Updated: Aug 2, 2019
As a strength coach and sweat enthusiast, I anticipated that the hardest physical part about being pregnant would be the 6 weeks of recovery time post-delivery. (I reserved a special spot for the whole delivery production in its own separate category).
Hahahahaha. Ha. Oh, what a sweet, naïve, hopeful mom-to-be.
DISCLAIMER: Before we get started, I want to mention this article is not a social critique on body expectations. If you are a new mom who wants to be healthy and look incredible* (however you choose to define this), this article is for you. I'm sharing a few insights about how pregnancy affected my training that I was completely un-expecting. (Pun actually unintended but I've decided to keep it.)
As my sister would say, "Back to me".
Pregnancy kicked me in the pelvis at 8 weeks and challenged me mentally and physically until deeeeeep into postpartum. Truth be told, I had it pretty easy (re: no serious complications, healthy and supportive relationships and my overall rough days/great days was 50/50 so pretty sweet considering we have two sweet dudes because of it) but growing a baby is a task.
Fast forward to 49 weeks after delivering said bundles of joy. For the first time, my body felt familiar. Sure, I have had glimpses of, “Oh, yeah. I remember this pre-pregnancy ________ (sensation / control / fluidity of movement / trust that my pelvis wouldn't feel like it's about to split into several pre-fused bone segments). At 49 weeks post-delivery, it’s safe to say I drastically underestimated my down time of 6 weeks.
And we aren't going to touch the 35 weeks that led up to our babies' grand entrance. That's another day.
You. Your "old body". Your "new body". Let's go.
99% media and “helpful information” for new moms focuses on getting back to a pre-baby body shape/weight.
1% media and “helpful information” for new moms discusses pre-baby body health and function.
Although there IS information on health and function, practically all of this information concerns pelvic floor function (and specifically kegels) which erroneously implies that:
a. Pelvic floor dysfunction is the only physical injury or health issue facing pregnant/postpartum women.
NOTE: Each woman's pregnancy is unique. A lot can happen while carrying or delivering a baby. Women deserve the opportunity to heal and live a life postpartum that includes all the things that make them feel good. In order to do that, we need to address all their needs.
b. Pelvic floor dysfunction is only a relevant discussion for pregnant women.
NOTE: Men and never-pregnant women can experience pelvic floor dysfunction and all its symptoms.
c. “Hold your urine flow” or “imagine pulling a Kleenex out of a box” or “use your elevator” are the master keys to pelvic floor and core health.
NOTE: Pelvic floor (PF) function is important but these cues may be causing more harm than good by being the wrong cue for a lot of people. PF dysfunction isn't a one trick fix. Just like all muscles, PF muscles need to be able to contract and they need to be able to relax. Not to mention, the PF is a key player that can be affected by a lot of daily factors. For some people, these tighten-tighten-tighten cues are the exact opposite of what their body needs to learn. The great news here is that most of the things we can do to help our PF are little habits, simple once learned and free. It's not just about squeezing the vaginal walls together. Paying attention to how we breathe, how our body hangs out (i.e. our alignment), how we lift things, how we use a toilet and how to effectively do a kegel can all contribute to mitigating symptoms. The best thing you can do for yourself if things don't feel right, whether it's incontinence, painful sex, discomfort and/or pressure, is to make an appointment with a pelvic floor physiotherapist.
I took some writer’s freedom with those fictional stats above. That said, I may have been overly generous. I have yet to see an article titled:
“Regain your core activation and function after carrying a baby beneath all that muscle for 9 months!” or
“Check your alignment! The implications of relaxin and other hormones on joint stability and movement quality while pregnant and/or breastfeeding!” or
“WARNING! Please be careful when returning to any exercise or movement program post-baby because your organs, joints and muscle aren’t where they used to be! Just say “no” to long-term injuries!”.
And, in startling contrast, 7 million articles on “Sexy body after baby!”
Everything really gets shuffled around in there. All my OB/GYN (and most of them ... I'm not specifically picking on mine) asked me was how my scar was healing before giving me the clear to workout. Ah...what's that now? What about my organs? What about my abdominal muscles that stretched out over those babies? What about the compensation patterns created by carrying all that weight on my front? What about the gap down my rectus abdominus? What about my pelvis and that I still have pain shooting down my legs when I walk? What do you mean my "workout"?
About ten years ago, I began researching pregnancy, fitness and movement. I had come to an understanding that my body would never be “the same” after building a baby. Expectations = relaxed. This has nothing to do with dedication or finding the right program or green smoothies but that women who just built a human JUST BUILT A HUMAN. Can you feel energized and strong while looking incredible after having a baby? Absolutely. The same? No. Awesome? Absolutely. Just like puberty or finishing an Ironman or watching "Dirty Dancing” . You cannot un-live your life experiences. Life doesn’t go backwards and, seriously, isn't that a great thing? Who wants to be 13 again?
Since things are not the same in there, we need to approach fitness, movement, and nutrition differently than we would have before baby. (And ideally with a professional that has a little more understanding and experience than what is obtained in a weekend certification. Don't be afraid to ask.) This doesn't mean we cannot eventually enjoy the activities we loved pre-baby. Truthfully, you may even be stronger, leaner, fitter, and more energetic ... eventually ... but our culture would deeply benefit from encouraging new moms (and dads) to chill out for a bit. Recalibrate. Go on some walks. Play with our alignment. Drink lots of water. Dude - the sleep deprivation alone is t.o.u.g.h.
There's a succinct quote from Gray Cook that hammers this message home: "Don't add strength to dysfunction." I can tell you from personal experience within my body as well as working with 100s of clients, if we ignore the little things and steamroll over them, we ALWAYS reach a point of being unable to hide or ignore that which we steamrolled. We might be happily going about our business nailing races, crushing lifts, yoga classes or stairs. And then - I don't mean we have to handle ourselves with cotton-filled gloves and wrap our delicate bodies in a duvet. Much the opposite. Our bodies are strong and resilient. We just need to listen to them. Some women heal a functional diastasis recti with breathing exercises, others with lifting and others by doing nothing. Some women can run 6 months postpartum and others need to wait until 18 months. Some women feel PF heaviness when they sit too long so they walk, others feel heaviness when they stand so they sit and others feel heaviness when they walk so they stand. These are ALL the right approaches. The common thread? Listening to internal cues versus external expectations.
One of the (very!) few things I truly understood pre-pregnancy was that each woman’s pregnancy is unique.
I became pregnant at the ripe age of 30. I was the most conditioned, most mobile and strongest I had ever been. Apparently, that did not guarantee a movement-friendly, smooth-sailing pregnancy. I was ill-prepared mentally and, frankly, unaware of the changes and challenges that occur beyond your control. My ego was placed gently to the side as my body adjusted to baby-building mode. The first of many many many times my ego has been gently placed to the side after having kids.
These changes impacted my work, play and sweat life almost immediately. About 8 weeks in, I would lie in bed and strategize how to get out of the house for work in the least amount of steps. Lots of pregnant women run, squat and Vinyasa through their pregnancies. Not me. (Even though I really really wanted to…)
A snapshot of a few physical challenges that caught me off guard:
1. My experience with joint hypermobility and the expediency of its arrival.
Man. Technically, I know that the SI joint can only move about 0.3mm in the most dramatic cases of hypermobility. However, it felt like my pelvis wasn't able to work together as a unit when doing even the simple things like walking or rolling over in bed. There were a few days when even my knees felt as though they were sliding side-to-side. Most of my training was out of the question because I knew it wasn't worth the risk. I felt a shift in my joints at 8 weeks and I could tell you each time I was experiencing one of the surges of relaxin and estrogen.
Training adjustments: No jumping/running. Limited range of motion in all strength exercises. No split-stance anything (lunges/warriors). Swimming but no whip kick. Walking only when necessary. *** I was a lot more prepared for this in my second pregnancy. More variations to come.
2. "Morning sickness" is a lie.
I vomited zero times but I felt like I was about to every minute of every day for 5 weeks. I had not (and haven't since) ever felt so terrible in my entire life. I couldn't get up from a chair in under 15 seconds. This month of my life is my new measure for 10 on all scales of 1-10 with 10 being "the worst thing ever". Hormone-induced nausea affects everyone differently (....and some special unicorns barely at all).
Training adjustments: Just get to work and get home. Ugh. The worst.
3. Wrenches thrown into my (pregnancy) training program.
Recovery is the most valuable part of any training program. Being a huge believer in a holistic approach to movement and training, I felt a little blindsided by how pregnancy messes with your recovery. Big time.
As my fluid began to increase in the first trimester, I spent a month getting up to use the loo 6-9 times a night (even though I stopped drinking fluids mid-afternoon). What kind of biological joke was this? They talk about how you lose sleep after the kid arrives but they do not tell you your body starts training you for functional sleep deprivation during your pregnancy. Training adjustments: Nothing intense as I was not getting nearly enough sleep. I was still teaching indoor cycling as I could adjust my intensity (i.e. code for "fake turning the knob") and I would stay seated the whole class. I kept going with teaching the yoga and strength classes because I have strict personal policies on "coaching" not "working out" when you are leading a group and I'd worked with the majority of these people for years. This was a trial and error period. I did one "heavy lift" that took me days to recover which was a red flag so I adjusted accordingly.
B. Caloric Energy:
I was force-feeding myself about 800 calories a day during my "morning" sickness phase (see #2). This was less than half of what I needed to sit on a couch all day let alone train or, you know, build a baby. I lost several pounds (of lean mass) this month. I was so hungry yet couldn't eat. It was a total bummer.
Training adjustments: Walk Otis. Slowly. That's it.
4. Feeling so full.
Remember that month I was so nauseous I couldn't eat? Well, near the end of my pregnancy, I felt too full (i.e. babies pushing on everything) to breath or eat. I forced myself to do both.
Training adjustments: Swimming. Walking. A little upper body posterior chain work (back body) to counterbalance for my anterior loading (belly) and prepare for carrying babies. *I should have included biceps curls. Holding newborns is basically an isometric biceps curl that you hold for 6 months.
5. Intra-abdominal pressure, breathing and torso position.
This is something I wish I played with more pre-pregnancy and that I learned a LOT about after delivery. This was a research topic of choice for a few months as I worked through my recovery. Please read these two articles for nerdy goodness:
This is a brief overview of my experience. I'm sure it's familiar to a few of you and completely unrecognizable to other moms. This is all to say, TRUST YOURSELF. Do what you can but don't be hard on yourself for the "shoulds". Taking every day one at a time is all you can do.
Oh. And you're doing incredible.
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