I love training pregnant women. It’s so rewarding to be a part of that important time in their lives; to help them embrace their changing bodies, instill confidence in them, and empower them to become great mothers. In my experience, is it women who feel strong and capable during pregnancy that tend to be the women who not only recover well from the physical effects of pregnancy, but also encourage self confidence and athleticism in the next generation through their children.
Labour is likely the biggest and longest workout of any mother’s life…why wouldn’t you want to train for childbirth just as you would for that next 10km run or competition! Every woman and every pregnancy is very different depending on how active they were before pregnancy and if they have any medical conditions or concerns that need to be considered. Therefore, communication and goal setting between trainer and client is extremely important. Some women just want to ‘stay fit’, others want to be able to ‘bounce back to pre baby bodies’, and others (typically the already very fit athletes I train) fear loosing their current performance measures and want to maintain strength so they can get back to ‘where they were’ as soon as possible. Though the programming for each of these clients will be different, I think it important to make each woman choose at least one specific, measurable, non-body composition related goal. I find that this allows them to maintain a certain level of ‘self’ and not get too wrapped up in the physical stuff that they will more often than not loose control over.
Becoming a mother can be challenging. Motherhood temporarily requires extreme selflessness as new moms often loose their bodies, their time, their career, and arguably their mind! I think it important that they do not also loose their sense of self. I find that having that one personal, non-image related goal helps keep them grounded and reminds them of who they were before the baby and who they will continue to be on top of being ‘mom’. I tend to encourage setting a skill or mobility goal that keeps them focused and accountable. It doesn't have to be epic in any way, just something that makes them feel like they are working on and towards something for themselves and so that they don't feel like their training gets ‘paused’, or that they will need to start from scratch post partum. Some simple examples I have used with women would be improving pulling or pushing strength (using the slow weight gain to their advantage), improving mobility in areas they struggle with, or working on any imbalances so that strength and skill progress can be faster after childbirth.
As a trainer, my goal is to instill a feeling of safety, confidence and strength in each person I train, no matter what level they were at pre-pregnancy. If a woman is already training, and she has no underlying medical conditions, she can generally continue to do her usual workout throughout the 1st trimester (week 1- aprox week 12). Of course, if a movement or activity makes her nervous or concerned about safety, I encourage modifying it right away. Typically however, women feel comfortable and enjoy doing the same activities they did beforehand. As a trainer, I value helping women tune in to their bodies and really listen to how each exercise makes them feel. This promotes heightened body awareness from the very start, which will help them be aware of their changing bodies as the pregnancy progresses.
From the very beginning, for each client, no matter their goal, the main things I focus on are abdominal and pelvic floor strength, posterior chain development, joint stability and, of course, body awareness in all movements.
Abdominal and pelvic floor strength may be the obvious targets of programming as these are the muscles that support the baby’s growth, and they will be your main allies during labour. As Julie Tupler, the co-author of Lose Your Mummy Tummy, states: “If you go into pregnancy with strong abdominals, you’re going to prevent back problems, have an easier time pushing during labor, and recovery is going to be better”. Just visualize the muscles being stretched around your belly. Strong muscles will stretch easier, help you push better, and bounce back faster!
A strong back, glutes and hamstrings are also crucial, as the extra weight of the baby will pull the body increasingly forward as the baby grows. Your posterior chain will no only support the extra weight, but also help minimize common back pain caused by weight gain.
Joint stability is also very important, as during pregnancy the production of the horone relaxing increases, which has a ‘loosening’ effect on muscles.1 Flexibility and mobility frequently increases (which is awesome) due to this hormone, but control in those new found positions isn’t always there…so should therefore be treated with caution. Another reason why stability should become a focus in training is the obvious: feeling stable and balanced will help minimize slips, falls and accidents as your body grows and changes.
As the woman enters into the 2nd trimester (approx week 12), her body position can affect her cardiovascular system. After the first trimester, when laying on their back, the weight of the pregnant uterus slows the return of blood to their heart, which reduces blood flow to the fetus. This means the baby will get less oxygen and fewer nutrients and therefore supine positions (exercises done laying on their back) should be avoided.2 Women often start to feel uncomfortable laying on their backs at this point anyways, so this is when I start removing any supine positions (sit ups, hollow body work, supine leg raises etc…)
In many ‘training during pregnancy’ articles, you will be told that it is not safe to squat below parallel as you enter your 2nd trimester, due to the effects the relaxing hormone has on the joints. Though it is true that hormones released during pregnancy relax ligaments, muscles and joints which can cause instability, I am of the belief that if done slowly, with control and awareness, squats below 90 degrees are no more dangerous than any other movement taken to full range of motion.3 I continue to program these in a one-on-one setting at sub maximal weights, often with a tempo. That being said, in a written program where I cannot see and monitor how closely the client is following my instructions, I will usually remove weighted full depth squats in the 2nd trimester and have them squat full depth with no weight or with weight to a box placed under them. This will not only prevent them from moving too quickly and ‘loosing control’ at the bottom of a squat, but it will also strengthen different bottom positions of the squat which will end up improving the structure and stability of the squat overall: Win-win!
Once the woman enters the 3rd trimester (approx week 29), most movements will need to be modified, simply because of the belly getting in the way! As long as there is a safe and technical pathway for equipment, things like balls, dumbbells and barbells can still be used. If, however, the bar pathway is inhibited by the belly (In Olympic lifting, the snatch and clean movements for example) then they need to be removed from the programming. Not only are you putting your baby at risk of contact with equipment, you are also altering your muscle patterning in these movements which will interfere with your technique and slow down your progress after the bump is no longer in the way. My rule of thumb is if it’s uncomfortable or if it alters a technical movement’s pathway: modify it.
Some basic examples of modifications I use with people are:
- Sumo deadlift in lieu of traditional narrow stance Deadlift which can squeeze the belly as it gets bigger into an uncomfortable hinged box and can force bar path and beginning position to change.
- One handed Kettlebell/Dumbell Cleans and Snatches instead of barbell snatches once the bar path is impeded by the belly and you can no longer keep the bar close.
- Burpees/push ups on or between two boxes so belly doesn’t hit the floor.
The third trimester is also when things like hanging, skipping and jumping tend to become uncomfortable. If the client is still happy and feels safe, I let them continue until that changes. It’s important to remember that each pregnancy is different! If something doesn’t feel good or right, I tell them to avoid it. Some women find jumping uncomfortable quite early on, while others feel safe and good about box jumps and skipping until the very end. Some women don’t feel safe hanging from the bar as soon as they start to get heavier, and it’s important that they feel safe and in control of any training that they do. Their training with me is there to help them feel confident about their body changing, not to make them anxious.
The last element I like to play with, especially as they near their due date, is breathing techniques and patterns. I’m no Lamaze breathing coach but I do believe in the power of patterning breath to movement and I coach women through different patterns and techniques while they move so they can familiarize themselves with linking strenuous activity to their breath. I also like to ‘simulate’ labour by programming intervals of hard work with Tabatas4 and 30 - 120 second working sets with short rests between sets. I have had several clients tell me that they thought about and visualized these work sets during labour and that it helped them manage contractions and feel in control of the process knowing that like a workout, each contraction was temporary.
Training during pregnancy doesn’t have to be complicated. As long as you listen to your body and train with a coach that you trust, you can reap all the benefits of training throughout pregnancy: you can sleep better, boost your energy and self confidence, reduce pregnancy discomfort and stress, prepare yourself for the workout of labour and get your strength and body back faster after childbirth! I hope that all expecting moms reading this can find ways of staying active and strong in mind and body as they prepare for childbirth and motherhood. And please come find me if you aren’t sure where to start, I’m happy to introduce you to your inner baddass!