Somebody asked me recently what was the single, most toughest thing I have put my body through….I knew the answer straightaway. Forget trying to hold the plank position for 5 minutes. Or the last 2 mile descent into Coniston at 1am having been running for 13 hours. Nope. Labour was definitely the hardest workout I have done….. And the most rewarding. So rewarding I did it twice! It got me thinking back to exercising when I was pregnant with my first child. This being my first blog I thought I would write about my own personal experience of exercising during pregnancy. Of course each person and pregnancy is different and no exercise plan fits all. I just want to share my experience of prenatal exercise.
To anyone out there reading this expecting a baby, congratulations! It truly is a very special journey to be on. For those who have been through pregnancy and labour, a massive well done! It truly is amazing how our bodies are able to adapt, compensate, change and recover.
Can I modify my existing training or should I stop immediately?
Prior to being pregnant I was very active. I mostly did long distance continuous running, yoga, Pilates and weight training. As soon as I found out I was expecting, I stopped every activity. I was terrified of doing something that might harm baby.
This didn’t last long as I began to understand more about the effects of pregnancy on the body, and it is highly recommended to continue exercise along with modifications with each different trimester. I checked with my doctor and got the green light. And so I put on my gym gear, tied up my Nikes and started where I left off….. And I am so glad I did.
In regards goals, the priority was simply to maintain my level of health and fitness, not to lose weight, ‘tone’ or improve performance. My goals were realistic with no pressure. A variety of functional exercises that involved supporting myself, brisk walks, swimming, strength training, core strengthening and stretching all played a part in keeping me healthy and happy.
Pregnancy can be a good time to begin exercise if previously not active but should be done gradually. It is recommended beginning with 15 minutes of low intensity continuous exercise 3 x per week, possibly progressing to 30 minutes 4 x per week up to daily.
‘Exercising your core’ I hear you all gasp! No, I don’t mean sit ups, crunches or planks….no flexion or extension. I concentrated particularly on the deepest abdominal muscles, transversus abdominis (TVA). These muscles are located beneath your rectus abdominis (the six-pack ‘superficial’ stomach muscle). The TVA muscles help with the breathing process, however their main purpose is to provide stability for the spine and lower back, and to activate the core muscles prior to any movement. In pregnancy, strengthening these muscles can relieve pressure on your lower back, improve posture, help support the growing weight of baby and promote recovery postpartum.
Exercises such as reach and curl, pelvic tilt (standing after 1st trimester), cat cows and sitting on a medicine ball whilst focusing on always gently engaging your core, help to strengthen the inner abdominal muscles.
In regards to strength training, as I previously lifted free weights, I was ok to continue doing so. I reduced the weight in order to focus on posture and correct form.
If new to weights, weight resistance machines are great as they allow range of motion to be controlled. Best to avoid machines with a pad that press against the belly and any overhead lifting such as standing military press as this can increase curving of the lower back.
Weight training can counterbalance changes in alignment, posture and muscular imbalances that come with pregnancy. These changes can lead to stress injuries, pain, and most back related problems. For example, the pectoral muscles (chest) become shortened and tight due to the increases in breast size pulling the shoulders forward. This leads to increased curving of the upper spine. Strengthening the upper and middle back muscles and complimenting with opening and stretching of the chest can help prevent such problems.
During both pregnancies, I weight trained but definitely slowed everything way down. I took everything easy, never exerted myself and went with how my body was feeling each day. Pregnancy is a time to embrace changes and I did just that.
The hormone Relaxin softens pelvic ligaments to allow an easy passage for baby through the birth canal but also loosens the joints therefore stretching must be taken to a point that is comfortable to ensure joints not being overstretched.
The back, hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, hip flexors, chest, shoulder rotators and neck in particular can become tightened during pregnancy.
Stretching definitely made me feel more relaxed, relieved of tension and contributed to my pregnancies being more comfortable.
I have fond memories of walking when I was expecting…not solely being so proud of my bump! It was autumn during the middle stages of both my pregnancies and when dry outside, I wrapped up warm, put my headphones on and headed outdoors. Walking is great as it suits women of all different fitness levels, in all stages of pregnancy. It can be as gentle or challenging as you feel like on the day.
Swimming is another great exercise that will also gently stretch your muscles. It reduces impact on the joints, the water helps to support the extra weight and helps to keep you cool. Careful not to arch back during swimming and ensure breathing is relaxed. I looked forward to my twice weekly swimming sessions and got good use out of my pregnancy swimsuit!
Of course there are key points to be aware of before embarking on any pregnancy exercise, including:
- Be aware of intensity at all times. You should still be able to hold a conversation.
- Stop immediately should you feel lightheaded or dizzy.
- Ensure body temperature does not rise to point of overheating.
- No lifting of heavy weights that put extreme strain on the body
- Avoid supine lying (lying on back) after 1st trimester or before if not comfortable with this.
- Avoid exercises of higher impact or that increase risk of falling due to increased Relaxin hormone levels.
- Ensure not to hold breath during any movement and use natural breath throughout.
- Always warm up thoroughly and gentle cool down post exercise.
- Always seek advice from a healthcare professional before embarking on any new exercise activity.
I loved how my body was adapting and with each day brought new and exciting changes. My energy levels were up and mood boosted (my husband will state this is true!). I felt relieved of any stress and tension. I almost ‘needed’ to release tension. The connection I felt with my unborn baby seemed heightened and overall I was calm and prepared for the endurance event that is childbirth. My weight gain was slow and steady, muscle tone was maintained, any lower back pain seemed eased and I even found sleeping at nights easier.
Overall I would say frequency and consistency is key over intensity. I did pretty much exactly what I did for my second pregnancy as my first (except the whole freaking out and stopping all exercise in the first trimester part!) and after both pregnancies getting back to my pre-pregnancy shape came naturally. I must add here that eating a healthy and balanced diet, training the whole body, rather than just certain areas and plenty of rest all play their part in getting back to pre-pregnancy shape.
Pregnancy can be a difficult time for a woman. It certainly was for me at times! So many emotions; anxious, impatient, ecstatic, and watching too many episodes of One Born sometimes didn’t help matters! But hey, I look back on my pregnancies with a smile. They were the most exciting, crazy and emotional times of my life and am certain that exercising and keeping that part of ‘me’ going allowed me to be positive and confident throughout, have healthier pregnancies and faster recovery.
Since becoming a Personal Trainer, I have studied further to be able to advise and help prenatal and postnatal ladies. I know when I was expecting, I was often told conflicting information and honestly, it scared me to do anything at the beginning! Pregnancy is a beautiful time in a woman’s life and the body will undergo amazing changes emotionally, psychologically and physically. Always seek professional advice before embarking in on any exercise programme to ensure the safest way forward.
Listen to your body and remember…it’s only 9 months. So embrace it as it goes quickly. Ok so reliving all of this is making me reminisce over my bump(s)…best finish here as two bouncing children is enough for now!
Caroline is a certified level 3 personal trainer and pre & postnatal exercise specialist based in the heart of Jordanstown village in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland.