As a CBBF national level figure and bikini athlete it has been important for me to have a healthy pregnancy and simultaneously maintain a high level of fitness. Throughout my pregnancy I have been able to maintain an elevated level of intensity in my training by listening to my body and modifying my fitness regime.
At first I was nervous about training, but my priorities changed dramatically. Being a competitive athlete, I was not sure how hard to push my body and which exercises to avoid. I discovered through research there was no conclusive reason to change my routine if I was extra cautious and practical. [Editor’s note: When pregnant, be sure to check with your health care provider before embarking on or resuming a training routine.]
I have been training four to five times a week for about 60 minutes, but frequency, duration and intensity will vary from woman to woman. I follow a split routine which allows me to train each muscle group once or twice a week. This type of training allows me to give each muscle group more attention and extra recovery time between workouts.
One of the many resourceful books I have read, The Pregnant Athlete by Brandi and Steven Dion, indicates women who continue to perform strength training throughout pregnancy deposit and retain less fat, feel better, have shorter and less complicated labour and recover more rapidly than women who either stop or don’t exercise.
However, pregnancy is not the time to take up a new intense activity or accomplish new goals. Your body is going through major changes that you can’t control and must embrace as part of nature’s process. My advice is to be mindful of your body in order to make the adjustments needed to ensure a fit, healthy and safe pregnancy. You have a responsibility to take care of yourself and your baby.
Strength training is an important way to maintain valuable muscle mass and help return to a pre-pregnancy body. When women are pregnant, ligament softening hormones like relaxin allow their joints to move more than usual to prepare their bodies for delivery. Maintaining and strengthening muscle tissue helps prevent the likelihood of backaches and hip strains. Weight lifting can alleviate pressure on these joints and help build healthy bone mass. It increases blood volume, which improves blood flow and helps dissipate heat.
During my pregnancy, my coach Renaldo Gairy and I have been following weight training programs that focus on sustaining strength, rather than building muscle mass. Before I was pregnant, we used the progressive overload training technique: Adding stress beyond current performance level to cause significant physical adaptations.
Normally the goal is to maximize muscle growth by increasing load or repetition ranges. During pregnancy the objective is to maintain muscle and help keep energy levels high. I focus on smooth higher reps without increasing significant load. A woman’s body is already working hard enough to cope with the physical changes of growing a baby.
You don’t want to add more stress and physical demand beyond a comfortable performance level to prevent injury.
Remember, it’s important to stay hydrated and breathe properly while exerting force. Be mindful not to overheat or reach exhaustion. I suggest taking extra rest time between sets and adjusting the level of intensity.
Exercising during pregnancy: what you need to know
Weight training tips
Squatting is known to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles (the ones you exercise with Kegels) and to stretch the perineum, which will help prevent tearing during childbirth. I suggest a wide sumo stance as the belly grows to keep compression off the stomach and to prevent pelvic strain.
As I entered my second trimester, I switched from barbell squats to the Smith machine. The Smith machine provides greater stability and alignment. In order to prevent injuries, I suggest choosing exercises that isolate muscle groups, like leg extensions, and the use of a stabilized bench.
After the first trimester, avoid lying flat on your back. The uterus may compress the inferior vena cava. Compression results in decreased venous return to the heart and causes a drop in blood pressure. This drop in blood pressure results in dizziness and nausea.
Be mindful of your lumbar hyperlordosis. In every exercise, particularly when sitting on a bench, pull your bottom in by maintaining straight posture to prevent the increased curve of your lower spine.
Avoid machines with a pad that presses against your belly. I like the wide bar seated cable row to help accommodate growing bellies without restricting movement.
Be careful not to overstretch because muscles are more pliable due to higher levels of relaxin. This means we are prone to straining muscles or maligning our musculature. For example, in a seated leg press I suggest limiting the range of motion to about half in order to help stabilize the body and adapt to the restriction of the belly.
Another example is using rack pulls instead of dead lifts where you pull the weight up from an elevated rack instead of off the floor. It effectively limits range of motion and is less stressful to the central nervous system. This exercise is important because it targets the posterior chain of muscles. Strengthening these muscles adds greater support to the lower back muscles, which tend to weaken with an expanding belly.
It’s always important to do any exercise in a smooth controlled manner to limit any chance of strain or injury. Remember to flex that muscle group and try keeping your abdominals tight to secure the motion.
Maintaining a comfortable level of consistent cardio helps increase maternal reliance on fat for energy, which improves the availability of glucose and oxygen delivery for the fetus. I do cardio three to four times a week, aiming for 30 minutes in the morning after a light breakfast. If not, I try fitting it in after my weight-training workout. I like to alternate low impact cardio such as riding a stationary bike, using an elliptical, walking or swimming. These exercises don’t put any pressure on my joints or ligaments.
I suggest training at a medium to low intensity. If you’re unable to hold a conversation, it’s too intense. Remember to hydrate frequently to keep cool. During pregnancy, vital organs need more water in order to function properly.
Stretching enhances flexibility, prevents muscles from tightening and helps with relaxation. I do light stretches once my body is warmed up. In my second and third trimester I added prenatal yoga classes to my workout schedule. These classes further improve posture, ease back pain and release tension.
Maintaining a healthy diet
When pregnant, eating healthy foods is more important than ever. Pregnant women need proper nutrients and to avoid empty calories. In his book Exercising Through Your Pregnancy, James F. Clapp says on average we should consume about 300 more calories per day for the baby’s growth and development. I recommend eating smaller more frequent meals in the daytime to keep energy high and blood sugar levels stable. This is important to help prevent gestational diabetes, a condition in which our body can’t control the amount of sugar in the blood.
My diet continues to consist mainly of lean protein accompanied by vegetables and grains. This helps my body maintain muscle mass and aids with exercise recovery. When pregnant the body needs a wider range of vitamins and minerals, so I have increased my intake of healthy fats, dairy and fruit.
Recognized sources like BabyCenter encourage essential nutrients intake to help prevent birth defects and preterm delivery, strengthen bones and promote healthy circulatory, nervous and muscular systems.
Daily water intake should be higher during pregnancy. Water helps the body absorb essential nutrients and transport vitamins, minerals and hormones to blood cells, which ultimately reach your baby. According to the Institute of Medicine, pregnant women should aim to drink roughly 13 8-ounce glasses of water each day. It’s also important to avoid or restrict foods that might adversely affect us and our baby, such as raw seafood, uncooked meats and unpasteurized cheeses. The same goes for nicotine, caffeine and alcohol.
Types of carbohydrates are also important. Processed starches can cause blood sugar to fall rapidly. Low blood sugar levels are dangerous for pregnant women and result in intense hunger. In response, we may eat larger quantities than necessary.
Healthy eating from the very start of pregnancy helps relieve the early symptoms of nausea. The addition of fiber decreases constipation and lowers the risk of high blood pressure (preeclampsia). It’s also a good idea to take a prenatal vitamin and fish oil high in DHA and vitamin D to help cover any nutritional gaps.
Staying fit physically, mentally and emotionally during pregnancy boosts self-esteem and provides a greater sense of control and self-confidence. It helps have a more comfortable pregnancy, labor and postpartum recovery. Subject to your doctor’s approval, there is no reason for any pregnant woman not to maintain a high level of fitness throughout her pregnancy.
Maintaining my exercise regime and eating a nutritious diet has allowed me to sustain an optimal amount of physical conditioning as well as lift my emotions. Personal goals are important for everyone, no matter the size. Secondary to my baby’s needs, my personal goal post-pregnancy is to quickly return to compete at the national level of physique competitions. That, and go back to enjoying a healthy glass or two of my favorite red wine.
More inspiration: You might also enjoy this article on tips for couples trying to get pregnant.
Author: Ashley Pacht is a fitness trainer, interior designer and successful Canadian body builder. She occasionally contributes to Optimyz print and digital editions.