Leg exercises for pregnancy create strong, toned legs and glutes to help stabilise your pelvis for better balance reducing your risk of falling over; especially helpful during the end of the second or the third trimester as your body carries a growing baby bump.
An effective prenatal fitness program must always include leg exercises for pregnancy that are challenging enough, yet safe and comfortable for your body as your pregnancy bump grows. Maintaining strength in your legs and glutes is essential for reducing your risk of back pain too, as these muscles assist with pelvic, hip and trunk movements, to reduce the strain to the smaller muscles surrounding the spine.
Your legs are some of the largest muscles of your body; your quadriceps (your front thigh muscles), your hamstrings, (back of your thighs), your hip flexors and psoas muscle. The lower part of your legs are your gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, the calf muscles, and the tibialis anterior, your shins which are the muscles which aid movement of your ankle and foot.
The quadriceps are the most packed-out muscle of your body! They consist of four separate muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and vastus intermedius. The role of your quadriceps is to extend or straighten your knees and the rectus femoris of the quad flexes, or bends, the hips. You use your quadriceps for walking, standing, climbing stairs and getting up and down from a chair or toilet and for sports that involve running, jumping or kicking.
Your hamstrings are the back of your thighs and consist of three muscles: the semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris. The hamstrings flex your knee and assist in extending the hip. The hamstrings and quadriceps help control leg movements and stabilise your spine and body from the lower part of your legs to your pelvis.
When these muscles are healthy, mobile and strong, they correctly perform their role in your body. The muscles are aligned properly, with fewer imbalances, so you walk efficiently, stay stable when you stand, climb stairs more easily and perform better in your sport or exercise.
When the leg and gluteal muscles are weaker, it leads to pain and dysfunction, specifically in your hips, pelvis, knees or lower back. Your body tries to compensate by asking other muscles to take over, usually the smaller muscles around the spine, which means they have to do more work, causing strain on these muscles to stabilise the spine. With the additional weight of your baby bump out in front of your body. Any help they have means they have less work to support your body, especially as your centre of gravity shifts, making you less likely to suffer from back ache.
Five benefits of leg exercises during pregnancy
- Increased muscular strength and endurance in the leg muscles
- Improved balance and stability, especially as your baby bump progresses
- Decreased risk of injury
- Better stability in your lower body joints to counteract the effect of pregnancy hormones
- Maintain some athletic performance and help you return to your sport faster
What are the best exercises for legs while pregnant?
Whilst walking and running are great ways to improve leg strength, the repetitive movement means your body reaches a plateau and you won’t gain strength or tone over time.
Resistance exercises using free weights or dumbbells, your own body weight or resistance bands are a great way to improve leg strength and leg tone whilst supporting your body during the later stages of your pregnancy when your baby bump weighs more for you to carry around.
- Reverse Lunge
- Glute Bridge
- Side Lunge or Lateral Step Squats
- Glute Kickbacks
- Quadruped Donkey Kick
- Quadruped Fire Hydrant
- Side Lying Leg Raise
- Side Lying Clamshell
For safety and comfort, many of these functional leg strengthening exercises can be adapted to reduce risk of aggravating any specific aches and pains you may be experiencing as a result of pregnancy.
Suitable adaptations mean you can continue to exercise and maintain leg muscle strength for athletic performance and tone to keep your legs in shape without stress to the body. Exercises for your leg and glute muscles are not just for those who want to maintain strength for their sport, leg strength will improve your whole body mobility making walking easier and daily activities like picking something up off the floor or playing with your toddler, if you have one.
This video, ‘Leg Exercises for Pregnancy Toning’ has safe movements for all trimesters, is comfortable for your body and your bump and is safe for your baby. It’s a 40-minute pregnancy leg workout, with a combination of floor and standing exercises designed to tone, strengthen and sculpt your legs plus glutes to feel stronger, have more balance and mobility.
Each exercise is fully instructed with modifications to make the exercises easier or more challenging plus tips to make the positions of the exercises more comfortable for your body.
You’ll need a looped resistance band for these exercises.
Leg and butt exercises to avoid during pregnancy
Most leg and butt (glute) exercises are safe for pregnancy, however you may need to adapt some of the exercises to make them more comfortable for your body and growing bump, to minimise any pain or to keep your balance.
Pregnancy exercise modifications to make for these exercises
Unilateral exercises include putting weight onto one side or your body on one leg.
Exercises such as single-leg squats, the Bulgarian split squat or the single-leg deadlift may aggravate pubic pain, pelvic girdle pain or symphysis pubis dysfunction.
You can eliminate these exercises if they aggravate that condition or you can use a deflated soft pilates ball and place it in between your inner thighs (adductors) and squeeze the ball a few times before you do the movement. You can also try to reduce the range of motion so that you don’t lower as far; you can use a wall so that your lower back is against the wall, or you can use a chair to reduce the depth of your squat. Step-ups, stepping into a low-level step are a good option instead of split squats. Curtesy lunges may aggravate pain too, instead keep your hips square, facing forwards and shorten the stride and depth that you lower with your back knee.
Wide stance exercises
Wide stance exercises such as pliés, squats, lunges or lateral lunges with your wide feet may worsen pelvic girdle pain or public pain, too. Instead, bring your feet closer together when you squat or shorten the stride of your lunge. However, as your belly gets bigger during pregnancy, it may be more difficult to complete certain movements due to the range of movement. For example, if you are doing a deadlift or squat with both feet on the floor, you may need to increase the distance between both feet as the narrower stance may mean your belly rubs your thighs, but this may cause you pain so instead, try side lying exercises for your glutes or a glute bridge on a stability ball.
Exercises where you are lying flat on your back
At about twenty weeks of your pregnancy, the size of your uterus has increased so that if you are lying on your back, your uterus is on top of the inferior vena cava, the large blood vessel that transports blood back to your heart. Therefore, you may see lots of advice to avoid exercises lying on your back during pregnancy, with the thought being that if anything large pushes down onto the vena cava, the blood flow back to your heart is restricted, which may be of potential risk to your baby.
However, some research has shown that whilst there was a potential risk of stillbirth for women who slept the entire night on their back, the small study showed this for women who spent all night on their backs and didn’t get up to go to the bathroom or take into account other factors like whether the women had sleep apnea or slept on their backs for other reasons.
Generally, a small amount of time on your back is safe if you start feeling dizzy, uncomfortable, short of breath or in pain. Quantifying how long you should or should not lie flat on your back during pregnancy is difficult, but it appears that even if it is for an hour or two, it’s unlikely to do any harm to your baby.
For comfort and to keep your upper body on a slight incline, rest your upper body and back over a stability ball, with your hips lower and your knees bent and feet on the floor. Then, lift your hips up and down, mimicking the glute bridge exercise’s action.
Exercises that cause you to lose balance, especially if you have weak ankles
As your pregnancy progresses, your posture and balance are affected by the additional weight of a growing baby inside you. Standing on one leg, doing knee lifts, or reverse lunges will be more of a challenge. To help with balance, hold onto a wall, the back of a chair or anything else that will help support you. If you have weak ankles, see the help of a physiotherapist who will devise an exercise plan to help strengthen the muscles to support your ankle joints.
Jumping or high-impact movements
Bounding, sprinting, burpees, and plyometrics such as jump lunges, jump squats, clap push-ups, and intense skipping should be replaced with low-impact versions, like walking on a rebounder, chair burpees (where your hands rest on the seat of a chair, and you step back with one foot, then the other and then step forwards. Replace jump lunges and jump squats with stationary lunges and squats where you lift your heels up when coming to standing. Push-ups can be done against a wall or with your hands on the seat of a chair.
Pregnancy workout considerations to keep you safe
Monitor your intensity levels during this workout or any pregnancy workout you do. Follow these tips to keep you comfortable and safe and to feel confident exercising during pregnancy.
On a scale of one to ten, the intensity of your workout, whether that is a strength, toning workout or cardiovascular workout, it should feel like a six or seven, where you can still hold a conversation. This means you avoid ‘going flat out’ with your cardio-vascular exercise, lifting the heaviest weight or using the highest resistance when pregnant. You do not need to be pushing yourself to fatigue or finishing a workout, needing to lie down on the floor!
With strength training, the benefits are that there are so many options available, and you can still do full-body exercises using modifications, using bands, reducing the weight of your dumbbells or performing an exercise seated or kneeling instead of standing. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that pregnant women feel like they could do another 1-2 repetitions of an exercise rather than feel like they couldn’t do anymore and lift with higher repetition ranges. This means you will do a lower intensity while keeping a good, safe challenge.
Running, hiking, or biking is more difficult to modify as your pregnancy progresses and should be based on your fitness level and sports experience. You can modify running by incorporating walking and alternating between running and walking or reducing your speed.
According to a review by BMC pregnancy and childbirth while moderate-intensity exercise is beneficial, research on the effects of high-intensity, more vigorous exercise and how this may affect the baby’s birth weight is non-conclusive. With strength exercises, you want to manage intra-abdominal pressure to minimise the risk of associated pelvic floor dysfunction, back pain or excessive abdominal separation.
2. Shift your exercise motivation from a ‘Training Mindset’ to a ‘Healthy Pregnancy Mindset’
When you find out you are pregnant, you’ll have different reasons for working out, and your fitness goals and mindset will shift. Here are four new mindset shits to consider:
- Focus on resistance exercises and lifting to be healthy
- Exercise and lift weights to stay strong
- Lift to minimise or avoid pain
- Have fun when exercising, and enjoy each workout. It should not be a chore.
3. Range of movement and exercise selection
As your belly gets bigger during pregnancy, it may be more difficult to complete certain movements due to the range of movement. If there is no occurrence of pubic pain or pelvic girdle pain and you are doing a deadlift or squat with both feet on the floor, you can increase the distance between both feet so your baby bump does not rub your thighs.
4. Staying energised when exercising during pregnancy
As you grow a human being inside of you, your body is working harder; for example, more blood is being pumped by the heart (cardiac output) around your body, increasing by 30 to 50% compared to before pregnancy. Your heart rate at rest speeds up from a normal pre-pregnancy rate of about 70 beats per minute to as high as 90 beats per minute.
Eating a healthy, nutritious snack 2 hours before your workout will help you stay energised and stabilise your blood sugar levels.
Stay hydrated by sipping water before, during and after your workout.
Always exercise in a well-ventilated room with open windows or air conditioning or a fan to avoid overheating.
How often should you perform leg exercises when pregnant?
Aim to perform leg exercises consistently throughout your pregnancy, two or three times a week, with at least one rest day between sessions. On the rest days, this gives your leg muscles time to recover.
Bump and Beyond’s and Bump and Beyond Best Body For Pregnancy websites include content such as text, graphics, images, information obtained from Bump and Beyond’s licensors, other material, and suggested workout routines or physical activities (“Content”).
At any time while doing anything based upon the content, if you think you may have a medical emergency, you must immediately call your doctor or 911.
The content here is for informational, educational, or entertainment purposes only and is not to be interpreted as an endorsement of a particular plan, product, or course of action. Bump and Beyond Best Body for Pregnancy or Bump and Beyond by Vicky Warr is not a medical or healthcare provider and the content is not intended to replace the advice, approval, or attention of a doctor, healthcare professional or your physician. The content is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You must always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding your use of any part of the Content. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read on Bump and Beyond’s and Bump and Beyond Best Body For Pregnancy Websites or any physical activity you have chosen based on the content! In addition, health and fitness information and research changes rapidly and varies from person to person, and some information presented herein may be out of date or may not apply to your specific circumstances. Use of this content and the information presented herein prior to consulting a qualified professional is at your sole choice and risk.
Always consult your physician before beginning or making any changes in your diet or exercise program for diagnosis and treatment of illness and injuries and for medication advice.