The squat is probably one of the best-known exercises around and is a staple ingredient in (most) fitness programs. Generally considered a lower-body exercise that targets the quads, hamstrings, glutes and hips, the squat movement is actually one of the best full-body, compound exercises you can do.
From the time we are toddlers through adulthood, we perform a variety of squat movements throughout the day — every time we sit down or stand up, bend down to pick something off the floor… Being able to perform daily tasks with good posture is vital for all ages, and is of particular importance during pregnancy.
Including squat variations in a prenatal fitness program is essential to help prepare the body for labor and delivery. Here are four good reasons why you should squat during pregnancy:
- Squats help to strengthen your lower body and maintain mobility in your hips so that you can achieve the squat positions that will help you cope with contractions during labor.
- Squats will strengthen your glutes, which will help to stabilize the pelvis and reduce the experience of lower back pain.
- Squats help to maintain balance and coordination as your center of gravity shifts with your expanding belly.
- Squats are a low-impact exercise that will elevate your heart rate and keep your cardiovascular system strong.
Squats for Every Trimester
First Trimester Squat Variations:
During first 14 weeks of pregnancy, your body composition is just beginning to change. This is the time to work on perfecting your squat form. You want to make sure to emphasize developing lower-body strength and endurance through all stages of pregnancy, so spend this time making sure your squat form is on point!
For some women, that might mean starting with body weight squats. But, all levels of exercisers can progressively increase the external load (the amount of weight used) for their squats during the first trimester.
When performing squats, stand with your feet hip- to shoulder-width apart and think about rooting into the ground through your heels, big toes, and the outsides of the feet. As you bend through the knees, think about pulling yourself down to a low chair. In an ideal bottom position the knees are below the hips. From the bottom, think about pushing the ground away to stand up.
The following series of squat variations are demonstrated by my friend and physiotherapist Melanie Stevens Sutherland from RPM Physiotherapy in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Melanie was seven months pregnant in these photos. She is an experienced lifter, and has continued to be “Mom Strong” through her pregnancy!
This is my favorite squat variation to emphasize glute recruitment. Stand in front of a low box or chair and bend through the knees to sit down fully. From this bottom position you’ll be able to focus on pressing through the heels to engage your glutes. Make sure to stand straight up without leaning forward. Video here.
This is a great variation to improve thoracic position through the squat. It can be done with a box to focus on form, or without a box to progressively challenge the movement. Increasing the external load will also increase the challenge to your upper body and core. Video here.
Barbell Back Squat
The back squat allows you to increase the weight used beyond what is possible with a goblet squat. Occasionally, I still like to use a box with this squat variation to continue to emphasize form and glute recruitment. Increasing the load will help to develop strength and endurance in your lower body to help prepare for the increased weight that your body will carry in the second and third trimesters. Video here.
Second Trimester Squat Variations:
During weeks 14 through 28, pregnancy weight becomes more noticeable, and the belly bump can’t be mistaken. At this point be aware of the added weight around your abdomen during workouts. You can use this added weight to your benefit to make your squats more challenging without increasing the external load as quickly as you would through the first trimester. Through this period, make sure to maintain the squat form that you developed in the first trimester — don’t allow the extra weight to pull your torso, particularly your shoulders, forward.
Continue to use box, goblet, and back squats through the second trimester, but include some variations that will further develop lower-body strength and stamina.
Offset Kettlebell Squat
With the external weight loaded on one side of the body plus the extra baby weight, in this variation you’ll be forced to engage your core and recruit your glutes to maintain squat form. Video here.
Single-Leg Sit-to-Stand Box Squat
This is a great accessory exercise to strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, and quads while also challenging your body’s balance and coordination. You’ll notice this exercise is similar to the box squat above, but performed on one leg. To avoid overstraining through this movement, hold on to a suspension trainer or rings for assistance.
Third Trimester Squat Variations:
In the final stage of pregnancy you’ll experience the greatest weight gain, which will likely force you to either maintain or reduce the external load to continue squatting with good form. Focus on balance, coordination, hip mobility, and endurance as you get closer to labor and delivery.
Squat variations that emphasize the eccentric portion of the movement are perfect for this trimester. Assisted or unassisted box squats, goblet, sumo, and barbell back squats can all be used through the third trimester. For each variation, increase the amount of repetitions for each exercise as you reduce the external load. Developing endurance through this phase will be key to prepare your body for the greatest endurance event of your life. Get ready for it!
This wide-stance squat is a great exercise throughout pregnancy to maintain mobility in the hips. It is especially beneficial during the last trimester, as it doesn’t need to be heavily loaded to be effective. Video here.
What’s the payoff for all that squatting?
One of my clearest memories from my first labor experience was being in a deep squat position over a toilet-like seat. The contractions I had in that position were so effective that my midwife asked me to stay there until I had four of them. Those contractions were as intense as they were effective, so I looked at my midwife with disgust — kinda how you might look at your trainer or group instructor if they’d just asked you to perform not one, but four more sets of your most the most grueling exercise you love to hate!
As much as I hated the thought of it, I knew my midwife was right, and I was mentally up to the challenge. My mom was standing in front of me at the time, coaching me through. I gripped onto her jeans and hoped that my legs would keep me up! Although I was supported at the bottom position, my feet were gripping the ground, my quads, hamstrings, and glutes were contracted, and I was in the deepest and widest position that my hips could achieve.
All the squats I had performed throughout the previous 10 months suddenly made so much sense!
(By the way, those four contractions helped me dilate from six to nine centimeters, and my son arrived moments later!)
When you’re working with a pregnant client the first consideration should always be safety. Pregnant clients come to you for motivation and guidance through their pregnancy, but they also want reassurance that they are supported and safe while engaging in exercise. Here are some considerations to make for your prenatal clients and classes:
- Make sure that the exercise environment is well ventilated. Avoid hot or humid environments so that your client does not overheat. Include frequent and longer rest periods, encouraging water intake to also prevent overheating.
- Monitor your clients for signs of excessive fatigue. You may need to reduce the reps, speed and/or intensity of your program. Expect that you’ll need to make modifications. Your client’s energy levels will most likely vary from session to session based on the stage of pregnancy she is in and how her body is adapting to those changes.
- If your pregnant client experiences a sharp pain at the lower front of her pelvis when squatting, you may need to provide an alternative exercise. She may be experiencing pain in her pubic symphysis, a joint that widens during pregnancy to allow the baby to be delivered through the pelvis. This is one of the amazing feats of the pregnant body, but some women can experience pain from the force that is placed on this joint. Squatting can trigger that pain. Refer your client to a women’s health professional or a prenatal physiotherapist for an assessment and advice on how to manage her symptoms.
Exercises To Do And Avoid During And After Pregnancy
There are so many myths about exercising during and after pregnancy, it can be hard to know if you’re doing the “right” thing. Our education materials are carefully vetted by OB/GYNs, PhDs, Registered Dietitians, Women’s Health Physiotherapists, and Pre and Postnatal Exercise Experts, and we have put together this FREE handbook where you’ll learn:
- The best exercises to do during and after pregnancy
- Exercises to avoid during and after pregnancy