How to set out a pre & post natal fitness plan

Shakira Akabusi @shakira.akabusi
🍼Pre &Postnatal Fitness Expert
💪🏽 Founder of #StrongLikeMum
💥Speaker, Writer, Track Athlete
👶🏼👦🏼 Mama to Rio & Ezra
💚 Lover of health, wellness, cooking and exploring this beautiful world we live in.

When it comes to planning your fitness programme during the pre and postnatal periods, we must first be aware of how the physicality of a woman’s body changes during this time, including the role which hormones, posture, previous fitness level and core stability all play in dictating the level to the each woman can take her training.

Prenatal Fitness

Not only is exercise considered safe during pregnancy, it’s actually recommended! A recent study on prenatal exercise actually states ‘Prenatal exercise is no longer just acceptable; it is a necessary component to achieving optimal health of both mother and child’ (Harris, Baer & Stanford, 2018). In addition the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends, that “assuming there are no underlying medical or obstetric restrictions, pregnant women should be able to participate in a minimum of 20- 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise most days of the week”.

However, for those who may be new to exercising and consider themselves a beginner, it is absolutely reasonable to take a more moderate approach than the above recommendation. For some, 10 minutes a day can be a huge improvement on not being active at all. Every pregnancy and each women is unique, so be confident and comfortable to work at your own pace. If however you regularly participated in exercise pre pregnancy, you can extend the duration of your workouts from 35 minutes to 45 minutes or even an 1 hour long sessions.

But how to structure this time?

Aside from the obvious physical development of the pregnancy, ’bump’, many may not be aware of the intrinsic changes taking place during the three trimesters.

To begin with, the change in a woman’s hormone levels actually starts immediately once conception has occurred, and from about 2 weeks into the pregnancy a woman will begin to produce a particular hormone called Relaxin, which is important to consider when planning any exercise prenatally. The role of this hormone is to relax the ligaments around the pelvis in order to prepare the body for labour, however the effects of Relaxin cannot be isolated to one area, meaning that the stability of all joints throughout the body may be compromised. Therefore it’s important to work within a comfortable range of motion and avoid lifting too heavy when training with weights.

It’s also important to take into account your pre-pregnancy fitness level and what type of exercise you are familiar with. If you are new to exercise now is not the time to start overexerting yourself or pushing your boundaries. Start with small lifestyle changes that are sustainable, for example walking once or twice a week and build up slowly by increasing the frequency and intensity of your workouts. However, If you already have an advanced fitness level it is ok to continue with weight training, running and other high energy exercises, although modifications should be made as the trimesters progress.

How to adapt your fitness programme as the trimesters progress is of course important. As a woman’s bump grows, her centre of gravity will shift causing changes to how efficiently the core system can carry and transfer load during movement. This is way it’s important to always spend some time focused on core stability and core strength exercises alongside any cardio exercise you may be interested in. Achieving good core stability throughout pregnancy will assist the body with efficiently completing everyday tasks and activities.

Changing the intensity of your workouts during pregnancy is key as the trimesters progress. How to adjust this intensity will be different depending on each individual, however during the second two trimesters working to a maximum 60% effort is usually a good marker. Working with percentages enables you to keep in touch with how your body is feeling during the moment. 60% one day may be very different to how you feel three weeks later.

Can you lift weights during pregnancy

The short answer is yes. Lifting weights is a great way to maintain muscle tone, core strength and bone density, however as with all approaches to exercise during pregnancy, now is not the time to over-exert yourself so working with light to moderate weights is enough for most women.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine guidelines state that resistance exercises can be added to your workouts 2-3 times per week. The resistance should be low and 15 -20 repetitions per exercise will be most beneficial.

Lifting extreme heavy weight in general should be avoided as this could increase blood pressure however guidelines on how much to lift and how often is really specific to each individual. As a beginner you may wish to focus on fixed resistance machines as apposed to free weights due to the comprised stability of joints. Alternatively resistance bands are a great way to steadily increase the intensity of a body weight training programme at home.

Abdominal training in pregnancy

There seems to be a lot of confusion around whether it is or isn’t safe to train your abdominal muscles during pregnancy. It is actually important to exercise the core throughout the trimesters as they help to control the tilt of the pelvis, stabilise the spine and support the pregnant uterus, as well as helping to reduce back ache due to the increased lumbar curvature.

That said, it’s again all about how you train your core that is important. Conventional ab exercises such as crunches, curls and sit-ups should be avoided after the first trimester as they can create undue intra-abdominal pressure.

Instead exercises such as pelvic tilts, four point kneeling with single arm lifts, side laying hip hitch and adapted half plank are all good safe abdominal exercises when pregnant.

These exercises support the advise that during pregnancy the focus should be on exercises that target the Transverse Abdominis, the deepest of all your abdominal layers.

How to adjust cardio workouts during pregnancy

A study released by the University of Michigan found that labour can be as demanding on the body as running a marathon! So it makes sense that we might want to consider training for this event. However, during the second two trimesters working to a maximum effort of 60% is usually a good way to work within a reasonable range of intensity. Always make sure you keep a check on your heart rate and body temperature, as this is also a good gauge for when you may be over exercising. It’s important not to over heat when training prenatally.

Three Top exercises during pregnancy

· Reverse Lunges

This exercise targets the core, glutes and quads. Great for challenging stabilisation whilst also working on cardio vascular endurance.

· Kneeling Superman

Targeting the Glutes, Hamstrings, Back Muscles and Core. This exercise is a great compound exercise working multiple muscle groups simultaneously. This can be performed throughout all trimesters.

· Cardio

Walking or Swimming.

Postnatal Fitness

To create a good Postnatal fitness plan, it’s imperative that we also consider a woman’s pregnancy, labour and birth experience. Understandably this all plays a role in how a woman will begin her postnatal rehabilitation.

How the core system has changed during pregnancy

Most notably perhaps are the changes to a woman core. The process of pregnancy can great impact a woman’s posture, which in turn effects how load is carried and transported across the core. Method of delivery, such as Vaginal birth, Caesarean section, Epidural or other Spinal sightings and medical interventions, can also all impact the efficiency of the core during the immediate postnatal period.

A common issue many women face is Diastasis Recti, the separation of the Rectus Abdominis muscle. Approximately 60% of women experience Diastasis Recti, however for most this separation will heal without the need for medical assistance. Generally, a Gap of less then 2cm is considered common and can heal on its own, however for gaps larger then this, further medical advice will be required.

When looking at Rehabilitating Diastasis Recti we must also look at the core as a whole. Some women may find that their abdominal separation never completely closes, however if the gap is minor and is surrounded by other core muscles that have been correctly strengthened this can be considered ‘functional’ and regular exercise may be resumed. With the support of the surrounding core muscle groups such as the Transverse Abdominis and Pelvic Floor Muscles, a woman’s core stability and strength can return to working with regular efficiency.

Before beginning physical activity

It’s advised to wait until your 6-8 week check by a GP to be cleared for exercise, before starting a physical fitness programme postnatally, however, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynacologists a ‘if pregnancy and delivery are uncomplicated, a mild exercise programme consisting of walking and pelvic floor exercises may begin immediately’. However, it’s not purely physical movement that we can engage with in the early days.

Using the early postnatal period to focus on refuelling the body with nutritious food which aids recovery and muscles repair is so important. Alongside taking time to rest, recuperate and mentally prepare for the journey ahead. Creating a positive mental relationship with exercise is crucial to make any fitness programme sustainable. For many women having a new baby can be an overwhelming experience and due to a disrupted sleep pattern and new routine, exercise can be tricky to fit into the schedule.

Therefore, one of the best way to ensure that you sustain an active lifestyle postnatal is to enjoy the process! Make your workout a positive part of the day. Something that’s a treat for your body to assist in recovery and recuperation as appose to feeling as though exercise is a chore that needs to be added onto a long list.

Cardio exercise postnatally

A postnatal cardio vascular program should work alongside training of the your pelvic floor and core muscles. Beginning with No – Low impact exercises will help to take the pressure off your pelvic floor until the core is sufficiently stable to transfer load efficiently. Progressing to higher intensity workouts such a jogging, dancing and stepping should happen slowly and when you feel able.

Staying hydrated during and after cardio vascular training is also crucial. Sweating is a natural process of endurance training, however for postnatal women, in particular those breastfeeding, it’s important to refuel with the correct nutrients and liquids in order to keep fluid levels high.

How to build up strength training postnatally

Strength training in the postnatal period is a great way to improve not only strength but endurance as well. However, there are some key components to be aware of when planning to lift weight postpartum. The hormone Relaxin, produced during pregnancy will continue to remain present in the body for up to 5 months postpartum and longer for breastfeeding women. Therefore, making sure you build up the weight slowly is important in order to protect joints and ligaments that may be more unstable at this time.

Alongside weight training for the rest of the body, training should be focused on the core stabilisers such as Glutes, Core and Lower back muscle groups. All these areas play a role in re-training and stabilising of the pelvis for postnatal women.

The importance of stretching postpartum

It often seems as though stretching is an element easily overlooked when it comes to postnatal exercise, with many viewing this as something they simply don’t have time for, however tight muscles will not work efficiently, so stretching should always be a part of your exercise programme.

Stretching helps to improve over all performance by increasing range of motion, improving posture and assisting better co-ordination and balance. All of which is important for postnatal recovery.

Three Top Postnatal Exercises

* Three Dimensional Breathing with Pelvic Floor contractions

Engaging the three parts of a full breath including abdomen, diaphragm and chest. During three dimensional breathing, you work to completely fill your lungs with air, breathing first into your lower abdomen, filling your belly, then expanding the ribcage, and upper chest. Making sure to keep shoulders relaxed and down. Then as you exhale completely, reverse the flow and engage the Pelvic floor muscles. Exhaling using a sharp ‘Sssss’ sound can help to connect with the deep core muscles needed for this exercise.

* Glute bridge

Targeting the Pelvic floor, deep core and glute muscles. This exercise will help to strengthen your glutes as well as reducing the risk of lower back pain and postnatal incontinence.

* Squats

Squats are a great way to train your deep core and pelvic floor muscles in a functional way. Learning to squat in the correct way will encourage good mobility and movement through the pelvis, as well as strengthening the glutes, hamstrings, quads, core and pelvic floor muscles.