Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Postpartum PR's - How Katherine Stayed Strong Through Pregnancy And Beyond

Of all the training-related questions I have ever received, the vast majority have been about what Katherine did to make such a quick comeback following pregnancy.  In this post, I'll take you through a rough overview of how I structured her training, and why I believe it contributed not only to an efficient recovery, but also a very smooth pregnancy.

Just in case you haven't heard me say it a hundred times before, here it is.  I'm NOT a doctor, not a certified personal trainer, not a nutritionist, not an OB-GYN.  I am a guy who loves lifting weights and seeing other people grow stronger by my side.

The first mistake people make when comparing Katherine's progress to their own, for better or worse, is forgetting to consider their physical conditioning BEFORE ever becoming pregnant.  It is very, very difficult to improve strength and conditioning during pregnancy.  And so the stronger you are before hand, the stronger you can stay throughout pregnancy, and the stronger you will be at the beginning of your journey to recovery.  I believe that if a woman attempts to become a super athlete upon discovering she is pregnant, she stands to lose more ground than gain through under-recovery and overtraining, as well as puts her body in a high risk state of fatigue.  To summarize, the best investment a woman can make in postpartum recovery, is becoming as strong as possible before she ever conceives.

Kat and I were actively "trying" for her to become pregnant for a few months.  This time also coincided with her contest prep for the Lightning Fitness Battle Of The Thunder Gods.  She was stronger and better conditioned than she had ever been before.  Her body was at peak performance.  We did not plan for the timing to be like this, but it certainly didn't hurt.  If she hadn't been preparing for a contest, she still would have been working like hell in the weight room day in and day out.  Whether you are a strength athlete, runner, cross fitter, or casual gymgoer, I cannot stress enough the importance to keep the fucking hammer down hard during this time.  You are making big down payments for a long term investment over the next year of your life.

Strength earned before pregnancy will be there after, too.

This is the "plan" people ask me for.  The thing is, we didn't really have a hard plan.  We had an idea. Two ideas, to be more specific.  I never wrote Katherine's training more than a few weeks at a time.  We started with fairly heavy bar weights, in moderate to high rep ranges, with a moderate number of working sets per exercise.  Her workouts consisted of a variety of compound movements, and a few accessory movements (flies, hamstring curls, lunges, etc).  For any given workout, we always had a best and worst case scenario plan.  If she was extremely tired or even nauseous, we hit the most important exercises and checked out.  Just a few sets of the big compound lifts.  This would be enough to maintain her strength and mobility, without adding unnecessary fatigue when her resources were being spent elsewhere.  On the other hand, if she was feeling rested and strong, we would take advantage and push the reps a little harder.  A plan is useless without the ability to interpret it to fit your needs, and we did exactly that.

Train hard when you can, rest when you can't.  Either way, SHOW UP.

As pregnancy progressed, and her body's needs evolved, so did her lifting.  We intentionally began her training with fairly high volume, because we knew it would eventually need to taper downward due to decreased recovery ability.  As her body changed, painful or potentially dangerous exercises were rotated out of circulation.  One of the first to go was the barbell bench press.  Lying flat on her back proved to be painful, and also a potential risk of inhibiting circulation from the weight of her belly putting pressure on certain blood vessels.  When this became the issue, we did more incline work, and eventually exclusively overhead press work.  Lastly, and a very important piece of Kat's training, was swimming and yoga.  These were two items that did not come out of her training plan at any point, from start to finish.  In terms of facilitating movement and recovery, both were low-impact outlets that helped her stay active to full-term, even when pretty much everything else was a real chore to accomplish.

With the squat, one potential risk factor is the softening of the hip joints and generally slack connective tissue.  As her hips were not as stable, especially at extreme end ranges of motion, we began to limit her squat depth.  Just so I'm clear, she never had to squat above 'normal' depth, even when she was nine months pregnant.  It was still well south of parallel.  Let that one sink in for a minute.  But we did avoid rock bottom squats.  She also used a slightly wider foot placement to accommodate a growing belly.  Deadlifting was first modified with a slightly wider foot stance, a 'wide conventional' if you will.  She pulled from the floor for nearly the entire pregnancy.  If she began feeling a bit too cramped up on the bottom of the deadlift, we simply increased the height of the bar with blocks.

As she progressed into the third trimester, she was obviously very uncomfortable in the weight room, and pretty much anywhere else.  At this point, she really began to reap the benefits of the months of hard work prior to this point.   In my opinion, Katherine's body was able to beautifully manage the physical stresses of full term pregnancy because her body was simply well-prepared for it.  No one would just show up to a hockey game one day out of the blue and expect to perform their best, so why would someone willingly endure nine of the most physically demanding months of their life without picking up a few bars and plates?  Maybe I'm biased, I don't know.  If it were me, I would want to be prepared for everything I have control over.  And you absolutely have control of how strong you can become.

Just like we saw in the third trimester, the weeks following the birth of our daughter immediately revealed the hard work Katherine had put in before and during her pregnancy.  Long before even setting foot back in the weight room, her body was in auto-pilot en route to being back and running on all eight cylinders.

We started in the weight room as soon as she was physically able to stand and walk to the car and ride there.  What we did in the gym at this point is hardly relevant.  We were re-establishing a routine, and she was moving her body.  Seven days postpartum, we started with the first week of a new plan.  Her first three weeks of workouts involved stretching a rubber band in various positions, while sitting on a bench with a back rest.  The band pull-aparts were followed by seated dumbbell movements, and a few seated cable exercises.  Naturally, we were able to do more upper body exercises in the beginning.  The goal in these first weeks was facilitating even faster recovery.  The goal here was very simple:  Work towards being able to perform full-body compound movements with bars and plates.

As she recovered, we followed the same two-option plan just like during pregnancy.  Every workout had an A and a B choice, and we did whatever fit her condition on that given day.  We NEVER rushed bar weight, ever.  If the plan called for 20 pounds, we stuck with 20 pounds.  If she felt strong, we did more reps with the same weight.  This held true for the first six months of her postpartum training.

I realize there may not be many specifics as to what she did before/during/post pregnancy, but that is for a reason.  We didn't have specifics.  We listened to her body, and adapted to her needs along the way.  During pregnancy, we slowly and steadily decreased her workload to keep her safe and preserve strength.  After delivery, we very, very slowly increased the workload for the same exact reasons.

When I have described the methods outlined above to others, a very common response from women is to the tune of, "I wish I had the energy to do that."  Most people don't understand that my wife didn't have shit for energy either.  Know what she did?  Work.  She WAS tired.  Exhausted.  I can count on two hands the number of 'fun' workouts she had over several months of pregnancy.  Her training days weren't a vacation.  She was sore, disinterested and discouraged more often than not.  We were learning as we went, but we NEVER stopped moving.  She knew every time she punched in to the weight room that when it mattered most, her body was going to be strong.  You don't get something for nothing, after all.

From her first postpartum workout one week after delivery, to her first powerlifting competition, we never increased the weight more than five pounds per week on ANY exercise.  EVER.  Remember this when you read her accomplishments below.

9 Months postpartum, lightest-ever competition bodyweight, no water cut.

Preparation is EVERYTHING.  The harder you work from day one, the stronger you'll be in the end.  Push as hard as you physically can, within your means.  Always work within your means - no more, no less


6 Days:    Return to the weight room.  Upper body only, seated position
4 Weeks:  First barbell squat, 65 lbs for reps.
6 Weeks:  Down 30 pounds from 171 to 141 lbs.
12 Weeks:  All-time rep PR squat 185x5
15 Weeks:  Began training log clean and press
16 Weeks:  First 300 lb deadlift, and All-time PR bench 140x1
18 Weeks:  First powerlifting meet.  Bodyweight same as pre-pregnancy
                   225 Squat, 135 Bench, 315 Deadlift - 675 Total @ 132.
                   Met or exceeded all previous all-time PR's
32 Weeks:  Second powerlifting meet, IPA Nationals, York Pennsylvania
                   245 Squat, 150 Bench, 340 Deadlift - 735 Total @ 121
                   All lifts were all-time PR's
                   Overall Winner, Women's Division

I hope you have gained a bit of insight into how I structured Katherine's training throughout her entire pregnancy and beyond.  The biggest point I would like to pass on is that a woman can always do SOMETHING in the weight room, and ANYTHING will help.  There will be great days, and there will be very hard days.  In fact, there's probably going to be more hard ones than good.  But the hard work pays off enormously in the end.  Never underestimate your ability to grow strong and stay strong.

Lastly, if you did enjoy what you read, feel free to share this blog in your own social media community, I'd appreciate it.  As always, I'll never bullshit anyone about what I do and don't know.  I wrote this blog to speak about my experiences and what knowledge I've picked up in the few years I've been in the strength game.  We can all grow stronger together.


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