Training Pre, During and Post Pregnancy

As I have recently got married last month to my wonderful partner in crime, I have begun thinking more and more about what our future together looks like in the next few years. One adventure in particular that we are both excited to go through is parenthood. Thus, the spurred motivation to write this blog about training during pregnancy. While most of this discussion will be geared towards women, I do have some advice for men to stay fit and healthy during and after pregnancy. In my time as a personal trainer and physical therapy aide, I have worked with several women during the incredible journey of becoming a mother. I will discuss what programming should like, the mindset around said training, and what the focus of training should be from trying to get pregnant, during pregnancy and after birth.

Once you and your partner have decided to pull the goalie and make conscious efforts to get pregnant, there will be many things swirling around in the ol’ noggin. One of the last things that will be front of mind will be training. It can be confusing, so I will lay out the framework of getting your body ready for one of the craziest transformations it will go through. I want to start with strength training being the foundation of your programming. Now, all the benefits of strength training would take up more of this discussion than I would like, so we will keep this concise. Strength is an anabolic adaptation that send a signal to your body to build muscle. When you build muscle, you speed up your metabolism which will make it easier to manage your calories and help stave off excessive unwanted body fat. Strength will also help you move better and keep aches and pains at bay as your body begins to change. With those two benefits as our focus, I want to introduce one of the key muscles of focus that will show up several times throughout this discussion: the transvers abdominis (TVA). It is a deep core muscle that runs laterally across the abdomen and when it contracts it squeeze the mid-section giving support to the spine. Strengthening and connecting to the TVA will pay dividends throughout the pregnancy including the final push that finally delivers that new baby boy or girl to this world and into your arms. The final point that I want to address during the “trying” phase of pregnancy is to not be too lean. A healthy body fat percentage for women ranges between 16-24% with individual variance of course. Anything below that range can result in hormonal issues that can make it difficult to get pregnant. This is because your body can think that it is in survival mode and doesn’t think conditions are not suitable for getting pregnant.  This goes for having too high of a body fat percentage. If your body isn’t healthy, it can be difficult to conceive. So, ensure that your body is at an appropriate bodyfat percentage before trying to get pregnant.

First Trimester

So, you have missed your menstruation cycle and your doctor has confirmed that you are pregnant. Congratulations! If you have already found out that you are pregnant and we unable to prepare your body, there is no need to worry. There is still time to make some meaningful progress. The TVA can still get strengthened and be able to help you along the way. The most important aspect of this is in connecting to it as it will assist with delivery of the baby. As the baby grows, the TVA will atrophy in order to make room for the growing fetus. If you must get an epidural and are weak and/or disconnected to your TVA, it can make it hard to push. A simple exercise that one can do to strengthen the TVA are pelvic tilts. This is where you will lay on your back with knees bent and feet firmly on the ground. From there you will try to pull your belly button into the ground flattening your lower back. You will hold that position for 5-10 seconds for 10-15 reps. I would recommend doing this several times throughout the day in order to strengthen and connect to the TVA appropriately.

Now what does the actual training look like? I like to have my pregnant clients focus on compound movements in the first trimester. This movements address multiple joints and several muscle groups. Exercises such as the squat, deadlift, lunges, bench press, row and overhead press are all compound movements. In my experience, the most important one for women in the first trimester is the deadlift because it effectively trains the posterior chain (muscles down the backside of the body) when done properly. This will give support to the spine while the baby grows which will keep low back pain away that so many women suffer from later in their pregnancy. Squats are also great due to its ability to train the hips, knees, ankles and core and can even assist in the delivery of the baby and provide overall healthy mobility.

As for cardio goes, the most important form that should be down is walking. It is the most underrated and under-utilized form of cardio that will keep you active during this process. Making walks outside an integral part of your daily life will give tremendous benefit aide in health and mental wellness.

Second Trimester

At this point, you are probably feeling that little bundle of joy is making his or her presence known. If all things are going well and you have kept your routine up to par, you have probably generated great momentum and even some gains. Unfortunately, in the second trimester, I advise you to throw the “making gains” mentality out of the window until after the birth of your new baby boy or girl. Gains require pushing the body and right now is not the time to do so. So, I want you switch that mindset to maintaining strength and mobility.

When working with women in the second trimester, I begin eliminating any exercises that involve flexing of the spine (crunching motions). This means taking out any ab exercises due to the abdominal muscles’ function of flexing the spine. I know this may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be amazed of how many women I have to advise not to work on their abs during this trimester. My more hardcore fitness fanatics are the hardest to breakthrough to especially when their bump becomes more and more noticeable.

The one exercise I stress the most for women to maintain strength in is deadlift. This is due to is great benefit to strengthen the posterior chain. Notice how I said maintain and not advance strength. As the baby grows, the body becomes for front loaded and this can lead to extra strain on the low back. A proper deadlift will strengthen the glutes, hamstrings and muscles along the spine to give more support to the spine. When performed perfectly, you can kiss that low back pain goodbye.

Finally, I want to finish off the second trimester recommendations with another reminder to stay active. If going for walks is becoming more difficult, I advise you to find other forms of cardio that put less strain on the joints such as using an elliptical or recumbent bike or even swimming. Just remember to not overdo it because the body still needs most of its energy to grow that little human.

Third Trimester

Ok you are on the final stretch of this amazing and beautiful journey. It is important to keep giving your body what it wants in a pursuit of providing a healthy environment for the baby. But also, make sure your workout routines evolve to keep you safe as well. The third trimester is where I eliminate any exercises laying flat on the back. When the baby reaches a certain size, laying on the back can put pressure on your inferior vena cava (the return vein to the heart) and cut off blood flow to the heart which could make you pass out. And that is the least of it. So, to make things simple, no more “flat on the back”” exercises. If you are working on bench press at this point, I would advise you to eliminate pressing from a flat bench and exclusively work on only incline bench press going forward. In addition, work triceps push downs instead of skull crushers and work straight arm cable pull downs instead of dumbbell/barbell pullovers. Finally, if you feel that your belly is getting in the way during deadlifts, you can switch to using the Romanian deadlift where the hips don’t bend over as much as in the conventional version of the movement.

The mindset required to be successful in staying healthy both for yourself and the baby remains the same as the second trimester. You are not trying to make gains. You want to maintain. This requires you to modify your intensity to a lower level. Your body is going into overdrive now and you just want to feed it good movement. So, lower the load and take longer breaks if you need to. As for cardio, it also remains the same. Find one that you enjoy, makes you feel good and puts the least amount of stress on your body.

Postpartum Exercise

Congratulations! You and your partner (mostly you, lets be honest) have gone through an amazing and difficult journey and have brough a precious life into the world. Now, where do you begin getting back in shape and becoming a fit momma? First, listen to your doctor. Once you are cleared to returning to exercise, there are some very important steps to take to getting your body back in working gym condition. I want to first start by recommending that you find a great pelvic floor physical therapist. Here you will learn how to tighten up and strengthen the pelvic floor muscles. I have had several clients and patients tell me that they experience incontinence after giving birth. This is a condition in which the women will have accidental urine leaks due to the lack of pelvic floor strength. This being said, I recommend finding a physical therapist that specializes in pelvic floor strengthening.

In conjunction to pelvic floor training, I have had my clients begin where they started in their journey; TVA strengthening. I have had many female clients that have gotten into really good shape after giving birth but cannot get rid of that lower belly fat known as the pooch. Remember that the TVA muscles must atrophy in order to make room for the growing baby, so they will need strengthening to draw that midsection back in. Start with the pelvic tilt exercises that I described earlier and then progress to a proper plank where you tuck the tailbone in and pull the top of the pelvis to the bottom of the ribcage.

As far as the full workout goes, I want to strongly recommend starting slow. This means only one to two days of full body workouts a week max with an emphasis on mobility work on the off days. I have started many of mother clients on just picking three to five compound exercises with the mindset of working on the form and skill of the movement. This means low weight and slower tempo to recapture the connection to the movements themselves. As the body progresses and heals from the birthing process; I slowly increase intensity and load over time. The body just went through the ringer, and it needs time to heal so, please take your time. Building strength and muscle is the single most effective way to speed up the metabolism and burn fat.

For cardio, I recommend starting with walks. I have advised my clients to start with short walks throughout the day rather than one long walk a day. Studies have shown short, yet frequent walks have just as much if not more health benefits compared to one long walk a day. Walking is one of the most underrated forms of cardio and making a habit of going for walks can provide tremendous benefits in improving your overall health and even support muscle and strength gains.

My final thoughts for the mothers is this. You have gone through an amazing journey and I as a man can never truly feel the impact of what baring and giving birth to child does to one’s mind and body. All I can say as trainer that fitness is a support system to your health journey. Now that you are mother, that is your number one job and fitness should compliment that. Your focus is to be healthy for you and your baby. So, I hope you won’t stress too much about how you look but how you feel. From my experience training several mothers, if you take this approach, you will be healthier, and the aesthetics will come as a result. You and your family will be better off for it.

For the Fathers

Ok. Now to you no good pieces of crap! I only kid (pun intended). There is plenty for you to do while your partner is going through this journey with you that you can do to remain healthy. I have heard from plenty of fathers that sympathy weight is a real thing. I recommend getting in as good of shape as you possibly can because when the baby comes, your main focus is being the best father and partner as you possibly can. This means your workouts may be put on the back burner or at a minimum be extremely modified. So, before your new son or daughter comes into the world, you want to train to build muscle. Lifting weights and going for walks is a great way build muscle, burn body fat and speed up the metabolism. Once the baby is born, you can modify your workouts in many ways.

First, there is purely working on compound lifts to hit most if not all the major muscle groups. Some of my favorite combinations are squats, dips and pullups or deadlifts, incline bench press and overhead press. There are many combinations that give tremendous value to your overall health. Second, I am also a fan of all day workouts. This doesn’t mean you literally workout 24/7 but picking one exercise to do a set of a specific exercise throughout the day. This is a great way to sneak a quick workout in while the baby is down for a nap. My favorites to choose from are the squat, deadlift and overhead press. I recommend choosing a weight that you can comfortably do ten repetitions of. This way your body can recover and not be overworked. This frequent muscle building signal will tell your body to build muscle and burn body fat all day long.

Final Thoughts

I want to finish where I started. Pregnancy and childbirth are one of the most incredible acts of life and as a trainer I hope this read help you and others staying fit and healthy during this journey. And just like fitness, pregnancy is a journey for everyone involved. Congratulations on making this journey and I wish you all the best of luck. I certainly am looking forward to this journey myself with my wife.

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