Fit and strong women: Exercising when pregnant – prenatal pilates or power lifting?

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I am lucky to live in a country where moving, exercising and generally being fit and active is part of most people’s lifestyle. Like the majority (65%) of Australians I engage in physical activity on a regular basis. Pre-pregnancy, “regular basis” meant “every day.” My mantras as a competitive athlete were, “faster, stronger, better” and “go hard or go home.” Then I fell pregnant. How exciting! But what does that mean for me as an athlete?

Through my tertiary education in Sport and Exercise Science, as a holistic exercise and lifestyle coach and certified personal trainer and a former competitive athlete, I know a lot about training programs, improving performance and turning bodies into awesome machines.

And as a holistic health practitioner with a  personal interest in (natural) pregnancy and birth, I understand the physiological processes that occur

in a female body while growing a baby. I also know about moderate exercise that is suitable for most women during pregnancy and postnatal exercise.

But for pregnant performance athletes, how much exercise is safe?

When I first started researching this, I found antenatal classes, prenatal yoga for beginners  and recommendations to go for a walk every day.

All good advice, but I couldn’t see myself being satisfied with a daily walk.

During my first pregnancy, I decided to continue my pre-pregnancy exercise routine. I wanted to remain strong and fit throughout my pregnancy, and I also wanted to keep my sanity. Working out is part of my lifestyle, and it’s important for both my physical wellbeing and my mental health.

I knew I had to be smart about my training. That meant acknowledging the hormonal and structural changes my body was going through, and also considering the (extra) energy my body was spending to perform this amazing miracle of growing a baby inside my belly.

I considered it my most important job to make sure this little person inside of me was comfortable and safe.

I managed to keep my sports ego under control by performing my regular routine at about 80% of my usual intensity. I found that even at 80%, my workouts were still sweaty and fun. I decreased the overall intensity of my workouts, but my 80% intensity were still… pretty intense (and sweaty and fun).

Because I felt great from the start of my pregnancy,  I continued doing what I loved:  boxing classes, weight lifting, boot camp, swimming, yoga. But my approach was a little bit more flexible.

I live in rural NT, meaning temperatures can rise up to 40 degrees, with sometimes 80% humidity. There is no aircon at the gym, the water temperature at the town pool can be 35 degrees, and mozzis and flys are always around. This wasn’t an excuse for not training hard before falling pregnant, but now I made sure that my baby and I were comfortable. I drank plenty of water, allowed longer resting periods if needed, and opted out of the last set or repetition if it felt better to do so. This worked really well, and during the first few weeks of my pregnancy I was even able to improve my beep test performance. But around the 25 week mark, the structural changes in my body were more significant. My joints felt looser, and the extra weight especially around my hips and belly made me feel more like an clumsy baby elephant than a gracious and strong athlete.

I started to eliminate powerlifting, running and anything that required a rapid change of direction that would challenge the stability of my hips and spine.

I maintained my strength with slow (but still heavy) lifting and power yoga. At 31 weeks, I completed our local sprint distance triathlon, pacing myself (well most of the time).

My current, second pregnancy has been an entirely different story. The hormonal changes hit me hard early on, and I felt more tired and sluggish than ever. All I managed to do was take my dog for walks and complete a short and gentle yoga routine most days. The lack of intensity in my exercise routine affected my general wellbeing: I was frustrated, unbalanced, grumpy and unhappy. A visit to my favourite holistic health practitioner Kyle was the turning point.

He rebalanced my physical body in two-hour session, and he also put me on a multivitamin. Around the 20 week mark, I finally felt better and like I could get back to exercising. I started slowly at first, but I am now back to a routine of weight lifting, yoga and swimming. And I have just registered to enter this year’s triathlon for the sprint distance as part of a team (I will be 37 weeks when I compete).

I’m learning that that not just every woman, but every pregnancy can be different. It is important to listen to your body and keep your athlete ego out of the game—this is not the right time to push through or prove anything. This is a time to celebrate your years of training and hard work.

You are an athlete—you are in tune with you body and your experience will guide you to make the right decisions for your training during this amazing time of pregnancy and becoming a new mum.

So whether you feel great during your pregnancy and decide to continue your intense workouts, or you feel unwell at times and decide to scale back, you can relax knowing that in the bigger scheme of things, a few weeks or months without working out won’t affect your long-term fitness and strength.

I think it would be most interesting for pregnant exercise freaks like you and me to know more about how other like-minded women go when falling pregnant.

I invite you to share your story. If you feel inspired, send me an email with photos so that I can post your message to this page. Or simply comment below.

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