A strength coaches view on 3rd Trimester & Post-partum training

I’m not an expert in training during pregnancy or post-pregnancy. I am a strength and conditioning coach, with a master’s in exercise physiology, and mom of one little future athlete/lifter. I am simply a seeker of the truth about training during and post pregnancy. In fact, I haven’t really found many people out there who are true experts in this field.

My goal here is to present the info that I have found. My only suggestion is to use it how you see fit. Don’t compare your pregnancy with other ladies. Use these 10 months to get stronger mentally and physically, because we were given the gift to create life and build him/her up. I would love to just give you a magic program on how to increase strength post-baby, but it’s not that simple. Every athlete is built different, so let me first give you my story. If I didn’t lay this groundwork, I feel I would be neglecting some vital information.

My story in brief - I kept lifting throughout my whole pregnancy (except a week span from 37-38 weeks when I stopped lifting to see if I could get little Bo to flip out of his breech position). I also played beach volleyball, basketball, tennis, raquetball, spike ball, whiffle ball, and so on until the week Bo was born. Many women asked how I was able to do that. My only answer was that it felt totally comfortable. I had no pressure “down there”, I could still move decently well, and it felt great to workout with my little buddy in there. I know this is not the norm, so I only say it to lay the ground work. 

I had several go-to’s during the 3rd trimester. I still did all my usual strength work (pressing, rowing, squatting, and lunging variations), but started adding in more isometric holds. I didn’t feel like my joints were as mobile/lax as they should be, so I started doing more full range of motion isometric holds. Think yoga type moves with resistance. I did lots of KB squats and holding at the bottom to try to open up the hips. I also did any type of lift that would use my core and add mobility. I didn't do any ground based normal ab exercises or any exercises where I supported myself (pushups, planks, roll-outs) because I would get some coning in my abs. Instead, I added in more carries, front squats, and anti-rotation exercises to make sure my core was still getting worked.

KB squat and hold  

KB split squat hold

For conditioning, the biggest change is that I started adding in a lot more bike sprints, sled pushes, and I started swimming. I was able to do all other things still, but I was moving much slower, so I took this time to do a little cross-training. The day before baby Bo made his appearance, I did 5 sets of 20 calorie assault bike sprints under 1:15 (in case you want to induce labor). 

I had a c-section because baby Bo was breech. I spent some time looking for training advice post-baby, but instead found programs that you had to buy. If you wanted to find a program to lose weight or get bigger biceps or increase glute size, you would find a ton of free resources. Not true when it comes to pregnancy. I really only came across one legit looking program that was geared towards post-baby fitness. When I had to scroll a practical joke amount to the bottom of the page to find the price ($749, or 3 payments of $225), I knew that wasn't for me. I came to the conclusion that active pregnant ladies need some sort of free resource to guide them through training. Again, I am a performance coach so I undestand movement and how the human body works. I am no expert in pregnancy. But, I have done my fair research into what is going on in the female body, and I used my pregnancy to see what worked for me. The following is my progression. Nothing more, nothing less. This is not a program backed by years of research. It is simply what I found to work for me and it combines the various exercises I thought would heal things like diastis.

March 24 - Baby Bo was born at 8lb 8oz

Post baby Day 1 - I spent about 3 hours walking around the hospital, doing stairs, and even doing squats. This was not because I was some pyscho fitness guru. I guess when you have a c-section CO2 can get trapped in your insides and have no way of getting out. It puts pressure on your diaphragm and can refer pain to other spots (mine was in my shoulders). I couldn't sit, let alone lay down without severe pain. The nurses only suggestion was to walk. I assumed this was to elevate your heart rate to help eliminate the trapped CO2. Walking does nothing for my heart rate, so I took it up a level and did stairs and squats. 

Day 2 - I started doing some breathing and movement exercises the day after as well. FYI, I could not even lift a hand off the ground when doing  a bird dog at this point. I just had to shift weight from one had to the other - Bird Dog progression

Day 3 - I went for a 3 mile walk. This is pretty self explanatory... no video necessary

Day 4-7 - lots of walking

Day 8 - I started jogging in the sand. I also started over-head squatting and lunging with a band.

Day 10 - I added in more core/hip exercises including hip lift variations and Anti-rotation variations

Day 13 - I went back to work and started working with athletes. I walked 3-5 miles most days from weeks 2-4. And I started lifting about 4 weeks after (obviously lighter then normal). I played beach volleyball 5 weeks after he was born. I work with athletes for a living, so I understand that progressions take a different amount of time for all people. 

In my progression, at week 8, I decided to bench. I planned on doing sets with 95 lbs (the weight I had benched for the past 5 months), but I ended up getting 135 for 1 rep, which was my pre-baby max. I have no idea how I could retain my strength for all of pregnancy (I haven't maxed out squatting yet), but there are several theories right now. Some theories include an increased testosterone during pregnancy, a prolonged “break” helped me see strength gains, and improved upper back and lat strength. I am not sure if any of these are correct, but what I do know is what exercises I did pre and post-baby to help me keep my strength and get it back. There is very little research done on strength improvements during pregnancy, but there is enough research out there to show that aerobic capacity can be improved during pregnancy. The research is actually very interesting if you have the chance to read it. Probably the best article I have seen (sent to me from my friend Kim who you may see in the 2020 summer Olympics), is a summation of the research on training during pregnancy - click here research from 2016. Or there are some fun articles on Olympic athletes who trained during pregnancy, and some more Olympic athletes setting PR's. The whole point of me saying this, is that post-pregnancy does not have to be a time of weakness. Research has shown that starting rehab early can speed up the recovery process. Meaning, it would be beneficial to start rehabing from pregnancy as soon as possible. 

I started with some ground based work like the bird-dog progressions from above, hip lift variations, and anti-rotation variations. The first time I tried to just support myself on my hands and knees and lift an arm, I was shocked by how much it worked my abs. As a coach, I always knew it was a core exercise, but never actually felt it in my core. I substituted these exercises for traditional core exercises because I wanted to build proper movement patterns again. After 10 days, I was ready to do some more loaded exercises. Below are some exercises I found really useful to gaining some core strength back.  

KB front squats w/ a hold

Split squats w/ a hold

DB/KB eccentric rows

Kneeling anti-rotation

Unilateral farmers carries

Kneeling KB press

Programming wise, I would lift heavy(er) 3 days a week, do more rehab type core work 2 days a week, and then play volleyball 2 days a week. I'd say ideally I would do the rehab core work every day, but with limited time I devoted two days a week to it. I also tried to do much more unilateral work (single leg RDL’s, single arm bench, split squats, side lunges, etc). Essentially anything that was going to make me brace and use my core unilaterally. On a side note, I workout with my little guy either snoozing next to me or in a stroller getting all squirmy. So about 50% of the time, I would have to change things up mid-workout and sprint with him in the stroller down the alley, or strap him to my chest and do forward lunges. I even was running hills one day and had to pull him out of his car seat and just hold him to my chest while attempting to run hills.

So my only advice is this - see post-baby time as a time to rehab from 10 months of growing, but also as a time to get stronger. You can rehab from pregnancy AND still be a normal athlete at the same time. When you have a newborn and are healing from pregnancy/delivery, make your workouts simple. Pick a few "rehab" exercises (bird dog, anti-rotation, carry) and a few "strength" exercises (KB squats, split squats, walking lunges) and do as many sets as you have time for. This is not the time to get super creative with your workouts and programming. 

Have a great time working out with your new little addition! If you find some great research on training and pregnancy I would love to see it so feel free to send my way!