Yes, You Can (and Should) Weight Train: To the Pregnant Mamas
Today, I wanna address a few concerns that have come in to me from a very specific population…pregnant ladies and new mamas. There’s a fair amount of info in here, from answering whether or not we should lift during pregnancy to addressing a few body changes to a couple of exercises to begin healing the abdominal wall and pelvic floor starting from a few days postpartum. Buckle up!
I’ve trained some women during pre-pregnancy. This was a fun challenge, because, without getting too far into it, but as you’d expect, the hormonal environment in our bodies play a large role in our fertility. Fat loss and fertility are not necessarily the most complementary of goals, and neither do they share ideal hormonal conditions, so our workouts, as a primary driver of hormonal shifts, generally must adapt. I’ve been with most of those same women through the pregnancy to after birth (and back to normalcy). I’m SUPER grateful for them, because they were willing to trust me with that process, and it took the amazement I generally feel when a client accomplishes a goal to a whole new level. They brought LIVES Earthside, and then we got to heal their bodies. It’s a truly amazing thing.
From their specific experiences, coupled with being at the age where my friends are having children and expressing their thoughts about the process, I’ve learned a ton about how our bodies work, what our concerns are before/during/after pregnancy, and what myths float around the world, some of which we can let go and some of which we should heed.
First and foremost, a lot of people believe we shouldn’t be lifting during pregnancy. And I get that. The female body goes through a series of changes that are nothing short of magical- physically, mentally, and emotionally- throughout pregnancy. Not that I’ve experienced it myself yet, but man, watching the whole process is captivating. And due to such rapid changes, many women (and doctors) feel the best thing to do is to not introduce a new stimulus, such as weight training, at this time.
You know what I’m going to say, probably.
With proper guidance and modification, weight training can set up a woman’s body to have a comfortable, strong, stable pregnancy for as long as possible and make the postpartum recovery quicker and easier, getting them back to a progressive strength routine sooner and making the new role they’re playing (you know, as a brand-new mom!) go a little more smoothly. There are no studies that show that lifting more than 25lbs has an effect on birth weight or term length. Zero. You can ignore the guidance of not lifting anything heavier than your purse (which, side note, you can ignore 100% of the time, not just during pregnancy).
In most cases, this isn’t the time to achieve a new goal or smash a PR by 30kg, so let's not get crazy (life and fitness are all about seasons), but, if you’ve been weight training already (or even if you haven’t!), there’s no reason to stop. Prenatal exercise is to postpartum recovery what John Stockton is to Karl Malone: laser-focused assist setting up the win.
Research shows that moms who lift have shorter labors, less chance of preterm labors, fewer complications, less perceived exertion during labor (which may not seem like a big deal, but totally is), babies with stronger blood vessels, babies born with higher APGAR scores, and babies with brains that mature more quickly than their non-exercising-mamas’ counterparts. So, worth looking into.
Added bonus: during pregnancy, our bodies release a hormone called relaxin, which, because most things in anatomy & physiology are so mysteriously named (I kid ;) ), does something you’d never expect it to do: promotes the flexibility of our soft tissues in order to carry a baby to full term and prep for labor and delivery. The good news is, strength training increases our stability. So, while this hormone is freely flowing throughout our bodies, promoting flexibility, we’re increasing our strength and decreasing our risk of injury and aches in this relatively-fluid environment.
That being said and that wonder being held, we sometimes expect our bodies to bounce back to our pre-baby strength training routines within 6w. It’s important to recognize that our bodies just did something incredible: getting a little woo on you, but we brought a life that was just an idea from the realm of the spiritual into existence on Earth, and that is super insane and dope AF. Let’s give ourselves some time to heal from that, because it’s a lot of work.
This is probably the #1 concern I’ve encountered, and it’s totally understandable. A good friend of mine from college even said she wanted to, “tighten up my core after baby so people don’t think I’m pregnant (which hasn’t happened, but still a big fear).” HELLO! I TOTALLY get that. Our culture often perpetuates this idea that we need to be superwomen in so many areas, not the least of which is returning to our pre-baby bodies stat. Like, have you seen that meme of the mom with three young kids and a six pack asking what your excuse is?
This is also ridiculous, considering what our bodies go through during pregnancy. Not to shame anyone who got shredded immediately, because, that’s a ton of work! But, for most of us, allowing the time to heal and spend precious time with our newborns before we go back to work is (and should!) be taking priority over baking chicken and steaming asparagus.
Post-delivery exercises can vary based on method of delivery (check out a really wonderful article about C-sections by Jessie Mundell of Girls Gone Strong- the woman from whom I learned the most about strength training and pregnancy- here). But all of them align with the goal of, before much else, healing the abdominal wall and pelvic floor, getting us back to feeling our best and ready to train.
The VERY FIRST thing I’ve had clients do is to reconnect with their core breath after baby: it feels different in there!
Starting from a few days postpartum, we can regain muscle tone and connection throughout our entire core. As in, no need to wait 6w to feel normal again, in this case. Doing 7092873 crunches or Kegels won’t re-establish our alignment or connection to our core, so core+floor breathing is the way to go here.
You can be in any position to do it, but I find the best way to understand how it feels is to be lying down on your side, making sure you’re in alignment (head, hips, and heels in a straight line). Place one hand on your lower abdomen, (to feel how it’s moving- usually a few inches surrounding the bellybutton is where we can most feel diastasis recti- the separating of the abdominal wall that happens in some women during pregnancy and causes the “still-pregnant” look), and take a deep inhale, filling the ribcage, belly, and base of your pelvis with air. Exhale completely, engaging all the muscles up and down your spine. I generally advise doing 10-15 breaths a couple of times a day, but, really, whenever you feel it.
From there, I generally find it best to progress with core-focused exercises, ranging from bridges to Pallof presses (one of my favorites for everyone. CHECK IT.) to farmers’ carries (also a thing everyone should be doing).
Most importantly, embracing the post-baby body is a major key. The experience of pregnancy allows us to be more in tune, more fully aware, and more selfless with our bodies than we have ever been before, most likely. The experience of motherhood allows for weakness and vulnerability, for sure, but also for immense amounts of strength we never thought possible. Check out a few stories here that will hit you right in the feels on this one. Because, this experience is #WonderWomanLoading if I’ve ever known it.