pregnancy and strength training

It’s Messy in the Middle

There's a place in the middle where women can continue to work hard and challenge themselves but also honor the changes their bodies are going through. The "messy middle" is the land of "it depends." And it is where the pregnant and postpartum athlete lives.
This article is the first in a series from BLOC Staff Coach Staci Rudnitsky. Staci specializes in helping pre- and postpartum women navigate the ever-changing demands placed on their bodies during pregnancy and beyond.  She is a certified Pregnancy & Postpartum Athleticism Coach through Brianna Battles. She is working to create a network of professionals to meet the strength needs of women throughout all the chapters of their lives, from puberty to the golden years.  Her mission is to help women move confidently, allowing them to find their strengths while addressing their weaknesses. We train today for tomorrow.

Damn, it’s Messy in the Middle

By: Staci Rudnitsky

Strength is an amazing thing: for however much effort you put into it, your body responds with results.  If you’re consistent and put in the work, you get stronger. How beautifully simple is that? Strength doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor.  It doesn’t care if you’re young or old, large or small, male or female. Sure, there are facets of those identifiers that will influence the rate and magnitude at which your strength improves, but on a basic level, strength has no bias.  Hard Work = Reward.

There are caveats to this simple exchange of hard work for results, however. Everyone comes bundled with their unique issues. Effective programs must be suitable to the individual, taking care to consider a person’s needs as they train for strength. We wouldn’t start a novice lifter off with an inappropriately heavy load or a technically advanced movement. We don’t take an untrained masters lifters and force them through a range of motion that they’re not currently capable of handling.  And we’d never put an injured lifter through contraindicated movements patterns and tell her to “push through it.”

For some reason, pregnant and newly postpartum women tend to fall into a murky middle area when it comes to strength training recommendations. They get treated either as if nothing major is taking place inside their bodies or as if they are injured—both are wrong. Pregnant and newly postpartum women are working with an already overly taxed system.  Encouraging them to “listen to their bodies” or to get “back at it” as soon as their physician clears them for exercise, ignores their basic needs as strength athletes. Or, just as bad, encouraging them to take it easy, stay safe, and only do yoga or take walks trivializes the value of intelligent strength training for their health and well-being. Too few professional coaches are willing to educate themselves, ask the right questions, and provide individualized training.

Women, justifiably so, are confused.

Let’s talk pregnancy first

There were 3.79 million babies born in the US in 2018.  About 16% of the population has a gym membership of some sort.  So, using very unscientific methods and Google math, we can assume that roughly 606,400 women set foot in a gym at some point during their pregnancy last year.  How many of these women had a plan going in?  Guidance through this period of life? Probably not many, and nowhere near enough. I certainly didn’t.

While it’s true that the  American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) guidelines for exercise during pregnancy previously suggested that women keep their heart rates under 140 bpm, or avoid lifting weights over 15 lbs, they no longer make these recommendations.  Instead, they caution against dehydration, hot temperatures, extended supine exercises, and suggest wearing a supportive sports bra. But many women are still told to keep the HR down and the weights light.

Compare that outdated, ultra-conservative advice to a quick search on social media showing pregnant women performing Olympic lifts, dynamic pull-ups, plyometric exercises, and heavy lifts.  Women are encouraged to “listen to their bodies” and are being told that the fitter they are during their pregnancy, the quicker they’ll “bounce back.” Depending on where a woman gets her information, she may receive almost exactly opposite advice. 

And then there’s postpartum (which, by the way, lasts FOREVER – just ask your mom why she still crosses her legs when she sneezes, and can’t jump rope or play on the trampoline).

There are mommy boot camps promising to help “get your body back”; T-shirts that glorify peeing during double-unders and leaving a puddle on the deadlift platform;  Tummy Tamers and belly wraps; and well-meaning friends and relatives applauding every pound lost in the pursuit of getting back to where we were.

Are we supposed to slow down and take it easy, or forge forward, waving our hardcore mommy flag?  Do we throw in the towel after we have kids, never to reclaim our former athleticism, or do we rush back at six weeks, pushing to “get our bodies back”?

What if none of those options are ideal?

What if, instead, there’s a place in the middle where BOTH of those ideologies can meet up, shake hands, and strategize for the betterment of the pregnant and postpartum athlete?  A place where women can continue to work hard and challenge themselves, but also honor the changes their bodies are going through, acknowledging that they ARE different and working toward understanding that the way they move will impact their overall health?

This place is the “messy middle,” as P&PA founder Brianna Battles likes to call it. This is the land of “it depends.”  And this is where the Pregnant and Postpartum Athlete lives. (Read more about Pregnancy and Postpartum Athleticism here.)   

Coaches and athletes alike need to settle down into this no-man’s-land, get familiar with the landscape, and learn to work together as a team to meet each athlete where she is, help to guide her where she wants to go, and strategize and navigate the roadmap to get there.  

If you or someone you know has a vagina, stay tuned for the next in our series: 

  • “Trim the Fat: Pregnancy and Postpartum Myths,” 
  • How you’re not defined by your Diastasis Recti,
  • Why peeing your pants is NOT normal, OK, or cool, and 
  • Why you should see a Pelvic Floor Physical Therapist even if your OBGYN has cleared you for exercise.

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