I walked into a local women’s clinic about 9 weeks pregnant with my second child, looking solely for an initial viability scan to make sure the baby was healthy. As soon as I sat down, the older male doctor took one look at me and said: “well, you’re in good shape!”
I thanked him and mentioned that I’d been a personal trainer, weightlifter, and prenatal/postpartum coach for over 15 years. The next words out of his mouth were, “…but you’re not doing that stuff now, right?”
This is precisely the type of damaging commentary. Not only from the medical community but from well-meaning friends and relatives that makes pregnant women believe that they aren’t fit to exercise while pregnant. Worse, it leads already-fit pregnant women to downgrade their exercise habits. This happens out of misplaced fear of “hurting the baby” or “doing something wrong.”
I am here, as a certified Perinatal Corrective Exercise Specialist, to reassure you that the absolute best thing you can do for yourself, your baby, and your eventual postpartum journey is to be active and exercise throughout your pregnancy.
If you’re already fit, lifting weights, and maintaining a regular exercise regimen, there is no need to abandon those habits. In fact, consistent exercise during pregnancy is the number one thing I recommend to clients who are concerned about recovering or losing weight after their pregnancies. As I always say: the best defense is a good offense; or in this case, the best pathway to a healthy and strong postpartum recovery is a healthy and strong pregnancy.
What, then, defines a “healthy and strong pregnancy” for my prenatal clients?
For me, it’s one in which the client has a strong baseline movement foundation. Hitting 10,000 steps per day all the way to the third trimester; during which we sometimes transition to cycling or swimming depending on comfort level and lower-limb edema. Performing progressive resistance exercise (think weights, bands, or bodyweight moves) on all major muscle groups at least twice per week. And doing mobility/core work (including belly breathing practice) at least once per week.
A quick note on core work here:
Common pregnancy/postpartum myths I hear are that “you can’t ‘do abs’ while pregnant”. And that you shouldn’t “start back with abs work too soon after baby.” On both counts, I disagree. The abdominal muscles are comprised of three main groups: the transversus abdominus (TVA) which is the base layer that wraps around your waist to support your spine; the rectus abdominus which is the top “six pack” layer; and the internal/external obliques which are responsible for rotation and stability of the hips and lower back. As you can imagine, if you ignore all of these muscle groups for the 40 weeks of pregnancy, the road to recovery postpartum will be a long (and weak!) one to be sure.
While you will want to avoid deep-loaded rotations, crunch-style situps, and long-duration isometric contractions (like advanced plank variations) at later stages of pregnancy, I always advise my clients that the way we train into pregnancy (meaning reducing specific tension and modifying certain core movements as they progress through the trimesters) is exactly how we train out of pregnancy (starting with gentle reconnection to their deep core muscles and slowly adding back different movements with progressively increasing tension). Having a certified postpartum coach will ensure that you don’t aggravate (or worse, develop!) misalignments and issues such as diastasis recti (details below). They will help you identify which movements are safe and appropriate for you at each stage of pregnancy and postpartum.
No matter what you do (or did, my already-postpartum mamas!) during pregnancy, there are still strategies to help you recover better and lose excess weight after you deliver – and here are a few of my top tips:
GET AN EVALUATION BY A WOMEN’S HEALTH PHYSIO
Everyone’s pregnancy and birthing experiences are different. And regardless of how you delivered, your doctor alone will not be able to check for all the possible dysfunctions of a postpartum body. The actual progression of your pregnancy (including the level of weight gain, how you carried, exacerbations of pre-pregnancy weaknesses, and movement and stress patterns during pregnancy) will determine the functionality of your pelvic floor, activation of your TVA, and connectivity of your top core muscles (called the rectus abdominus). An evaluation with a women’s health physio will test for pelvic floor function and diastasis recti (abdominal separation). Also it can include other pregnancy-related conditions. Ultimatelly you will receive a treatment plan to ensure that you can reenter a regular exercise program safely. It will ensure that you have the confidence you need (without peeing your pants!).
WORK WITH A CERTIFIED POSTPARTUM COACH
Once you’re cleared for exercise by both your ob-gyn and women’s health physio, work with a coach that is certified to help women transition through the postpartum period toward regaining their previous levels of fitness (or in many cases with my clients – far surpassing their previous levels!). A good coach will take into account your unique pregnancy, birth story, and lifestyle situation. He/she will help you develop a comprehensive exercise and mobility program to help you thrive after baby.
CONSIDER YOUR NUTRITION
If weight loss is a postpartum goal for you, proper nutrition must be of primary concern – even more than exercise! There is no “one size fits all” diet for postpartum weight loss. In fact, this is a topic with high degree of specialisation. Labor-related blood loss, breastmilk production, cultural norms (such as traditional confinement), and energy needs are all extremely unique to each individual mama. What I recommend here is working with a certified postpartum nutritionist to help you identify your calorie needs. It will help you understand the types of foods you need to eat to fuel your body. Not only to meet the demands of your baby but also for your optimal recovery. Also it will help you navigate the many hormonal and physiological changes that will affect your weight loss as well.
A final note on postpartum recovery and weight loss: give yourself grace. Everyone recovers differently and at a different pace. There is no tried-and-true single path to a healthy and strong postpartum body. What’s important is that you develop a personal strategy based on safety, incremental, and purposeful habits. These should be designed to help you move better, eat better, and feel better throughout your postpartum journey. It is possible, mamas, when you prioritize your own health and wellness just as much as you do your baby’s. I promise that you deserve it just as much.