Can I lift weights while pregnant?….and other questions about buns-in-the-oven and fitness
Short answer: it depends on the training level of the woman prior to pregnancy and any possible complications that may be applicable.
Long answer: that’s not a good question and I want to rant more about the bigger picture of making a baby in your belly and staying fit.
First let’s get the appeal to authority over with. I had 2 babies. This qualifies me to….wait for it…..provide you with real life anecdotes! But we all know that anecdote is not evidence, so you are not allowed to take anything I say as gospel truth just because “she had babies”. But when it comes to pregnancy, there is merit to having been-there-done-that.
My second appeal to authority is that I am a fitness professional who likes science. A bit better. Combine these two, and I am probably starting to look like a good bet to take advice from. But we are not done. Add in checking in with your doctor and medical professionals, paying attention to your body’s signals of good/bad/yucky/feels great , thinking about your current fitness level and activity history and then smear all that with a whooping dose of common sense. All those components are necessary before you decide what’s right for you. Capiche?
Let us commence.
Here’s me pregnant 8 years ago. Cute eh?
Mexico City, 2006
I had my first kid, my daughter Charlotte, when I was 18. There are only a couple rare photographs I can’t find right now, so all of the pics are from my second pregnancy. My son was born when I was 22. I was young and healthy, which I am sure went a long way in having complication-free pregnancies. I am pretty thankful for that, as I know it is certainly not the case with some women.
With my son is when I really paid attention to staying active and eating well, especially on the exercise front. I personally noticed a huge difference in energy levels, labor (22 hours vs 3 hours), and how my body bounced back between my first and second pregnancies. With my daughter I was not unhealthy, just not really thinking about moving, eating etc well. I was a teenager, so not too surprising. I breast-fed both kids as well. With my daughter it took about 6 months to get back to pre-pregnancy size and my labor was much longer and very tiring. I got back to working out after a couple months. With my son, my labor was very short and it took a couple days to “have my body back”. I started working out after a week. Not because I felt I had to, I just didn’t see any point in waiting. I had him at home, took about 2 days to recover, and then was back to normal. I don’t share this to brag….I know this is not the case with everyone BUT I do feel my fitness levels has a lot to do with the ease with which my body handled pregnancy the second time around. With my son I moved a lot more and exercised faithfully. In fact, I had some older Mexican mom’s chide me to stop exercising and moving so much, that is was dangerous. I basically told them to f— off. I was of the opinion that I could continue doing what I wanted as long as it felt good. So I did. I walked a lot, jumproped and did some weight videos. By the ninth month I was down to sex, climbing stairs/walking, carrying my daughter and swinging on swings cause everything else was quite annoying with a massive belly.
*GUYS FEEL FREE TO SKIP THIS PART
On a more personal note, my daughter weighed 6.8 lbs and had to be suctioned out. I also got stitched (totally unnecessary in hindsight, why are they in such a rush?). I was exhausted and drugged after 22 hours of labor and when it came time to push, apparently I pushed through my eyes, rather than my ahem. I popped a bunch of blood vessels, but the baby wasn’t out hahaha, so they got the suction. I had no “bearing down” strength at all! My son weighed 11.8 lbs in comparison and I pushed him out without stitches or tears after 3 hours of labor, at home in a half squat. Midwife arrived barely in time to catch him and was very surprised that I was quite strong. She was also surprised at the size and weight of Reilly because I didn’t look super big. It was all baby in there.
And here’s the shocker. I wasn’t even a lifter. 😛
I was a very average exerciser. Workout videos, lots of walks, nothing really over 15 lbs for lunges and squats, lots of jumprope and hauling my daughter around in a stroller. I took up to 2-3 hour walks somedays up and down the hills in our mexican neighborhood. It was VERY hilly. Our house itself was 4 stories high with the craziest architecture and stairs all over.
A couple weeks after giving birth.
Reilly is 4 months old! San Diego, 2006
My personal story aside, it’s not a stretch to imagine that keeping your body healthy makes pregnancy just THAT much easier for your body to handle. It’s not so much about “can you lift weights” as much as “how does your body handle load?” And that, chickies, is the reason we train in the first place. Strengthening the body to handle load. The load of weights, the load of your own body, and the load of a baby.
Your body is the environment in which a new human will grow. It’s the soil. Think about it. Making a baby is a amazing process (yeah guys, go ahead and snicker). All those little cells building from scratch and relying on the environment you provide. So when you think about what you should/should not do in the fitness context, I want you to think about your cells and the kind of house you are providing for the kid you will be stuck with for …you know…forever! Is it strong? Is it stable? Is it capable to keep up with the demands of pregnancy? The stronger you are, the better you’ll do. Do you want that structure to break down with pregnancy or to handle it with strength and relative ease?
One of my fave scientists is Robert Sapolsky. In Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers (his masterpiece on stress) he says, “It turns out that during development, beginning with fetal life, your body is also learning about the nature of the world and, metaphorically, making lifelong decisions about how to respond to the outside world. And if development involves certain types of stressors, some of these “decisions” cause a lifelong increase in the risk of certain diseases. Consider a female who is pregnant during a famine. She’s not getting enough calories, nor is her fetus. It turns out that during the latter part of pregnancy, a fetus is “learning” about how plentiful food is in that outside world, and a famine winds up “teaching” it that, jeez, there’s not a whole lot of food out there, better store every smidgen of it. Something about the metabolism of that fetus shifts permanently, a feature called metabolic “imprinting” or “programming.”‘
Is that sobering or what? Pregnancy is a time of programming for the child you will create. Anything you do will not just impact your body, but the body and mind your child will end up having.
It’s less about to do or not do weights, or not lying on your back, or not riding your hubby in sex after a particular month, or not static stretching etc (FYI, I did ALL of those, right up to the ninth month)….its about your cells and the stress you place on them and from there we can say “ok, this is a good idea, and this might not be”. It’s about where your body has been, and where it is going from both an emotional/mental and physical standpoint . When we view it from that stance, it’s easy to come to make the right decisions that fit our circumstances. I bet that exercise is starting to look more and more like a good idea eh?
Stress does not only mean negative input, stress can also be positive. When I talk about stress, I mean a stimulus. Something you introduce your body too. This can be caffeine or kisses. Squats or a 10k. Arguing or lots of PUFAS (polyunsaturated fats). A backrub is a stress. A long walk is a stress. A scary movie is stress. We like good stressors, we want avoid negative stressors. So-called “good stressors” can have an negative impact if they are inappropriately dosed. So one pg-chick might do great with heavy goblet squats, another will need bodyweight progressions. All of them should not do kipping pullups (Mark Shields, ya happy?).
Do you want to know what’s the most important things are during pregnancy for the optimal healthy growth of a fetus?
A lack of yucky stress and food.
Wow, Joy what a way to be vague! But when you think about it, reducing bad stress (being weak, overweight and low in energy and strength is a bad stress your body adapts to), and introducing good stressors (nutrient-dense food, exercise, movement, affection) is what we are doing when we workout and eat better in the first place. Find me someone who is doing right by themselves, who is very stressed out. Being happy and handling stress as it arises is a very mental thing, but it is also a physical thing. You can’t separate it. We don’t have control over everything that comes into our lives, but we have control over how we react to it, and the measures we put in place to enhance our environment and reduce negative stress. Did you know that regular exercise can help you handle stressful situations better? It can improve your mood, circulation and body image……remember that “house” your baby will grow in?
I’m gonna paraphrase my fave quote from Legally Blonde.
“Exercise releases endorphins, endorphins make you happy and happy people just don’t kill their husbands.”
“Exercise releases endorphins, endorphins make you happy, and happy Mom’s make happy babies.”
If you think sticking to this and that will guarantee you get your body back after pregnancy etc…well girlfriend take a step back. There are no guarantees, there is only how well you are doing by yourself. Can you look at yourself and say “I am doing what I can?”. More than just vigorous exercise, your baby needs a healthy home to grow in. Exercise can help you maintain and strengthen that home, and in turn make you happier with that home, which makes you happier, and puts you in the right frame of mind to reduce chronic negative stress and create a feedback loop of good choices and good results. It’s all about those feedback loops, and those cells.
So, now you understand a bit why I don’t really give a shit about the question above. All the great advice in the world for pregnant mum’s won’t really matter in the long run if you look at it from the wrong perspective.
So, here are my recommendations for pregnant mom’s from an actionable standpoint. I hope the fact that this blogpost was rather concepty in idea will not dissuade you from EXPLORING what I recommend below. As a mother of two, I can certainly look back and have a deeper appreciation of what advice would have been spectacularly beneficial to me from a diet, training, scientific, biomechanical (you know those backaches, urinary incontinence, sore hips/back and swollen feet?) standpoint. These are not gentle-if-you-feel-like-it recommendations, but those I think will have a literal and profound impact on your health and your baby’s health in the longterm. Any hopeful moms, or already-moms (or people in general) can benefit equally. Here is what I recommend:
1.) Buy the book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and read Chapter 6 “On Dwarfism and the Importance of Mothers”. If you are not a reader, choke it down any way you can. DO IT. Then read the rest of the book. An excerpt again,
“What about prenatal or postnatal stress? Does every little hiccup of stress leave an adverse scar forever after, unto multiple generations? Many times, some relationship in biology may apply to extreme situations—massive trauma, a whole winter’s famine, and so on—but not to more everyday ones. Unfortunately, even the normal range of birth weights predicts adult glucocorticoid levels and the risk of Metabolic syndrome. So these appear not to be phenomena only of the extremes.” = negative fetal stress is a serious thing!
2.) Subscribe to and check out Katy Bowman’s blog alignedandwell.com.Familiarize yourself with the anatomy and mechanics of the pelvic floor and the rest of your body through her easy to read blogposts. Especially hips, pelvis and legs and how alignment affects pregnancy load and vice versa. Her blog is very mommy/woman-friendly. Below are several links I like specifically for pregnancy-related-woman issues:
“The first thing to understand is, while pregnancy may seem like an unnatural position for your body to be in, it is quite natural actually. What makes it feel so awkward and possibly uncomfortable is the extreme loading done on an unbalanced, rickety frame (the whole point of “strength”. Strength is leverage! Strength is structure! Strength is the ability to handle load aka baby!) I once bought a cool table from the Goodwill, even though it didn’t balance quite evenly. It wasn’t that big of a deal in the store, but once I brought it home and tried to put stuff on it, the lack of stability became more of a functional issue. It’s the same thing with all of you out there with chronic low back and pelvic pain, feet that are flattening, birthing canals that are narrow, and abdominals that are splitting (diastasis recti). These are not issues of pregnancy, but issues of pregnancy on an unstable frame.”
Natural Pregnancy, Natural Birth
What to Expect When You’re Squatting – with pics of Katy pg and squatting
When Push Comes to Shove – about pushing babies out
Pelvic Floor Party, Kegels Are Not Invited – get to know about your pelvic floor FOR REAL
1, 2, 3, 4 We Like Our Pelvic Floor! – more pelvic floor!!!
Under Pressure (Part 1) – diastasis recti is something you might think about after that baby!
Ok, I’ll stop there.
*Secret note: guess what helps us have “optimal length” pelvic floors? Strong butts! But you have to understand alignment or all your work may be for naught.
3.) Let Katy teach you how to squat in the blog post “You Don’t Know Squat”. Learning to squat is not just a nice fitness concept. It has direct benefits for your prenatal and postnatal health, strength, alignement and recovery from the changes your body goes through from now till you are 130! Learning the “whys” for good alignment that a squat requires will also help you understand the importance of alignment and movement that our bodies crave. This understanding will be much more motivating than just doing it for a vague “health” reason. No, you don’t have to be a gym rat or passionate lifter to stay strong and healthy. Childbearing often impacts a woman’s body in many negative ways (how many times do you hear women bemoan what is “not the same”). That’s not how it has to be. Your can maintain much more than you think! Your body will change, of course, but to what degree and how is under your control more than we often like to take responsibility for. I made this it’s own point because it’s THAT important. If you think squatting is bending your knees and sticking your butt out a bit and going up and down as best you can, you are wrong and are wasting your time. In fact, you don’t have to think of squatting as “an exercise” where you have to get sweaty and feel your legs burn a bit. Forget that notion, and read the posts.
You Don’t Know Squat
You (Still) Don’t Know Squat
4.) If you are on a restrictive diet or a diet that is crafted around food-avoidance (“I don’t eat wheat, sugar, grains, cereals, breads, beans, lentils, nightshades, nuts, animal products, etc etc”). QUIT. NOW. If this idea disturbs you, at least do your research and just entertain the tickling thought that your food religion might be complete and utter bullshit and impact your growing child in a negative and irreversible way. Eat a diet rich in protein, saturated fats, and carbs (yes that includes sugar). Yes, all three. Avoiding for the most part highly processed foods and polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils) and making sure you are cramming in those nutrients is a good idea. Good food + supplements as needed. You need enough calories from good sources to build another human being. Get them! Especially your fats and proteins. Eating massive amounts of veggies and taking prenatal vitamins DOES NOT QUALIFY AS GOOD NUTRITION.
5.) Get affection, sex, kisses, cuddles and (read #1), avoid anger, frustration, arguments or stressful situations during your pregnancy at all cost (though of course it is not always under your control). These emotions affect the growth of your child on a cellular level. Sapolsky says again about chronic stress levels in pregnant woman affecting generations of their offspring:
“So expose a fetus to lots of glucocorticoids (important class of hormones that respond to stress) and you are increasing its risk for obesity hypertension, cardiovascular disease, insulin-resistant diabetes, maybe reproductive impairments, maybe anxiety, and impaired brain development. And maybe even setting up that fetus’s eventual offspring for the same. Aren’t you sorry now that the two of you had that argument over whether to videotape the delivery? Now on to the next realm of worries.” Yeah. I guess guys, that’s not good news for you. There might be some actual scientific base for making sure a woman gets watermelon with hot sauce at 3 am eh?
*FYI this doesnt qualify you to be a brat or bitch, but maybe you can negotiate more foot rubs using a stress argument.
6.) If you are new to exercising, now is not the time to get aggressive. Your previous training level should dictate your limitations and recommendations.
If you are pretty new to any kind of exercise, I recommend walking, swimming and working on your squats and gentle alignment and strength through stretches and exercises per Katy Bowman (see #2, 3). If you exercise regularly, lift weights etc, please keep going, just pay better attention to intensity, recovery, fatigue and heart rate. When it doubt, take it easier and rest more. Avoid lots of static stretching. Lifting is perfectly fine when pregnant, keeping in mind individual context and exercise history. Walk some more! Carry stuff. I carried my daughter up to my ninth month, groceries, strollers on buses etc. Again, the point is understanding that building strength, especially in pregnancy, is not just about “exercise” in our traditional understanding. I think this is important to remember. Exercise is great! But it does not replace an more active, movement-filled lifestyle.
I don’t think they make strollers that durable anymore. This one was epic!
7.) I am a big fan of breast-feeding. I think it’s very important. Prepare your nipples. Rub them, massage them, get your SO to bite, lick and suck them. You have to build up some numbness to a constant little mouth sucking…and sucking….and sucking so it doesn’t drive you bonkers or just force you to stop out of pain. Start now. It’s like building a callous. Cept you have 9 months.
8.) Get a squatty potty. I kid you not.
9.) Learn to squat.
10.) Since I went on a bit of a rant about stress…rather than lifting, I will direct you to Tony Gentilcore’s excellent blogpost on the topic as well. Different angle, good information and examples of pregnant women he trains. Here it is:
Women, Pregnancy and Weight Training
I had a 5 month pg mom in the gym yesterday, pushing sleds, doing pushups, rows and kettlebell swings. Good stuff.
P.S. Your pelvic floor loves this post.