athletes · Guest Post · health

On Squats and Snowflakes: How weight lifting was better preparation for childbirth than any Lamaze class (Guest Post)

Left: Black and white photo of pregnant torso with monitoring equipment Right: Black and photo photo of the author in the gym standing in front of the bar

by Nanette Ryan

On July 20 of this year I gave birth to my beautiful, healthy baby boys, James and Alec.  My pregnancy was not easy.  The first three months saw lots of queasiness, naps, and trial and error with foods that I could stomach.  In the second trimester I was hit by a cyclist while walking and rushed to hospital, and in the third contractions started too early and so I was back in hospital for monitoring, bed rest, and treatment.  For 20 days I was almost constantly on an IV of anti-contraction medication, I had 5 blood tests a day, injections, CTGs sometimes three times a day, and frequent invasive exams.

After 20 days in hospital I was briefly taken off my current anti-contraction medication to make time to prepare for the next round.  My boys wasted no time, and in half an hour I was in full labour.  As I was wheeled into the delivery room, exhausted and in horrible pain, I said to the midwives ‘I need something! Any thing!’  ‘What do you mean ‘you need something’?’ they said.  (I want a freakin’ stroll in the park, what do you think I mean!?).  ‘Something for the pain!’ I said.  ‘Drugs! I want the drugs!’  But there was no time, the babies were coming and I had to push.  And so I did.

As it was my first pregnancy I did a lot of reading and research leading up to the birth.  I practised breathing, did my kegels, and (naively) talked to other mums about what kind of birth I should ‘go for’.  The thing that prepared me most for giving birth, however, was something that none of the birthing books, conversations, or women’s health resources talked about.  It was weight training, and in particular, barbell squats and deadlifts.  Before I became pregnant weight training dominated my workouts, and I continued to weight train for as long as it was safe and comfortable when pregnant.

These exercises helped me in a number of ways.  Despite my extended stay in hospital, it gave me the physical strength to do what I needed to do.  It allowed me to trust my body, and it gave me the confidence to do it.  I had pushed my body, and so I was confident that I could push these kids out, like when you walk up to a squat rack with a higher weight than you’ve lifted before and think, ‘I’m going to fucking do this!’

Like so many things for women, the focus on women’s health and birth preparation is on the gentler side of things; focused breathing, gentle stretching, and light cardio.  Don’t get me wrong, these things have their virtues, including distracting women from what can be the horrors to come.  But birth, however you do it, is not gentle.  Women are not snowflakes, and the sooner we start emphasizing this the better.

Nanette Ryan is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Georgetown University. She is primarily interested ethics, moral psychology, and feminist philosophy.

Image description: black and white photo of baby twin feet in rompers
Image description: black and white photo of baby twin feet in rompers
Guest Post

Guest Post: Fitness Policing and Pregnancy – Please Don’t Tell Me What is “Too Hardcore”

“Training to do Pull ups?! You shouldn’t do that – you’re pregnant!”

“That sounds tough! Maybe you should tone it down a bit?”

Well-meaning comments, yet so irritating. The worst part is they almost never come from “fitness folk” – i.e. fellow exercisers, athletes, or sports/medical professionals. It’s mostly from people who have seen one too many dramas where pregnant women are on the couch eating nothing but Doritos and doing virtually nothing. Sigh.

***

Hi all. I’m Jenna. I’m 27, and 23 weeks pregnant with my first child. I have a master’s in history and was in the USMC Reserve for 6 years. You could say I’ve got a pinch of experience with nutrition, exercise, and knowing how to look stuff up. Along with years of the emotional baggage typical for someone who grew up overweight, I have learned what not to do and I know what works for me.

You’d think that people who know my back story will trust that I can make informed decisions regarding fitness during my pregnancy. Further, you’d certainly HOPE that a random stranger would keep their opinions to themselves, but nope! Pregnant women are a sounding board for unsolicited advice – especially regarding how we take care of ourselves.

When it comes to the idiotic comments pregnant women get, I have encountered absurd amounts of concern-trolling; it varies, but it’s primarily about me potentially “overdoing it” since I do something more than walking around the block for 20 minutes a day. Not everybody has this experience, thankfully, but it’s happened to me enough times to write about it!

Strength Training Is Not Too Hardcore For Me

I go about pregnancy fitness slightly different; specifically, I focus on strength training. I don’t do Crossfit, and due to fabulous injuries resulting in permanent joint problems from the Marines, I don’t run or do any kinds of high-impact cardio.

I work out twice a week, and I do a form of the “SuperSlow” method. My exercises consist of chin-up negatives, bodyweight squats, push-ups, bodyweight rows, side leg-raises and the like. On my workout and off days, I walk or go hiking for at least 45 minutes in order to incorporate some low-intensity cardiovascular exercise to aid muscle recovery. My personal trainer, Steve Maxwell, is an established professional in the field. We communicate only through email (never met him in person yet!) and I send him training logs where I track my weight, resting heart rate, energy levels, sleep, stress levels, and more.

 Believe it or not, this *is* my relaxed face
Believe it or not, this *is* my relaxed face

Agency

Steve has trained many pregnant women in his extensive career (almost forty years – he’s 61!), so he knows what’s safe and what isn’t, and he understands that “each person is unique with unique issues.” Above all, he encourages and trusts me to pay attention to what my body is telling me. For instance, *I* decided when to stop doing sit-ups, and I simply told him. He adjusted my workout accordingly – no lectures, no fuss. He knows that I know what to look out for. The simple act of being treated like an adult and allowed agency over my physical fitness, instead of barraged with messages of “you don’t know what’s good for you” (which is something pregnant women hear regularly) is empowering. Because my thoughts/concerns are acknowledged, I trust Steve’s advice about my physical fitness.

Do Your Research

A pregnant woman can and definitely should research and consult with care providers and fitness professionals to decide what is right for her and her baby without some buttinsky trying to police her decisions. I’ll post some links that I’ve found useful below, but I’ve actually avoided a lot of baby books. Information changes and so it’s important to pay attention to publishing dates, and check the source’s sources. Where are they getting their information from? Some red flags of 10 years ago have been tested and OK’d by now.

Listen to Your Body

When it comes to strength training, it is perfectly reasonable to continue with it throughout pregnancy and beyond. With that said, at certain points I have had to make concessions; I stopped laying on my stomach at 8 weeks and stopped on-my-back exercises at 20 weeks, because I followed my body’s cues. If something doesn’t feel right, I stop. I stopped cycling because I’m afraid of getting hit by a car. This isn’t what everybody does, but it’s what works for me – I’m all about telling people “you do you!”

Why Do People Hassle?

There is a prevalence of individuals thinking they “know better” and using myths (UGGH GREY’S ANATOMY) to argue with pregnant women if they’re doing something this one person considers outside the norm for their idea of pregnancy. It’s akin to the sexist dual narrative that women face; nothing we do is correct. We’re either doing too much or not enough, we’re gaining too much weight or not enough, and so on. Why isn’t my belly huge yet? Am I eating enough fish? But wait, you gotta lay off swordfish and anything with too much mercury! The list goes on. I’m hesitant to dwell on pregnancy in conversation because the topic always inevitably turns into a lecture about “WELL MY SISTER DID THIS AND IT WORKED GREAT SO YOU SHOULD DO IT TOO.”

***

What’s reflective of the systemic policing of pregnant women is that these people don’t even realize they overstepped a boundary. Perhaps this is due to a societal green-light to ask personal questions of pregnant women. These conversations, to me, present views about pregnant women on a grander scale. A friend of mine made an observation on twitter that is so true: “Pregnant bodies are public bodies.” We’re painted as hormonal, waddling whiners who are constantly crying or raging after an ice cream cone. Yes, hormones are a-raging during pregnancy, but I have not lost my senses.

To get to the heart of it, I ask them what they know about pregnancy fitness and what they’ve read up on. I try to use it as a means to create a positive discussion with the individual about what messages are being sent in society about pregnancy and pregnant women.

I’ve also found that equipping myself with sarcastic retorts helps too: “Oh my gosh, thank you, I had no idea I was pregnant!” is a staple, and usually only reserved for someone who’s gone too far. I usually say something like “Thank you for your concern, but I know what I’m doing.” You’d be surprised how many times people just pause and either get defensive, or embarrassed and apologize.

Infuriating, yet so terribly common. What say you, readers? Have you experienced this? What is it about pregnant women that destroys normal boundaries with friends and strangers alike?

Pregnancy Websites I Consult and Interesting Reads:

http://www.babycenter.com/

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/pregnancy-and-baby-care.aspx#close

http://www.thebump.com/

http://vitals.lifehacker.com/the-truth-about-exercising-while-pregnant-its-okay-to-1682602976

http://maxwellsc.com/articles.cfm

 

Jenna Lång is a historian and serial expat who blogs about her research and adventures abroad at The Expat Historian. This blog post is not meant to replace the advice of any healthcare or fitness professional and only reflects the views and experiences of the author.

Crossfit · family

CrossFit, pregnancy, and working out

bellyThe internet went wild this week over photos of a CrossFitting mother to be lifting weights.

Shock, horror, but what about the babies! That’s a bad thing to do while pregnant.

Yes, but what about the obese pregnant women who sit around all day eating chocolates and doing nothing? Surely that’s worse.

Judgments about other people’s bodies and their lifestyle choices were flying fast and furious from both sides.

If you live under a rock and missed the whole thing either count yourself lucky or have a look here: Pregnant CrossFit Mom Posts Weightlifting Pics to Facebook, Gets Totally Hated On and Pregnant weightlifter training just two weeks before due date provokes controversy.

My reaction to the pics? They made me smile. I thought she looked strong and terrific. In a longer, more thoughtful post, I’d have lots to say but here I just want to share a few thoughts.

I’m working out with a pregnant woman at CrossFit these days. I’m getting to know her better because she’s lifting less weight and so we’re closer to each other at the gym.  Relevant point: You can still be lifting a lot of weight and have that be a lot less than you usually lift. You just don’t know.

It’s also worth noting about media frenzy CrossFit mum that it’s her third child. Probably by now she’s got a pretty good idea how pregnancy feels to her and what she can and can’t do. Probably she’s the best expert on her own body.

I did the most exercise with my third pregnancy too. Yes, by the end of the thing I’d moved to water aerobics for my cardio but for the first six months I kept riding my bike. I asked my doctor about bike riding and she said to stick with it until balance became an issue. As it turned out my belly getting in the way was the bigger issue. But I recall the very judgmental looks I got from people for riding my bike and that hurt.

The judgment should just end. Now.

Oh, and I got none of that from health care professionals. The doctors and nurses all said nice things to me about staying active. After all, I felt good during my pregnancies. I had none of the many complaints that are associated with pregnancy.

But not all pregnancies are fine for physical activity. Sometimes things get in the way of our very best plans.

Alice MacLachlan blogged here about finding herself, a very active, fit person, not able to exercise much in pregnancy. That was incredibly stressful. She wrote, “All the advice I’d found so liberating, in theory (Be active! Keep running!) now felt like just another norm governing women’s bodies, telling me I couldn’t measure up.”

Individual circumstances vary and you don’t know what’s going on with someone else’s body. There’s a fun flow chart circulating about the ethics and etiquette of advice giving that’s relevant. I can’t find it but if you’ve seen it please let me know where to find it. “Should I give someone advice about what they’re about to eat, or what exercise they’re about to do or not do?” “Has that person asked for advice or are you that person’s parent?” “If yes, yes. If no, then no.”

Advice on exercise in pregnancy changes often. Not too many generations ago women were told not to lift anything and to take it easy. My generation got different advice. We were told not to start a new program of exercise but that anything you already did you could keep doing. Now, the Exercise and Pregnancy Lab at my university says you can even start a program of exercise while pregnant. Further they even say that we don’t know how much is too much. At about 3 minutes in the researcher says pregnancy isn’t a time to train for athletic competition and that that’s because they aren’t sure at what point in pregnancy how much exercise is too much.

I think it’s up to you. Find out what facts there are to find out, do your research, do what feels right for you, and everybody else, keep quiet. Please. You’re annoying me.

Guest Post

Pregnancy, Postpartum and the (Somewhat) Fit Feminist (Guest Post)

Before I got pregnant, I was pretty active. In college I rowed and in grad school I boxed. More recently, I trained successfully for a marathon. I also swam regularly and loved playing soccer with friends and colleagues (being a vicious defender works out my aggression nicely). So when we started trying for a baby, I felt confident that I would keep moving.

There is a lot of information available about the benefits of an active pregnancy. Pregnant women are told that an active lifestyle will help keep their energy up, ease the aches and pains of a changing body, improve the experience of labour and make it easier to give birth – not to mention making it much easier to ‘bounce back’ to one’s pre-pregnancy body afterwards. Every pregnancy book and website includes a section on fitness and exercise. They do caution against starting new exercise programs, but you can definitely maintain your activity level. Many go so far as to suggest that not exercising is linked to a host of issues, from labour complications to fetal conditions like gestational diabetes.

For the most part, I think this is great. It’s a vast improvement on advice given to previous generations, when pregnant women were sequestered away and prevented from doing just about anything. The idea that pregnant women are weak is silly; making a human and carrying it around while eating, drinking, and breathing for it – not to mention pushing it out of your body – is a fairly impressive feat.

But it does create one more thing pregnant women have to monitor, besides alcohol, smoking, food, air quality, water temperature, etc. And it’s another way we can fail at being pregnant (as I would discover).

So, I was all set to have a fit pregnancy. The day we found out, I made a chart of nutrients to keep on the fridge, and bought The Runner’s World Guide to Running and Pregnancy. No problem, I thought; I’m already active, so this will be easy.

The problem was, my body had its own plans. I was hit almost immediately with searing hip, leg and lower back pain, eventually diagnosed as sciatica. By my sixth week, I had quit running. By my twelfth week, I could only walk a few blocks before I’d be in the kind of pain that left me gasping. By the fifth month, I was avoiding walking at all costs. I could still swim, but only a few lengths at a time – and walking to the pool on campus hurt too much! I’d plan my days to minimize movement and eventually stopped going out at all. I caught myself dreading stairs, long periods of standing, or any situation that made me bump into things or people.

Hoping to stretch out the tightness, I tried prenatal yoga at a downtown studio, but it didn’t work for me. The poses often made it worse, I felt restless and frustrated all at once, and after a fellow class member commented that, given my body type, no one could even tell I was pregnant, I quit.

It started to seem like I was going to have a very unfit pregnancy. This was demoralizing, and also made me feel vulnerable. I felt like I was failing at pregnancy, worried non-stop about how it might affect the fetus, and got frustrated at everyone’s warnings about what this would mean for my labour and their well-meaning advice about how such-and-such exercise would fix my sciatica – I just had to try harder.

All the advice I’d found so liberating, in theory (Be active! Keep running!) now felt like just another norm governing women’s bodies, telling me I couldn’t measure up.

(By the way, don’t feel too much pity for my sob story. I still had a great pregnancy! My partner was amazing, my workplace was accommodating, and my morning sickness was pretty limited. Lucky, lucky me! But I inhabit my body comfortably when I feel strong and capable, when it can live up to my expectations. This was a tough lesson in my own limits, and how to live in a body that couldn’t do what I expected it to. It was humbling.)

Then, around 30 weeks, I found the solution (for me): I tried a prenatal aquafit class (http://babyandmefitness.com/classes/aqua-bellies/). I was pretty skeptical at first. In fact, I realize now I was an unconscious exercise snob. I thought of myself as someone who did sports (rowing, boxing, running, soccer) not classes.

I think there was a gendered component to my snobbery, too: on some level, I’d decided classes were for ‘girls’. I feel pretty sheepish about that, as a woman and a feminist – and especially now that I know how hard aquafit can be!

I’d come home after each class with shaking arms and legs, a happy ache, and that particular euphoria I associate with a long run. As long as I was really careful about how I moved my hips and groin in the water, I could avoid exacerbating my sciatica, and in the meantime my abs, back, legs, and arms were getting a serious workout, using water and my now considerable weight as resistance.

I also met other pregnant women of all backgrounds, shapes, and sizes (way more diversity than in the downtown yoga class). We set up an email list and planned post-partum stroller walks.

I don’t know whether my unfit pregnancy OR my (aqua)fit third trimester made a difference, in the end, but after a really long labour (ahem – 60 hours) I had a big, strong, perfectly beautiful baby.

And I’ve learned my lesson about exercise snobbery, too. I’m not back at aquafit yet, but I’m taking all the Baby and Me (http://babyandmefitness.com/) fitness classes I can. Two or three times a week you’ll find me squatting and lunging my way through the park while pushing a stroller (http://babyandmefitness.com/classes/stroller-h-i-i-t/) or lifting weights while my baby snoozes in a carrier on my chest, then trying to rediscover my abs by doing planks and making faces at her on the mat (http://babyandmefitness.com/classes/carrier-fit-fusion/).

(By the way, if you like the idea but not the budget for postpartum fitness classes, I’ve noticed people arranging stroller fit dates on MeetUp.com and there are online suggestions for how to structure them).

I didn’t ‘bounce back’ to my pre-pregnancy body, but my sciatica vanished like magic, and I’ve even started running short-distances again. In the meantime, these classes get my daughter and me out of the apartment, structure our week, and have helped me meet some really cool women. But mostly, they’re teaching me that my conception of fitness – prenatal or postpartum – needed just about as much adjustment as my hips.

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Alice MacLachlan lives in Toronto with her wife, Amy, and their daughter, Emmylou. When not taking aquafit classes or running around the park with a stroller, she teaches philosophy at York University.