is bathing their little ones. In an effort to minimize stress to a body that has already gone through the trauma of childbirth, practicing this hinge-based pattern during pregnancy will ingrain good habits," says Appel.

A. Sit tall on knees holding a medium-resistance weight.

B. Inhale and send hips back into a hinge, then reach arms forward and down and exhale to come back up.

C. Add variability by adding a rotation with the reach. Hold the arm extension for a second or two to make the move more difficult.

Deadlift

"Deadlifts are terrific lower-body strengthening moves, especially because picking things up from the ground becomes much more difficult as women get heavier during pregnancy," says Appel.

A. Using a medium-resistance weight, inhale and send hips back to initiate movement and hinge forward, keeping a neutral spine.

B. Exhale to stand back up and repeat.

5 Exercises or Movements to Avoid During Late-Stage Pregnancy

Breath Holding

To avoid intra-abdominal pressure — which contributes to both diastasis recti (DR) and pelvic floor dysfunction — make sure to exhale during exertion, says Appel. (In a squat, you'd inhale on the way down, for example).

Quick Changes of Direction

"One of the hormones of pregnancy, relaxin, loosens soft tissue, potentially causing women to experience a loss of stability (especially during single-leg activities)," says Appel. Stick to moves that are a bit slower and more controlled, she suggests.

Downward Facing Moves

"When the belly gets large, there is a lot of pressure on the front of the abdominal wall," says Appel. "We don't want to add to that by spending time in downward facing positions (think: planks and push-ups)," she notes. Regress by going on your knees, raising up your hands, or swapping these moves out altogether.

"Abs" Work

Crunches, situps, and leg lifts are examples of traditional "abs" exercises that you want to avoid in your third trimester, says Appel. That intra-abdominal pressure increases with these flexion-based exercises, she says. "Additionally, these moves encourage DR," she adds. A classic sign of DR to keep an eye out for: a doming or protrusion in the middle of your belly when doing challenging abs exercises.

High-Impact Work

Even if you were all about high-impact work earlier on in your pregnancy, it's a good idea to curtail it at this point, says Appel. "The pelvic floor — the group of muscles at the base of the pelvis responsible for holding all of the pelvic organs in place and keeping fluids from coming out unintentionally — is getting stretched and weakened having to support all of the extra body weight," she explains. Asking it to deal with higher-impact activities on top of that? That can just add to that pressure, notes Appel. "Continuing to run or do plyometrics in the late stages of pregnancy might feel tolerable, but it may also make for a longer recovery postpartum," she says.

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