What might be the benefits of weight training, and other forms of exercise, in the months leading up to childbirth? This was a question asked of me by my wife recently.
She is pregnant and like most women wants to ensure the good health of both herself and the baby she is carrying. This prompted me to research the area of pre-natal exercising. I found that it is beneficial to exercise while pregnant for a number of reasons.
Indeed, those who exercise while pregnant enjoy many advantages over their non-exercising counterparts.
- Fewer problems experienced during childbirth.
- Enhanced post natal recovery.
- Lower incidence of backaches and less severe headaches.
- Enhanced body image.
- Feelings of well-being and happiness, and a positive self image.
- Increased energy levels.
- Increased flexibility.
- Increased aerobic capacity.
- Better circulation of blood to the extremities.
- Greater muscle strength and coordination, which helps with adjusting to increased body weight and changes in balance.
- Pregnancy-related constipation avoidance.
Although these benefits can be realized through exercise, certain guidelines do need to be followed. A pregnant woman is quite vulnerable and precautions need to be taken to ensure that certain exercise stresses do not have a deleterious impact.
After all, pre natal exercise should be directed toward muscle strengthening to minimize the risk of joint and ligament injuries. This article will provide guidelines on pre-natal exercise and other health considerations.
As a woman undergoes her special metamorphosis, as the pregnancy draws near, exercising might prove to be most beneficial in assisting overall pre-natal health and a successful birth.
The Why and How Of Pre-Natal Exercise?
The changes associated with pregnancy can cause a multitude of problems for the child-bearer. Many of these problems are related to a weakened musculature as a result of inactivity coupled with the additional stress placed upon the body as a result of pregnancy related weight gain.
Exercise in general, and weight training in particular, can strengthen supporting muscles and lessen the back pain and overall muscle and joint weakness associated with pregnancy. The best exercises are ones that do not cause strain.
In particular, avoid any exercise that involves lying on the front, as this will place pressure on the abdomen and cause pain. Instead, exercises should focus on the muscle groups that undergo pregnancy related stress.
The following exercises, with their corresponding body parts, are advised:
- Dumbbell bench presses for the pectorals.
- Dumbbell shrugs for the trapezius.
- Bent over shoulder laterals for rear deltoids and rhomboids.
- Hyperextensions for lower back.
- Hip abductors (outer thigh) and adductors (inner thigh) for hip and pelvic region.
Exercise Ball Crunches for the abs: training abs while pregnant can be problematic as the inferior vena cava is compressed when the back is in a flat position.
It is better to execute the crunch on an exercise ball in a supine (facing up) inclined position. The back muscles also benefit from this particular exercise through increased strength and flexibility.
Hip abductor/abductor and ab work also play a part in reducing lordosis of the spine.
As the fetus grows, the abdominal muscles are stretched and weakened and this causes the lower back muscles to shorten. Additional stretching of the hip-flexor muscles will prevent exacerbating the lordotic condition.
Exercise Ball Squats for quadriceps: hormonal (relaxin) increases result in softer connective tissue surrounding the joints, so try to refrain from deep knee flexion and, instead, concentrate on the upper part of the movement.
The exercise ball makes an excellent substitute for a regular bar squat and is a much safer option. The regular squat forces the wrist into a flexed position and this causes numbness and tingling in someone who is pregnant. The oedema (tissue swelling) associated with pregnancy causes compression of the median nerve in the wrist and when the wrist is flexed these symptoms occur.
Light weights should be used for all exercises to prevent any unnecessary stresses or strains. The rational for using these exercises exclusively, as part of the weight training component of an exercise routine, is they focus primarily on the areas that tend to weaken the most due to pregnancy.
The extra weight of the breasts during pregnancy tends to pull the shoulders forward shortening the pectoral muscles and overstretching and weakening the rhomboid and trapezium muscles in the back (Kyphosis).
During the preceding exercises one should therefore try to really stretch the muscles being worked. Also, worth noting is the value of moderation. It is best not too train to hard for too long as this may cause additional stress and negate the session's benefits.
- 3 full-body sessions per week, provided weights are light and motivation is high will be sufficient.
Although this article, strictly speaking, is about the benefits of weight training for the pregnant woman, it is worth mentioning the value of aerobics.
Aerobic training will assist the weight training sessions as it would in a regular exercise regime. Waste product removal, fat loss and enhanced cardiovascular function are three benefits to be gained from aerobic work. A 20-30 minute walk three to four times per week should be sufficient.
Guidelines and Precautions
Now that the exercises and training recommendations have been determined, certain guidelines need to be followed.
In response to a pregnancy a woman will undergo a series of changes that may impact exercise safety. Probably the most significant of these changes are cardiovascular.
During pregnancy, blood volume increases approximately 40% and the more blood that has to be circulated the faster the heart has to beat to complete this job. Heart rate and cardiac output increase as a result. Dizziness may also occur as a result of the additional pressure placed on the large veins in the back region that take blood back to the heart from the lower extremities.
This can have implications when training, and, as such, it is advised not to engage in work that involves lying on the back and elevating the legs.
In terms of cardiac output, it is best to monitor exercise intensity and keep track of heart rate. Heart rate should not exceed 140 beats per minute for longer than one minute as this could result in increased cardiac output and fatigue. Follow all exercise with at least ten minutes of cool down work to restore heart rate.
Metabolism and hormonal changes also occur during pregnancy. A woman's core temperature will rise as a result of an increased metabolic rate and this could have serious consequences in terms of fetal health.
A significantly elevated body temperature can cause fetal damage making this particular problem precarious to say the least. The most vulnerable period is the first trimester (the first four weeks). To counter any potential problems drink plenty of water before, during and after training, avoid exercise in hot humid environments and stop often during the session to stabilize temperature.
The hormonal changes specifically revolve around the hormones estrogen, progesterone, relaxin and elastin. Connective tissues and joints are softened and relaxed in preparation for childbirth, due to the interplay of these hormones, making a pregnant woman more susceptible to injury.
To counter these problems never overextend or engage in deep flexion of any type, warm up for longer than usual and avoid high-impact exercise that requires jarring, jumping or forceful movements.
In addition to pregnancy related changes and their considerations, one should also be mindful of the following:
- Do not hold breath but continually breath throughout. In general, exhale on exertion.
- Drink plenty of fluid before during and after training to prevent dehydration.
- Check for abdominal muscle separation weekly. During pregnancy hormones cause the center seam in the abdominal muscles to soften and stretch as the baby grows and the abdomen expands.
- Ab training, as explained, should help to prevent separation but if it does the following can be done to correct it: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on your abdomen with your fingertips pointing down toward your pubic bone. Exhale as you slowly lift your head and shoulders while pressing down and in with your fingers—that will encourage the abs to reconnect.
- Activities which require coordination and precise balance should be avoided. Increased weight, softening and increased mobility of joints and ligaments, and shifting center of gravity may alter ones ability to coordinate muscles.
- Muscles should be appropriately stretched before and throughout training.
- It might be wise to reduce energy output as pregnancy progresses. A larger energy output will be required as more weight is gained and fatigue will occur more readily.
- And most important of all: consult with your physician before undertaking any training program as there might be certain contraindications that only a qualified physician can identify.
During pregnancy blood sugar levels typically drop quite significantly. Blood sugar levels will also fluctuate. In addition, noradrenaline (a hormone responsible for sending blood sugar into cells to be utilized) will be released during exercise.
The blood stream becomes dramatically low in blood sugar as a result of this and the aforementioned pregnancy related blood sugar lowering.
A pregnant exerciser who trains too hard for too long may feel dizzy and lose concentration as the brain uses only blood glucose (sugar) for energy. This could result in injury or worse. To avoid these consequences: eat about two servings of a high complex carbohydrate food (rice or potato for example) between 60 to 90 minutes prior to training.
During training, and indeed, pregnancy, correct nutrition is paramount. Folic acid will help to maintain overall health in general and reduce the possibility of neural tube defects (spina bifida and anencephaly) in particular. 400 micrograms per day is recommended.
Folic acid is a member of the B-complex family of vitamins and can be found, naturally occurring in green leafy vegetables, legumes and dried beans. Certain breakfast cereals contain sufficient folic acid.
Folic acid can also be consumed in supplement form or easier digestion and convenience.
Pregnancy is a special time, belied by the turmoil that takes place in a woman's body. Hormonal, cardiovascular, metabolic and blood sugar changes create an environment where additional care needs to be taken, in particular when it comes to exercising.
Rather than stop completely and forgo the wonderful benefits of exercise, it is best to continue on, using the modifications suggested in this article. An expectant mother can enhance her transformation while maintaining her beauty and grace through exercise.
- Douglass, A.(2000).The Mother of All Pregnancy Books: The Ultimate Guide to Conception, Birth, and Everything In Between: Macmillan: USA.
- Douglass, A. & Sussman, J.(1999).The Unofficial Guide to Having a Baby. Hungry Minds INC: USA.
- Saulitis, M.(2004). Pregnancy and Exercise. Life Matters. [On line]
- Baby Center. (2004). Fitness During Pregnancy. [On line] Here.