Weight training during pregnancy and beyond: facts not fiction

There’s more than a little confuion surrounding weight training during pregnancy and early motherhood - can you/ can’t you/is it safe/not safe – and thrown into this mix are regular stories that hit the headlines featuring incredibly strong women lifting very heavy weights right up to their due dates. And as always, these stories, when shared on social media, ignite a veritable avalanche of opinions from all quarters. In fact, everyone suddenly becomes an expert and feels an irrepressible urge to either condemn or condone. I’m all for people voicing their views although there’s no doubt that many of us are left wondering what to believe and what can safely be ignored. In short, there’s a lot of information out there but what to trust?

Given all this talk, I’d like to offer a pregnancy/postnatal weight training reality check:

  1. Keeping your body strong throughout pregnancy is a good thing. Think about it: your body goes through huge change at an incredible pace as your bump grows. This places a great deal of pressure on many parts of the body. If you come to your pregnancy strong, this will help you weather these changes and you are less likely to experience aches and pains. But please note that I said that keeping your body strong is good. In other words, this is about maintenance and not about suddenly launching into a full-on strength training programme when pregnant. This is a key safety point in pregnancy: you don’t work on increasing your fitness levels but on maintaining them.
  2. Having said this, it does not mean that you cannot at all work on your strength in pregnancy if you are new to fitness. By all means, join a pregnancy-specific fitness class that incorporates body weight exercises, the use of resistance bands or even some light hand held weights. If you are able to find an instructor or personal trainer who is fully qualified in pregnancy/postnatal fitness then this is always going to be the best option and s/he will tailored the exercises so that they work on areas that are most affected by pregnancy. You can search the Guild of Pregnancy and Postnatal Exercise Instructors website for trainers in your area.
  3. At the other end of the spectrum there are those of you who have been regularly training with weights pre-pregnancy: this might be in a class format, such as Body Pump, or in a gym using fixed weights machines, dumbbells or barbells. As long as your pregnancy is progressing well and there are no health or medical contraindications you can carry on with your weights workouts, albeit with lighter weights if you normally go heavy, and with certain adaptations as you move from first to second trimester and beyond.
  4. Let’s clear up the “heavy weights” controversy: it is true that a minority of women come to their pregnancies very strong indeed and they undoubtedly have the strength to keep lifting these weights throughout pregnancy. So why do I still suggest that they reduce their weights? Firstly, a key pregnancy fitness guideline is to exercise at a moderate level – moderate by your individual standards, of course, but nevertheless moderate. Secondly, however strong a woman might be, this does not make her pelvic floor muscles immune to the pressures placed on them by pregnancy and childbirth. Add heavy weights into the mix and you can start to see why the pelvic floor could suffer serious damage potentially leading to incontinence.
  5. Breathing correctly when lifting weights is always important but in pregnancy and postnatally it is an absolute priority. Correct breathing involves exhaling on the effort of the movement. So, for example, when doing a shoulder press you exhale when lifting the weighted bar and inhale as you control the bar back down to the start position. It is very common to feel the urge to hold one’s breath when lifting something heavy – whether it be the shopping, your toddler or a weight in the gym – but doing this creates a sudden and significant increase in pressure within the abdominal cavity. This pressure then has to go somewhere and that somewhere is through the pelvic floor putting these muscles under even greater strain.
  6. Postnatally, if you are suffering from diastasis recti – significant separation of the outer abdominals along the linea alba – then any intra-abdominal pressure is going to push out through this area of weakness slowing down the healing process and potentially aggravating the situation. From the perspective of lifting weights this means that exhaling on the effort is key and even if you do consistently breathe out when lifting, if the weights are too heavy you may compromise progress in terms of abdominal strengthening. Ideally, you need to work on strengthening the pelvic floor muscles and the deepest layer of abdominals after giving birth: this can be seen as laying the foundations for strong, long-lasting postnatal fitness. Miss out the foundations and your fitness could well end up with “cracks” in it, just like a poorly built building.      


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