My youngest sister had a baby. During a visit a year later, while I was pregnant with my third child, she casually mentioned something I’ve heard so often, and actually held as a personal opinion.
“Well, when you have a baby, your body changes. You never go back to looking the same.” The conversation was in reference to “baby fat.”
I immediately had to disagree. Because with each pregnancy, my knowledge and experience of fitness and my body’s capability always exceeds the past. After my 3rd baby, I was the fittest I’d ever been. Period. With baby number four, I plan to exceed that.
Now, I ain’t no super woman. Far from it. If my self-discipline were a car, it’d be a lemon. I indulge. I slack off. And I come from a very inactive background. I am the perfect example of a blank slate. Which is why my husband, with over 20 years weight-lifting and endurance running experience, thought I’d make the perfect guinea pig for his weight training project.
Exercise, Weightlifting and Pregnancy
Read any pregnancy book/post/website and you’ll find that exercise is recommended but they still want you to avoid picking up anything heavier than a bag of rice. And, girl, just forget about that 40 lb bag of dog food, right?
I’m of a different opinion. First off, let’s talk about the difference between exercise and training. (I have my husband and Mark Rippetoe to thank for this.)
Exercise is doing some cardio, some light body weight movements, breaking a sweat and basically doing the same thing over and over with no real goal. Except to get sweaty.
Training is having a goal and working towards it. Armed with a plan and driving through it.
Rippetoe, who’s been training beginning (as well as advanced) weight trainees for decades through his excellent Starting Strength program, recommends women who have not had weight training experience stick with exercise during pregnancy. But those who have been weight training regularly, keep doing it -as long as it feels comfortable. Here’s a great article from him on pregnancy and training.
I started weight training 8 days after Tennyson, our 3rd, was born and stuck with it for 6 months. I don’t think I had ever lifted a barbell before in my life. Those six months were empowering and affirming, but restrictive dieting on a high-protein/animal product-based nutrition plan fizzled out my energy and my strength gains and I stopped training for over a year. Well, I had 1 or 2 month periods of getting back into it, but then I’d quit.
This time around -my 4th pregnancy and my first time on a whole food plant based diet- my husband has set up a sustainable 3x-a-week training schedule for 3 months. It’s my first time training during pregnancy, but with 3 weeks in, I am already feeling and seeing a huge difference between how my body looks and feels compared to my other three pregnancies. My advice to women (pregnant or not): embrace strength!
Why Weight Train During Pregnancy?
Birth requires a great deal of stamina. Some of the most frequently used positions for birthing will tax your legs. You’ll need great core strength for pushing. You’ll need upper body strength for support for hours of leaning, hanging, holding, etc. If you’ve been a couch potato and/or treated your pregnancy as “I’m in a fragile state, I shan’t tax my body for fear of harming the baby” you are at a great disadvantage. The stronger and more conditioned you are, the higher the likelihood of having a quicker birth because you’ve prepared for it, mentally and physically.
Does this mean push yourself beyond what feels safe? NO. Listen to your body for cues and direction. Now, don’t confuse this with, “Awh, I feel sore. I don’t wanna. This isn’t easy. I wanna piece of cake. I’ll practice lifting that -fork to mouth.” Challenge is different from pushing beyond what’s safe. Yes, this is going to be challenging, but GUESS WHAT:
The mental benefits you’ll gain from challenging your body directly correlate with a successful, easier natural birthing experience.
Before the 6 months of training after Tennyson’s birth, I had NO background in weight training -or training, period. When I first stepped into the the weight room my husband created, it was absolutely frightening. I felt like an adult man wearing a tutu in a ballet class filled with six year old girls. THAT out of place.
“But it’s haaaaaarrrd!” I whined. “I can’t doooo iiiiit.” I am not used to being uncomfortable. I avoid pain at all costs. When I have the option of going for physical activity or snuggling up on the couch, I pick the couch, 99 times out of 100. So learning how to push myself physically was new. And you know what it translated to? Learning how to push through mental barriers, as well. And that continues to serve me in even greater ways than the physical benefits of weight training.
When I approach that bar, stacked with 1 or 5 pounds more than my last training session, I get into my primal mode. “I am KELLY, hear me ROAR!” And -my eyes are tearing up- I need this mental strength when I approach my natural, unmedicated birthing experience. I NEED to believe in my body and what I am capable of.
By weight training, I am also building myself into a stronger, more capable woman in every way.
How to Approach Weight Training While Pregnant
For those who have never trained before -totally new:
Body weight exercises
The great thing about body weight exercises and pregnancy is that over the next 9 months you will slowly be adding weight which will increase your strength gains! Doing air squats, modified push ups, air deadlifts and overhead presses (yeah, you’ll need something to hold like a medicine ball or a bag of rice) will give your major muscle groups an excellent boost. The point is to strengthen overall (squats and deadlifts are amazing for core strengthening,) not target for specific “vanity” muscles. You don’t need to worry about arm curls, leg presses, or sit ups.
For those who have a background in training
Number One: Listen to your body. If something feels unsafe or beyond comfort (unusual discomfort) then go for maintenance instead of trying for PRs. Continue to strengthen your body but don’t go psycho, right?
Key exercises that translate to birthing and beyond are squats, deadlifts, pull ups and overhead presses. I’m also throwing in bench presses and chin ups in my 3 month training program.
Another Fabulous Benefit?
When you’re pregnant, you’re gaining weight. It’s normal. So while you’re eating a whole foods plant based diet –as much as you like of the good stuff- and not worrying about a lean physique, now is the perfect time to focus on muscle growth. You need just a bit of extra calories to facilitate growth and promote muscle repair. This makes pregnancy the ideal time to build!
After baby arrives you’ll have some extra weight you’ll want to lose. This is best done through nutrition, not cardio. The whole “exercise to lose weight” myth is just that: a myth. You end up eating more because you’re expending so much energy and then you’re frustrated because you’re working so hard and seeing little result. When you’re breastfeeding you’ll already be in a 200-500 daily calorie deficient which is PLENTY to help you shed that extra weight, no need to restrict your diet.
Besides, if you are eating whole foods plant based, you’re able to eat as much as you want and the extra weight will shed itself. After my third baby, I made the mistake of overly restricting my calories while trying to build muscle (fyi, you can’t build muscle while you’re in a deficient. It’s completely counterproductive) and got totally burnt out. I quit lifting, I quit running, and I ate what I wanted. Gradually I gained some extra weight that bugged the heck out of me until we made the change from high-protein/animal product-centric to whole food plant based nutrition.
When that extra weight from pregnancy sheds, you’ll find beautiful muscles underneath just waiting to show off!
So to those who say you lose your body/shape/looks after kids, I say phooey. You can look and feel even better than ever when you know how to train and care for your body. Healthy living doesn’t have to suck or feel like depravation. And a healthy pregnancy sets you up for greater success after your sweet bundle arrives.
I want to encourage you to eat foods that love you and your baby back during and after your pregnancy. Treat your body with love and care, just as you would your baby. That means ample rest, mental quietness and peace, nurturing self-talk, excellent nutrition and a health promoting lifestyle.
And get that body strong for an easy, mentally and physically prepared natural birth experience, Darling! You’ll love all of the benefits!