Angry Rant: A case for Strength Training Post-partum
I want to have a little rant…
I hope someone will read it to the end…
I saw a blog post the other day from a pelvic floor physio in the States that I really admire, and she was talking about intra-abdominal pressure, which is the pressure that is created inside your abdomen by the forces of the muscles (diaphragm, abdominal, pelvic floor) contracting inwards. It stabilizes the spine and gives us the ability to sit up, stand up, squat, pick up heavy objects and do back-flips. When it is too great, or the core is unbalanced in some way, it can create problems in the form of pelvic floor dysfunction, incontinence, prolapse, hernias, hip or back pain and diastasis recti.
However, this physio was making a point that there is equally a lot of fear-mongering about intra-abdominal pressure in the postpartum fitness world, that we do actually need it and in fact, can’t avoid it. But that it is essential to create it in order to rehabilitate diastasis, because without it, the core muscles don’t have anything to contract against.
I really hope I’m not losing you!
I was so excited to hear this from my mentor, because I have been thinking this for a while, and I contributed that I have found that among my trainees, those who lift *relatively* heavy weights get way better results than those who do more gentle Pilates-style training, and that I discovered this somewhat by accident when one of my postpartum trainees joined my ‘regular’ class.
(Yael, pictured above, has 30kgs on her back. This is a lot of weight, right? Well, not for her, she can squat more than 50kgs for reps, so the 30kgs in the picture is just her warm-up weight. She's worked hard to get here, it didn't happen overnight, and it started with learning the technique in a body-weight squat. This sort of weight, however, would literally crush many untrained women. Weight is totally relative, there are no absolute, concrete numbers that we can say "this is the correct guideline for everyone".)
Although I got a great response from my mentor (because she really gets it), some other woman chimed in with a patronizing “That’s great Jen. But how long after giving birth are these women lifting weights?”
This response really irritated me. Why? Because it not only demonstrated a total lack of understanding about the point that any of us were trying to make, but it also demonstrated a kind of fear-mongering and misinformation that was being pointed out in the first place! And the same fear-mongering and misinformation that holds women back from achieving their health, fitness and aesthetic goals. And that confuses the shit out of people. Especially mums.
My response to her, I am sad to say, was rushed, panicky and really not of the caliber I am capable of producing when I am calm and focused and confident. So in an attempt to redeem myself from my inability to leave it, calm down, figure out why it bothered me, then write a more compelling defense of my position; I will share with you below what I SHOULD HAVE said.
Well, some of them are lifting weights the day after giving birth. They have no choice because their 20 kilo four-year-old is having a jealous temper-tantrum and wants to be picked up. Some of them are carrying strollers up 4 flights of stairs a couple of weeks after giving birth. Some of them need to carry shopping home for their growing family.
But, if you mean specifically: “when do they start lifting weights (and by weights you mean objects in the shape of dumbbells and kettlebells, some of them heavy and some of them very, very light; and not real life objects) with ME in a GYM”… the answer is “well that depends”. I don’t let anyone train with me until they have the go-ahead from their doctor at 6 weeks, which, by the way, is a totally arbitrary amount of time. Some women won’t be ready to exercise for a few months, physically, and/or mentally; and some are ready to start doing something after a couple of weeks.
In any case, I don’t really understand what criteria doctors use to determine if a woman is ready for exercise. I have had trainees with prolapse, their actual organs falling out of their vagina, and their gyno has okay-ed them to do exercise, any kind of exercise, including running and jumping. Do I give these women weights? Of course not. We don’t need to challenge their pelvic floors anymore. However, I would like to invite you to participate in a thought experiment: If said woman were to pick up aforementioned 20-kilo four-year-old on a bi-hourly basis, would that be ok? Even if she was holding her breath and bending her spine? Then if the same woman was to push a 3kg dumbell vertically for 15 reps, in a gym, while lying on the ground, squeezing a Pilates ball between her knees to get a good pelvic floor contraction first, would that be ok? What if it was a 5kg weight?
Anyway, I digress. I w