Pregnancy Hormones and Exercise

Adapt your workout routine when your pregnancy hormones are raging.

Repeat after me – “you are not your hormones!” When you feel like crying because you’re overwhelmingly happy or you feel so angry you start laughing, consider it normal and completely out of your control. For every woman, the symptoms are different. But the massive shift in hormones is very real during pregnancy, and it does not only mess with your mood but can affect how your body feels. Importantly, the rising levels of several hormones affect how you workout and what is safe for you and your baby.

Understanding pregnancy hormones and how they will affect your body can help you prepare and counter the physical and physiological changes that you will experience. Here’s what you should know about your pregnancy hormones and how you should adapt your workouts to help with the pain and discomfort they may cause you.

1. RELAXIN

Relaxin is a pregnancy hormone that is produced by the placenta and that can do a number on your workouts. This hormone often surges when the baby has a growth spurt and your body adapts to the ever-growing fetus. Its goal is to soften the cervix and tissues of the birth canal in preparation for childbirth. But the muscle laxity that comes with relaxin is not localized to the birth canal. It softens ligaments and tissue throughout the entire body, which can result in widespread joint instability and pain. With a relaxin surge, the pelvis can also become hypermobile and can cause pain in the sacro-iliac (SI) joints, on each side of your sacrum, and in the pubic bone. Pubic bone pain, also known as Pubic Symphysis Dysfunction, can feel like a pulling or tugging inside the vagina or sensitivity and can be triggered by just walking or putting on your shoes.

Workout tips:

Stop all single leg, unilateral exercises. Since the pelvis is so mobile during pregnancy, working one side of the body can aggravate the instability of the joints, causing more pain and discomfort. Instead, work both sides of your body at the same time, like swatting and bridging variations.

Strengthen through stability. Deep core exercises and strengthening the deep external rotators of the hip isometrically will help stabilize the pelvis and lower pain. Hug your Baby and Squat holds are great moves to try out.

Avoid inner thigh strengthening. Many of the inner thigh muscles are attached to the pubic symphysis and can pull on the joint when engaged. So if you are experiencing pubic bone pain, work the muscles of the outer-hip instead to help stabilize the joint. Try wrapping a theraband around your thighs and do some bridges. The outward isometric hold can help relieve pain by balancing the two sides of the pelvis while also strengthening the muscles of the outer hip.

Stretch the deep muscles of the buttock. Muscles that attach to the sacrum can become extremely tight during pregnancy as your pelvis widens to accommodate your growing bub. Using the foam roller or your IT Bands when stretching can help relieve pain of the SI joints. But even though it feels good, be mindful and don’t go too far. It’s easy to harm the joint capsule.

2. ESTROGEN

Your ovaries usually produce estrogen, but during pregnancy your placenta takes over. Estrogen is vital in the early stage as it strengthens and prepares the womb for implantation of the fertilized egg. Later on, its presence prepares the breasts for breastfeeding by enlarging the nipples and encouraging the development of milk glands. Throughout your pregnancy, it regulates the development of the fetus and maintains the endometrium.

Workout tips:

Strengthen the postural muscles of the mid and low back. During pregnancy, the extra weight of your growing breast can cause a rounding of the upper spine, resulting in pain and discomfort. So you need to strengthen the postural muscles of the deep core, mid and lower back. Target the muscles of the rotator cuff, triceps, mid & low traps, shoulder blade stabilizers and the deep core.

Stretch the muscles of the chest and promote spinal mobility. The weight of the breasts can also cause the muscles of the chest to get very tight and the spine to get stiff. Help relieve the pain by stretching your pec muscles; and be sure to do controlled rotation and spinal extension throughout your pregnancy. 

3. PROGESTERONE

High levels of progesterone during pregnancy has many wonderful functions. Early on, the hormone is responsible for the thickening of the uterine lining in anticipation of implantation of a fertilized egg. It also relaxes the smooth muscle of the uterus to prevent muscle contractions that could otherwise trigger miscarriage. Progesterone inhibits the production of monoamine oxidase (MAO) in the brain, an enzyme that is associated with depression, which is why you may feel euphoric during pregnancy. Immediately after childbirth, the progesterone levels plummet, which throws off the MAO balance and can result in what we know as “the baby blues.” Finally, progesterone increases body temperature, helps in the production of breast milk, dilates blood vessels and relaxes muscle in the bladder, bowel and veins so that they are more flexible.

Workout tips:

Forearm and wrist stretching. Many pregnant women complain of carpal tunnel syndrome, which is associated with high levels of progesterone and water retention. If you are one of them, stretch wrist and forearm to help relieve any pain and swelling you may be experiencing.

Take caution when working on all fours. Being on all fours can put more pressure on your wrists, which can cause more swelling and pain. To avoid any problem, make a fist with your hand instead of a flat palm, or roll-up a small towel to provide additional wrist support.

Don’t overheat. You are running hot during pregnancy, so make sure to stay cool. Remember to always listen to your body. Drink water, and if you don’t feel well during a workout or a class, take a break.

4. HUMAN CHORIONIC GONADOTROPIN (HcG)

HcG is the most hated of the prenatal hormones: it makes us sick! Of course, morning sickness doesn’t affect every pregnant women in the same way. Some women will be nauseous all day or all pregnancy, others not at all. But  high HCG hormone levels during the first trimester is believed to contribute to the nausea and vomiting. This hormone is only produced during pregnancy – first by the ovaries and later by the placenta.

Workout Tips:

Stretch and de-stress: Nausea may deter you from working out, but exercising can actually make you feel better. Gentle yoga stretches can calm digestion and relieve any anxiety that comes with morning sickness. Favor stretching positions that keeps your head above the heart. So avoiding the downward dog, for example, is probably a good idea if you are feeling sick. 

Go for a walk. Moving and getting some fresh air may be all you need to make the squeaky stomach go away. Whatever you are doing, avoid overheating, as it can contribute to your nauseas. Having a little snack before and staying hydrated while you are active is a must.

Ali Handley is a New York based Pilates instructor, mother of two young children, and the founder of BodyLove Pilates, a dedicated online studio with 200+ video workouts for pregnant and postnatal women to ensure they work out smarter, safer and more effectively during this important time in their lives. 

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