Maternal Fitness Movements
Meet Dale Williams: a 275-lb. former lineman for the University of Pittsburgh who went on to become a strength and conditioning coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cleveland Browns. The Erie, Pennsylvania native now works mostly with male soldiers as a military contractor.
Although most wouldn’t suspect it upon first glance or even his resume, Dale is also an expert on prenatal and postpartum fitness. While working as a personal trainer when he was earning his M.S. in Exercise Physiology at Pitt, one of his clients became pregnant, which immediately ignited his interest in the field. After researching everything he could in medical journals to provide appropriate guidance for his athlete, Dale’s curiosity grew so much that he decided to write his thesis on the topic. Since then, he has been able to assist other athletes in their preparation for birth and recovery, including his wife when she gave birth to their child.
I confidently ran my postpartum fitness goal past Dale to complete a half marathon six months after giving birth, and he swiftly changed my mind about training so strenuously, so soon. At his recommendation, I’m now setting my sights on a race for this summer or later (about 9-12 months postpartum) to give my body and lady parts time to heal.
However you choose to pursue your fitness comeback, every expert I’ve spoken with can agree to be cautious, listen to your body and clear your plan with your provider. Dale sat down for coffee with me to discuss his recommended strength and conditioning exercises from the first trimester to the “fourth trimester” after baby and beyond.
“Training for birth is like training for a (sporting) event. No Ironman athlete would walk into a race unprepared, and neither should any woman who is expecting,” said Dale, which started off our conversation about preparing for the main event.
My first question, in which I was dying with anticipation for THE right answer, was the heart rate threshold pregnant women should stay beneath when working out. My previous provider had once said 140; my prenatal-trained CrossFit coach and current medical provider said 160, which is what I stayed below during my workouts up to week 38 of pregnancy.
Unfortunately, that applicable number that’s safe for everyone doesn’t really exist.
While Dale couldn’t provide this exact answer, he said it varies for everyone, and athletes should ask their provider why the number is what he or she recommends for them. It depends on the woman’s health and fitness history, variables surrounding the fetus and other factors. Ultimately, he said, heart rate is not the sole element to consider during pregnant workouts – how your body feels during fitness should play a key role in measuring a safe amount of effort to put forth.
Dale emphasized that while weight percentages should drop marginally for any sort of lifting during pregnancy, it is the perfect time to focus on form and technique. Due to joint laxity and an ever-changing center of gravity, pregnant athletes should be mindful of their mechanics and joint relationships above all.
As for cardio, Dale recommended against sprinting (even in the first trimester) because high impact on joints, maximal force output from the muscles and the chance of falling are more probable and not worth the risk. Nobody wants to be pregnant with a strained hamstring or a sprained MCL. Fortunately, jogging at a conversational pace is typically safe during the entire pregnancy if the woman is comfortable. Each baby is positioned in a slightly different manner; I personally had to stop at six months with my first and seven months with my second because of the pressure on my bladder.
Dale also explained that abdominal workouts should be eliminated once the pregnant belly is starting to protrude, as well as exercises that must be performed on one’s back for a prolonged amount of time. Like sleeping on one’s back, these movements can restrict blood flow to the fetus and put unnecessary pressure on the woman’s spine. Crunches and similar movements in the second and third trimester can also increase a pregnant woman’s chances of developing diastasis recti, or the separation of your stomach muscles, that can lead to that lasting pooch after baby. Read more about diastasis here.
Balance movements with exercise balls can be a great prenatal workout, as long as the athlete always has a spotter.
We then discussed the difficulties of continuing workouts during the third trimester as a woman’s bone density changes with the pregnancy, joints become increasingly unstable and balance becomes a daily challenge (even outside of the gym!). In addition to continuing to scale one’s typical workouts, Dale recommended some form of water aerobic workouts if a woman has access to a pool and concentrating on hip flexor and extender movements. Benefits include a reduction of swelling (due to hydrostatic pressure) and an increase of breathing capacity on land – ideal for labor!
The First Six Weeks Postpartum
Six weeks, what most providers recommend for post-baby recovery, seems like a long time for an active person to refrain from exercising. When I had my firstborn, I had more energy and was chomping at the bit around four or five weeks to hit the gym. This second time around, six weeks flew by. Between the sleep deprivation, chasing my extremely “spirited” toddler around and constant nursing/pumping, I barely had time to think about exercising.
If you do have the time and the energy to do some light movements, the mentality should be focused on restoration and healing versus immediate weight loss, according to Dale. Here are a few exercises that he said would benefit postpartum women immediately after birth:
· Posture– work on promoting scapular stability by keeping your shoulders back versus hunched over.
· Breathing exercises – exhale slowly in and back out to repair any ribs that were dislocated or moved around during pregnancy. Dale recommends movements by Dana Santas as a starting point.
· Walking – be conservative with time, distance and speed. Work to gradually increase one of these factors at a time versus multiple.
· Stroller pushing – try to be deliberate in pushing with your glutes versus your quads to maintain an upright posture and avoid leaning forward.
· Bands – use LIGHT elastic bands to walk and do circular movements with your legs, with the goal of teaching abductors to fire again.
· Babywearing – your baby is an automatic weight vest! Wear your baby in a carrier while doing chores around the house or out on walks. Focus on posture and take breaks if he feels too heavy. Your baby weight and strength should grow together.
Six Weeks After Baby and Beyond
Once a provider gives the all clear, Dale stressed that it’s all about progression. Avoid doing too much, too soon. Although your body has likely completed its initial recovery phase, it takes up to a year for our bodies to get back to normal internally. In Dale’s words, “Birth is a beautiful thing, but it’s like a physiological bomb to a woman’s body.” Of course, postpartum recovery will be faster if the woman has properly trained leading up to birth.
As for my half marathon ambitions for a post-baby goal race, Dale recommended waiting at least four months post-partum, and six months if breastfeeding, before doing any intense runs. Breastfeeding mothers have a portion of their energy being diverted to breastmilk production, with less energy available for the body’s repair and recovery. Light jogs are fine, he assured me. Intense pounding from running before a woman is healed could increase her chances of a prolapsed uterus or the aforementioned diastasis recti. A prolapsed uterus is a condition where the surrounding ligaments have weakened, and the uterus slips from its normal position into the vaginal canal.
Lastly, Dale stressed the importance of keeping a weekly journal before baby and after to evaluate workouts performed, monitoring for any patterns of concern to bring up to your provider. He explained this journal is essential to reference during future pregnancies as well, as it’s easy to forget the details of your fitness routine.
In addition to his M.S., Dale’s credentials include National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, NSCA Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach, National Academy of Sports Medicine Performance Enhancement Specialist, USA Weightlifting Sports Performance, Precision Nutrition, Functional Movement Systems and Reflexive Performance Reset.