Intensities for Pregnant Athletes

Great news for all you women who want to bear children! Research shows active females can continue to perform at high levels of maximal heart rate without adverse side affects to mom or baby in utero.

So why do so many doctors, midwives and other humans still poo-poo ‘intense’ exercise during pregnancy?

Because they’re ill-informed. And afraid. Let the education begin!

First, lets get clear. Just because pregnant women can continue to train at high percentages of maximal heart rate, doesn’t mean they should do it for hours on end or day to day. Pregnancy is not a time to get PRs, it’s a time to maintain fitness levels and surrender to the sweet waves of growing a human inside you.

Pregnant athletes can train at a perceived exertion of “somewhat hard” which is a 3 to 5 on the Borg 1 to 10 scale (5). ACSM states that developing and maintaining fitness requires higher activity, 60% to 90% of maximal heart rate.

Yes! This is blowing the doors off the 140 bpm recommendation the ACOG removed in 1994 yet MANY professionals STILL recommend. If you’re one of them, Stop. It.

Artal and O’Toole (3) recommend women who were sedentary prior to pregnancy work in 60-70% maximal heart rate during pregnancy. For those who wish to maintain fitness during pregnancy, they’re encouraged to work in the 60-90% zone. This study correlates with another meta-analysis that found no significant adverse affects with exercise intensities of 80% maximum heart rate (2).

This table breaks down upper limits and appropriate exercise prescriptions based on activity prior to pregnancy (1). I’ve expanded on the suggested guidelines according to my expertise, client experiences, and other research:

  If you were SEDENTARY before pregnancy…
FREQUENCY Minimum 3 times per week Most days include full body movements with weights
INTENSITY Moderately hard HR 65%-75% max 1-2 higher intensity days 1-2 lower intensity days
TYPE Low-Moderate impact Build strength foundation before introduction of plyometrics Swimming, cycling, weight lifting, walking
TIME 30-45 minutes
  If you were a RECREATIONAL ATHLETE before pregnancy…
FREQUENCY 3-5 days per week Most days full body movements with weights
INTENSITY Moderate to moderately hard HR 65%-85% max 2 higher intensity days 2-3 lower intensity days, 1-2 active recovery days
TYPE Low to moderate impact Weight lifting, jogging, prior activities Activities that don’t involve falling or objects flying at stomach
TIME 30-60 minutes
  If you were an ELITE ATHLETE before pregnancy…
FREQUENCY 4-6 days per week Mix of body weight and additional weight throughout training
INTENSITY Moderate to Hard HR 75%-80% max 2-3 higher intensity days 2-3 lower intensity days, 1-2 active recovery days
TYPE Low to high impact depending on gestational age Activities that don’t involve falling or objects flying at stomach Competitive sports, weight lifting, running, swimming
TIME 45-90 minutes

This information is not a reason to go ovaries-to-the-wall during pregnancy. It’s showing you what research has found safe. Technically, there is no data about extreme exercise and the affects it has on the fetus (4).

Common sense dictates that your body needs a lot of nutritional resources during high intensity exercise and there can’t be much left over for that little babe in your belly if you’re going nuts. So be smart. Don’t deprive your baby or your body during this cool, divinely feminine time.

Your body is kicking ass and taking names even if it means slowing down, modifying correctly, and adjusting as you go. That’s part of life! And if you can’t mentally deal with it all, talk to someone; a coach, a friend, your partner. They want to support you to be the healthiest you want to be. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. You got this, Momma!

And if you need help programming during pregnancy or getting back at it, I do custom remote programming. Many active women hire me to get their ‘mojo’ back with a coach who knows what the pre and post bod needs. Email me at to set a phone conversation date so we can get to know each other before moving forward!