My Prenatal Fitness "Programme"
Now that I'm postpartum I want to share with you a retrospective view of my training through pregnancy.
I write "programme" in inverted commas, because it wasn't as structured as you might think – I did set out with a plan, and I adjusted the plan each month, but I never really stuck to it. I adapted it to how I was feeling (sometimes I didn't, I pushed myself against my better judgement, and those are the workouts I regret).
There were 3 major elements to the exercise that I did those past 9 months (well, it was more like 10 tbh)
Mobility and movement
I'm going to talk about the distribution of these in the context of the three different trimesters. It’s important to remember a couple of things here:
Pregnancy is dynamic – body shape, size, weight, the effect of hormones change throughout pregnancy. You're not in the same body, nor do you have the same limitations over those 9 months. This has implications for how you will train.
You also FEEL different emotionally from month to month, trimester to trimester, which will also have an impact on how you train. For me, there were lot of ups and downs, and the changes to my body, mind and exercise regimes don't fit neatly into trimesters or months. But for the sake of simplicity, I am going to divide it up into the 3 trimesters, as it does broadly fit into that schema I have not been quiet about the fact that I have found pregnancy mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting. This affected how much exercise I could do.
Prior to pregnancy
To give some context, here’s what I was doing prior to getting pregnant:
I was training BJJ 2-3 times a week and strength training about twice a week (with a bit of conditioning probably once a week).
In terms of strength levels, here are some of my numbers:
Squat 45kg 5-10 reps
Deadlift 65kg 10 reps
Chinups x 10 unbroken, full range of motion
Bench press 40kg x 10 (yes, almost the same as my squat, which has always been my weakest lift)
Overhead press 30 kg x 5
My cardiovascular exercise was mainly coming from BJJ and rolling, and a bit of conditioning, or CrossFit style metcons when I couldn't get to the mat and running about 3-5K once in a while – whenever I couldn't get to the gym.
I was also playing around with some movement-based stuff, like Ido Portal, whenever I could (this would replace a strength session).
I was doing quite a lot – I wasn't at the height of my strength (lifetime PRs include:
12 strict pullups
24kg weighted chinup
100kg deadlift at 65kg bodyweight
65kg (bodyweight) squat for 5 reps
I had backed off on the maximal strength training as I wanted to focus more on BJJ and gymnastics-style stuff. It's important to know this baseline as it gives context. If you weren't doing this much activity, or working out this intensely, my prenatal programme might seem quite extreme to you, but if you were doing a lot more than me, you might be able to manage more during your pregnancy. It's all relative and so important to account for individual differences.
Changes that affected my training:
Before I even knew I was pregnant, my training started to suffer. I was getting insanely tired during and after sessions and incredibly sore. I just wasn't recovering well. I discovered I was pregnant about a month in (honestly, I should have clocked on sooner, but I didn’t - I was massively in denial).
It was around that time that my heart rate shot up due to a phenomenon called underfill. My cardiovascular fitness was really good, and I had been doing CrossFit and HIT for years, so could cope with getting my heart rate pretty high (~180bpm) and felt really good there.
But all of a sudden, as soon as I started doing the slightest effort, my heart rate was really high. (this leveled out by about month 4).
I also just felt really, really tired and my mood was really low, which all led to a very low motivation to work out.
** this is totally normal though, so I didn't despair. If you are experiencing a ridiculously high heart rate and freaking out about it, you need to watch this video on underfill (that no-one clicks on because it sounds as boring AF, but is actually really essential info if you're experiencing this)
First Trimester Strength Training
During the first trimester, I was doing about 2-3 moderate strength training sessions a week. I stopped going to failure and holding my breath, ensuring that I could exhale through each breath. I started working in a higher rep range of around 10 reps, but not going to failure, and leaving a couple of reps in the tank.
But because I was so up and down, the weights varied enormously from session to session. On my best days my deadlift dropped to around 55 kgs, and on my bad days I could manage 25-30. I just took it one training session at a time and did what felt good.
I made these adjustments to load so as to regulate intra-abdominal pressure and not put unnecessary pressure on my core and pelvic floor.
I pretty quickly dropped down to about 5 chinups – I just didn't feel strong enough to do anymore, pretty much right from the start.
I felt so, so weak a lot of the time, and I respected that and listened to my body.
The amount of volume that I could cope with dramatically decreased at this stage. I started doing fewer sets, and fewer exercises in a training session and dropped down to 40 minute sessions (instead of an hour).
I also started working out exclusively in supersets or tri-sets, since I wasn't lifting heavy anymore, the load was effective in supersets. It also meant that I got a bit of a cardiovascular workout in as my heart rate was around 130-150 for most of the workout.
I continued to do all the things though – pushups, chin-ups, bench, deadlift, squat etc – I just adjusted load and volume.
First Trimester Cardio
I stopped doing BJJ as soon as I found out I was pregnant. I probably, technically could have continued for a while, and I know women who did just that (a colleague and MMA fighter, Olga Rubin, continued training technique until her 5th month). But I just felt uncomfortable being rough-housed and rolling around on the floor, in particular with men who were bigger than me.
I continued doing HIT and CrossFit-style metcons, but I paced myself and took it easy. I didn't worry too much about heart rate, just made sure that I was working in a far more comfortable zone (for me), which probably got up to about 160 bpm. I could still hold a conversation (though remember, it took far less effort to get to that heart rate in the first place because of underfill).
Again, I continued to do all the things: burpees, box jumps, running, kettlebell swings, wall balls, oly lifting (though mainly with light dumbells) – but I did move a lot more slowly and carefully, as I felt more protective of my body.
I continued to run, at a sloooooow pace about once a week for 20 mins, just for a bit of cardio, which made me feel good, but towards the end of the first trimester, I felt like it irritated my right hip, so I stopped.
First Trimester Mobility/movement
I continued to do handstands through the first (and second) trimester, both free standing and against a wall. My control gradually faded over this time.
I started doing a little more yoga and stretching, but not much beyond the regular mobility routine at this stage.
Second Trimester Strength
The onset of the second trimester was weird and affected my workouts it totally conflicting ways. On the one hand, I started feeling so much better, had loads more energy and renewed motivation. On the other, I started to show, which meant that I had to omit some movements, while modifying others.
Load - (weight) continued to slowly decrease, I wasn't able, nor did I have the inclination to lift what I was lifting before. I continued to pay attention to the breath.
Chin ups - I dropped chin-ups around the start of the second trimester. I got a colleague to check my linea alba, and it looked like I was starting to bulge in the upper third. It may have been a little overly-cautious at that stage, but I decided to stop doing them all together.
Check out this video we made on the bulging-during-chinups situation:
Body-building type exercises came in handy!
I also had more of an emphasis on unilateral movements (one side, not two) like rows and presses to challenge the core a bit more without doing any specific core exercises. It also lowers the intensity of the movement as you aren't using as much muscle mass at one time.
Second Trimester Cardio
Around month 3 my heart rate started to stabilize as the underfill problem corrected itself. At the same time I stopped doing shorter, more intense HIT in favour of longer, gentler cardio. I was also getting quite a bit of cardio from my strength workouts as I was working in light tri-sets and supersets.
I added swimming. This was seriously a god-send for me. I needed some low-impact cardio to get the blood flowing without wiping me out (which is what conditioning was doing). I started only being able to do 20 lengths (500m), and built up to 60 (1.5K) by the end of the trimester.
I sometimes played around on the cross-trainer, and this was a nice, smooth, low-impact way to get blood pumping round your body (but is so boring it hurts).
Second Trimester Mobility
I kept doing handstands until the 6th month, then I just didn't have enough control to kick up anymore.
I started doing a bit more yoga-style stuff and stretching more.
This is where the major physical changes started to kick in. I started to feel way more tired in general, started to get some aches and pains (mainly in my right hip) and had days where I just felt like crap. I started feeling really wiped out after my training sessions, so in general limited myself to 30 minutes. I started feeling really heavy and cumbersome and limited in what I could do. I made big changes to my fitness regime as this trimester progressed.
In a nutshell,
I stopped strength work altogether
Swimming became my main focus
I did a lot more gentle movement, mobilty and stretching at home
Third Trimester Strength Training
While I was still doing some light, body-builder style gym work (the same movements as described in the second trimester) for around 30 minutes twice a week at the beginning of this trimester (and really, really enjoying it), it followed a steady diminuendo over the 3 months.
I started feeling increasingly tired after workouts, often needing a (long) nap and sometimes not being able to do anything else for the rest of the day. I overdid it a few too many times, but I found it really hard to hold back, as I felt good while doing it and REALLY enjoyed my sessions in the gym.
I started limiting time in the weight room to 20, 15 then 10 minutes, cut down to once a week, and by half-way through my seventh month, decided that I needed to stop altogether, that it was just making me too tired and I wasn't able to recover. It started to occur to me that when I do eventually go into labour, I want to feel good, refreshed, rested, and I definitely didn't want to feel the way I was feeling after these workouts. And so the last 6 weeks or so I did no strength training whatsoever.
Around this time I also stopped working (I got state-funded bedrest because I have such a physical job). I started spending a lot more time resting, meditating, doing my hypnobirthing tracks and writing blog posts like this one!
Third Trimester Cardio
Swimming became the mainstay of my exercise regime. I managed to continue swimming 1-2 times a week for around 30-40 minutes.
At the beginning of this trimester I was banging out 40 lengths (1K) in just under 30 minutes. A month later it was taking me about 40 minutes to swim the same distance and by the last month I was limiting myself to 30 minutes in the pool so I didn't get too tired (I would manage about 30 lengths in this time).
I stopped walking and spent as little time on my feet as possible as it really irritated my hip joint.
Third Trimester Mobility
In this trimester this is when I really started to do more stretching and gentle mobility at home. Everything started to get stiffer and achier, and just mobilizing all the joints made such a difference.
I prioritized the following movements:
Squat mobility – getting into a deep squat and wiggling around their felt so so good.
Hamstring stretches like forward folds (often combined with the squat mobility)
Hip openers and hip circles – I never understood why there were so many hip circles included in prenatal classes, sitting on a fitball, standing up, on all fours, but I quickly realized how good it felt and how much it eased discomfort.
Shoulder/chest openers like down dog
Thoracic spine mobilization like this "Twizler" below (which also stretches the chest and shoulders
Optimal Foetal Positioning became at the forefront of my mind after doing the Spinning Babies course (it didn't actually help me much for my birth in the end, but hey-ho)
So here's a summary of the journey:
Strength – was the focus in the first trimester and gradually decreased until omitted entirely
Cardio – started as moderate HIT workouts (or MIT? MODERATE intensity training) and ended in gentle steady-state cardio like walking, cross-trainer or swimming
Mobility – not a huge priority at the beginning of the pregnancy and became a huge focus towards the end.
Would I change anything?
While I think I was pretty sensible about my training, now that I am 7 weeks postpartum, I wish I had taken it just a little bit easier, and stressed a bit less about losing strength. Things are getting back to normal faster than I had hoped for, so I wish I could have been a bit more chilled and thrown in the towel just a bit earlier more often.
I'll be writing a whole post on these reflections at some point
Should you do this?
What I've tried to get across in this (rather long) post is that
Priorities change throughout pregnancy and regardless of what you like doing outside of pregnancy, you may need to make changes that better suit the specific demands that pregnancy poses. Even if it's not your thing, steady-state cardio and mobility work will probably suit your pregnant body more. Prioritizing them allows you to work WITH your body's strengths at this time. Trying to increase of even maintain strength at this time might be a bit counter-productive.
While strength is likely to fade away, you can actually maintain and even improve your cardiovascular fitness (which will really help you get back into things postpartum).
Strength tends to diminish throughout pregnancy. That's normal and it's ok... I've shown how mine slowly went down and how I modified my workouts around that fact.