We have to work our way UP this pyramid. Skipping out the basics is a recipe for disaster and injury.
THE IMPORTANCE OF STRENGTH
We all know that being a mum requires immense emotional strength; but what most people fail to realize is just how much physical strength a mum needs. Most pre- and postnatal fitness programs shy away from any sort of strength work (or they call it strength work even though it is not).
There is a fear of training this population with anything more than a 1kg dumbell. But in daily life, these women are picking up heavy things all day - laundry baskets, shopping bags, heavy toddlers and children. If they do not learn how to pick things up that weigh at least as much as these objects, with correct technique, how can they expect to do so safely in day to day life?
What differentiates me from the other trainers in this field is both my in-depth study of the structure and function of the core and pelvic floor, combined with my understanding and use of strength training. Most trainers for women focus on high intensity training, ignoring the importance of building strength first as well as the specific needs of the pelvic floor and weakened core that exist after a woman gives birth, potentially causing a new mom further damage and trauma.
Many working in the postpartum field tend to shy away from any strength training for their clients, preferring to use only very light weights, resistance bands and Pilates balls. While this has some value in the early stages of core and floor restoration, and can be great tools later down the line when combined with other training techniques, it has limited effectiveness as the sole training tool. Progression is the most important AND most neglected training principle in women's fitness, especially in the pregnant and postpartum population.
Don't get me wrong, before incorporating strength work, it is essential to understand breathing, alignment, mobility and proper technique. There is no point throwing in strength training without this base.
My professional belief is that strength training must be incorporated and integrated in harmony with each client’s body and specific physical challenges in order to truly get results: increased strength, a more "toned" look and most important feeling healthier.
PYRAMID SCHEME - PRIORITIZE
I like to use the pyramid scheme at the top of the page. For a complete package of fitness, we need to do everything in this pyramid – but so often, trainers and trainees alike skip the early stages in order to rush on to more “fun” things – adding intensity in the form of fast cardio workouts or heavy strength work. But the truth is that these things aren’t much fun if you’re leaking or suffering because your back or hip hurts. Equally, many steer clear of any sort of intensity, focusing on gentle movement – this is better than not doing anything, but will have limited results. It won’t get you fit, strong or toned.
THE TWO CORNERSTONES OF FITNESS: SAFETY AND EFFECTIVENESS
And that's the key: both results AND safety are important in training.
A program is not much good if it keeps you safe and injury-free, but doesn't get you fit, strong and looking and feeling good.
Likewise, really intense training that skips the fundamentals of breathing, alignment and form might help you shed some fat and feel like you're working hard, but many women continue to leak, don't fix their abdominal separation and end up with pain and injury.
Like with everything in life there is a sweet-spot where we neither over-exert or under-exert the body. Where we get results but don’t cause damage.
Here are the stages of proper training for mums and mums-to-be:
BREATHING AND ALIGNMENT
We firstly need to have a solid foundation of breathing mechanics and posture (and for most, this doesn’t take long to learn). The first function of your core is breath, and it's the first (and least invasive!) way we can access the pelvic floor and core muscles.
CORRECT MOVEMENT AND MOBILITY
Once we have breathing and alignment sorted, we focus on correct technique – both in every day movements and in the gym.
We want to learn how to squat, deadlift, press and pull - all with light or no weight. This stage also involves dealing with any mobility or flexibility issues, opening up tight muscles.
Once we have mastered these movement patterns, we can start to challenge the body by adding weight. We do this gradually, following the principle of progressive overload. This basically means that your body will adapt to the stimulus you give it, and in order to continue strengthening, you must continue to challenge it. In terms of building strength, this means adding load, or weight. Just remember, that you will have adapted to the previous load, and so gotten stronger, so the new load doesn’t feel “heavier” to you.
Building strength must be the focus for some time. When you are stronger, everything is easier. Picking up your child, walking to the shop, getting out of a chair. It also prevents injury. Just diving into intense exercise without building strength and learning proper technique is a recipe for disaster.
Only once you have addressed dysfunction, improved movement patterns and increased strength, you build intensity.
Once you are feeling stronger, you should introduce conditioning, or HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). This has huge benefits to your health and fitness – you will see your cardiovascular fitness improve drastically.
Once you are doing strength training twice a week and conditioning twice a week, and you are used to the training volume and feeling good and wanting more, this is the time to add in cardio – running (as long as the pelvic floor is strong), a Zumba class, swimming, cycling – anything you want. Low intensity for 30-60 mins (or more if you want!) Just remember that this stage is optional – it’s only if you love it and have time. Most people do this before conditioning, and it’s not that that’s bad – it just takes more time and yields less results. Critically, though, many women do this before strength training. Running, jumping and pounding away at the joints when we haven't built up strength in the joints and pelvic floor can be an injury waiting to happen.
If you love running – then we need to get you back to running as quickly as possible. But most people don’t, they just do it because they think it’s the best way to burn fat and get fit! If you’re really interested in getting results – working on S&C (Strength and Conditioning) first is far more effective.
Progression is the key to any valuable exercise program. Your body adapts to any stimulus you give it, so you have to continue to make your workouts more challenging - gradually and safely. You don't continue to get results using the same weight or intensity. Most people understand this of running: you don't train for a marathon by running a 5K 3 times a week. You have to increase the distance by a small amount every week (usually 10% of what you are already doing) and gradually you build up your endurance. This is true of strength training. You might start with just a kilo, and week by week you will be able to add just a little more weight to your sets.
Most women start with cardio to "burn fat", but this is short-sighted and often ineffective. Besides the fact that a well-designed strength programme can help you burn more fat as going for a run, it also builds and shapes and strengthens the body, preventing injury and making everything else easier!
It's also empowering and motivating to see and feel your strength increase week after week. I love watching my trainees increase their squat, work towards proper push-ups and get their first pull-up!
I encourage you not to skip the basics - establish a solid base first, be patient, learn about your body, learn about and improve the way you move and gradually increase the intensity and don't run yourself into the ground with every workout - this is how you can build a base for years of function and fitness.