The Ultimate Pregnancy Pool Workout

From shallow-water routines to lap swimming, you'll love these wet and wonderful workouts.

Woman swimming
Photo: Elinor Carucci/Trunk Archive

Heat, humidity, and the summer doldrums—not the best invitation to exercise, especially if you're pregnant. But there's a remedy: Get thee to a pool!

Being in the water just plain feels good when you're pregnant, and there are physiological reasons why. Water greatly reduces the usual stress on your musculoskeletal system and supports the weight of the fetus, thus taking a load off your lower back. Water also makes it easier for the heart to pump blood, reduces pregnancy-related swelling (edema), and reduces pressure on your bladder.

Even as it soothes you, the pool environment allows for a total-body, low-impact workout. And while it's a great way to cool off in the warmer months, you can also enjoy indoor swimming year round. Water provides 12 times the resistance to your muscles as does air, thus offering a strength-training benefit similar to lifting light weights—without the strain of using weights.

Moreover, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends swimming during pregnancy. Learn more about the benefits of swimming during pregnancy. Then, try the below prenatal water workout.

The Benefits of Prenatal Pool Workouts

For Antigone Cook, an Oregon-based instructor of water fitness, aerobics, ballet, and certified Pilates who designed the program that follows, water workouts turned out to be the most comfortable way to exercise when she was pregnant.

"I didn't have any back problems, and I had a lot less swelling in my feet and ankles than other women," she says. Cook believes that her water routine even helped make her labor easier. Many pregnant people find swimming to be a vigorous workout that they can continue all the way up to delivery—and into their postpartum life. The water is also a good place to concentrate on psychological fitness.

In her book, The KeyEnergy! Pregnancy Workbook, Cook suggests that you approach delivery as you would an athletic event—by physically and mentally training for it.

"For the first child especially, many women tend to be very frightened and don't know what's going to happen," she says. If you picture the best possible outcome, however, you can begin to release that fear. To this end, Cook suggests creating positive visualizations during your water exercise programs.

The Ultimate Pregnancy Pool Workout

Cook's program is divided into three distinct workouts: shallow water, deep water, and swimming. You can mix and match portions of each workout, stick with just one, or accommodate some of the moves into whatever exercise program works best for you. It's a very flexible regimen that works for every fitness level and stage of pregnancy.

The shallow-water workout is designed for pregnant people who did not exercise regularly prior to pregnancy or for more fit people on their tired days. The deep-water exercises are somewhat more challenging but are aided by the use of an Aquajogger buoyancy belt. The swimming workout is the most advanced part of the program.

Let your comfort rule: If swimming feels good, do it; if it doesn't, stick with the deep- or shallow-water programs. Keep your intensity level moderate—3 to 5 on an exertion scale of 10. You should be able to carry on a conversation while exercising.

Cook sees this workout as a time to spend appreciating your body as it changes, giving yourself positive strokes, so to speak. Luxuriate in the buoyant, cooling environment of the pool, and have fun as you improve your fitness. Soon enough you'll be sharing your world with someone else; make this your time.

The Pool Workout Schedule

You can incorporate all 3 components of this water workout (shallow-water moves, deep-water moves, and swimming) into your weekly routine by doing parts of each or focusing on one set of exercises. If you're really fit, you can combine all 3 workouts into a 1-hour program, 3–4 times per week. As your pregnancy progresses, adapt your routine to what feels good to you.

If you haven't been exercising, start slowly in whichever program you choose. Stay at a low intensity until you feel stronger, then exercise at varying levels of intensity during the week, or add an additional workout session for a greater challenge.

Use a pool with a comfortable temperature: 85–87 degrees is perfect; below 83 degrees is considered cool.

Warm-up

Begin with at least 5 minutes of shallow-water walking. As you walk, limber up with shoulder shrugs, ankle and hip circles, head rolls, arm reaches, and knee lifts. (If you prefer, you can tread water in the deep end or hold on to the edge of the pool and kick.)

As you warm up, visualize your body being relaxed and strong, and your baby healthy. Even if you've never been through labor, imagine what it will be like in a positive way. For example, picture labor as an athletic event at which you will be successful, accomplishing your goal with little pain. As you do each exercise, focus on your breathing, expanding your belly slightly as you inhale and tightening your abdominals as you exhale, doing a Kegel at the same time if you wish.

Shallow-water moves

Stand in chest-deep water to do these moves. Consider wearing water shoes or Aquasocks to keep from slipping on the bottom of the pool. If you're doing only this workout, spend 20–30 minutes on the routine, 3–6 days per week. Because of the water's buoyancy, you may be able to continue water walking or running all the way through your pregnancy. Do the exercises in the order listed without stopping.

  1. Shallow–water walking or running: Use a normal stride as you walk or run forward and backward across the pool. For variety, walk on heels or toes, do grapevine steps or step sideways. Keep moving for 5 minutes.
  2. Shallow–water jacks: Stand with feet hip-width apart, arms extended sideways to shoulder height. Jump up and bring the soles of your feet together toward the groin. At the same time, press your arms downward. Separate feet to starting position, moving arms back to shoulder height. Repeat jacks for 1 minute (about 40–50 reps). Remember to jump straight up and down without arching back or drifting backward. Strengthens buttocks, thighs, hips, shoulders, and back.
  3. Opposite elbow to knee: Stand with feet pointing forward, hip-width apart. Bring your right knee up to hip height and cross your left elbow down just past the outside of the knee (as pregnancy progresses, you will not touch the knee). Return to starting position and repeat with left knee and right elbow; alternate for 1 minute (about 30 reps). When your belly gets large, bring the same-side elbow down to knee lift, incorporating a slight side bend. Strengthens abdominals.
  4. Side–to–side lunges: Facing and holding the edge of the pool, place feet on the pool wall as high as you comfortably can, with knees and feet turned out at a 45-degree angle as in a plié (if the pool doesn't have an edge to grasp, place feet at bottom of the wall). Alternately, bend one leg and keep the other straight (lunge position), holding for 20–30 seconds before shifting sides. Do 20 reps (10 to each side). Strengthens legs; stretches inner thighs and groin.

Deep-water moves

Before getting in the water, fasten an Aquajogger belt securely around your middle, where comfortable. Then, float in water deep enough that your legs won't touch the pool bottom. You can do these moves through all 3 trimesters, but near the end of your pregnancy, you'll probably focus more on the upper body and arms because your belly will limit movement.

Do exercises in the order listed without stopping. If you're only doing the deep-water program, you can do this routine 3–6 times a week. If you're cross-training, do the program 2 or 3 times a week. As your pregnancy progresses, the deep-water program may feel more comfortable than any of the others.

  1. Cross–country skiing: Balance yourself in an upright position, legs hanging straight down, arms at sides, palms facing in. Keeping arms and legs straight, torso erect and centered, and shoulders over hips, "scissor kick" legs (1 forward, 1 back) as arms do the same movement in opposition. Flex your foot up as you stride forward and point your foot as the leg extends back and behind you. Alternate 1 minute of skiing (about 30–50 reps) with 1 minute of the jumping jacks in exercise 2. Strengthens chest, shoulders, buttocks, middle back, and front and rear thigh.
  2. Jumping Jacks: Balance yourself so legs hang straight down and together and arms extend sideways at shoulder height, palms down just below the water line. Separate legs hip-width apart as you press arms down toward legs. As arms return to starting position, bring legs together. Alternate 1 minute of jumping jacks (about 30-50 reps) with 1 minute of skiing in exercise. 1. Strengthens hips, thighs, shoulders, chest, and back.
  3. Run/jog forward and back: "Jog" forward for 20 counts as if on land, then backward for 20 counts. Keep knees up, arms moving in opposition to legs; don't lean. Continue for 8–10 minutes, then extend legs out farther as if "running." Continue for 8–l0 minutes. Strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings, buttocks, and upper arms.
  4. Scissors kicks: Float as if leaning back in a chair, legs straight and arms by sides; scull water with hands to stay balanced. Keep legs about 1 1/2 feet below the surface, toes pointed. Now "scissor cross" legs, opening them to hip-width apart and alternating the top leg in crossing. Do 8 scissors kicks with toes pointed, then 8 with feet flexed. Strengthens abdominals and inner thighs.

Swimming

Simply swimming is another fantastic way to exercise while pregnant. Aim for 20-30 minutes of lap swimming if you're doing this activity on its own. Or incorporate 5-15 minutes of swimming into the shallow- or deep-water exercise regimes. Add time and speed as your fitness level progresses. This exercise improves cardiovascular fitness.

Cool-down

If the water is warm, complete your cool-down in the pool, stretching your thighs, calves, and back. Hold each stretch for 20–30 seconds. If the water is cold, you may want to move through each stretch without holding it too long, or stretch out of the water. Either way, be sure to take the time to gently move your body and elongate your muscles as you cool down.

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