- Christine MacMillan, PT
Training for Motherhood
There is an important concept in exercise physiology referred to as specificity. If you're an athlete training for your sport (or coming back from an injury), your training program should have elements that look like that sport. The reason is simply because we get better at the specific thing we practice. Specificity is one of the most important details left out of pre- and post-natal exercise programs.
If you want to be great at playing soccer, you can't simply spend your time on cardio and free-weights. Hamstring curls will make you better at hamstring curls; bench press will make you better at bench pressing. While those types of exercises are great for a lot of reasons, neither will necessarily prepare you for the field. Your program would have to also include some sport-specific drills.
Specificity is also important for pre-natal and post-natal women who want to condition their bodies, since motherhood comes with some very physical requirements. Until you have had a baby, you don't realize the strain of lifting and lowering a baby from a crib day and night, or hauling a carseat everywhere you go, or loading strollers and other equipment into the back of a van. It may not look like a "sport" but it is physical, and women often find themselves thrown into this world after having just experienced enormous strain to the core muscles. It is a bad combination of being very vulnerable in the core, while simultaneously being faced with lots of new physical demands.
When we are thrown into these activities without adequately conditioning the core in a "sport-specific" way, our bodies are at risk for injury. One of the biggest problems is that many pre-natal and post-natal exercise programs don't apply the rule of specificity. The same way hamstring curls will only make you better at hamstring curls, kegels will only make you better at doing kegels! And don't get me wrong. I prescribe a lot of "bridges" and "clamshells" and - yes - kegels. But a comprehensive exercise program should START there, and ultimately move toward movements and exercises that prepare your core for real-world demands. No amount of sit-ups or planks will ensure your core is "switching on" in real-world scenarios.
So what can you do? You can train for motherhood with specificity. Instead of just doing kegels, or lifting free weights, consider the requirements of your "sport" and make sure your exercise program resembles that "sport"! This can mean doing squats and lunges while holding your carseat instead of dumbbells. (Load the carseat up with some weight if you like - your baby won't stay little for long!) Can you lift and carry without holding your breath? Can you engage your pelvic floor through the lift, or do you need to strain?
Think about how many times in that first year you are going to be lifting your baby off the floor or out of a carseat. Or how often you will have to get up from the floor while holding a squirming baby. Train for those inevitabilities! (Note: I only encourage holding your baby during exercise if you feel safe and stable. Like any exercise program, you should progress toward more challenging movements over time and with guidance of a professional if possible.)
The big takeaway is this: We have to train our bodies how to move again after giving birth. Despite the commonly accepted 6-week benchmark for having "recovered", our bodies often move differently after baby and we are not always engaging the right muscles for movement. Especially if you feel pressure in the pelvis or vagina, a bulging at the midline of the abdominals, or are noticing bladder or bowel leakage, these are all common symptoms of core weakness and you need to practice real-life movements with these muscles engaged.
As always, seek help from a physiotherapist with pre- and post-natal training if you can. Take a good look at the program you're doing and make sure it follows the rule of specificity! And if you haven't considered training for motherhood, I would encourage you to invest in your body, as it's about to do a lot for you! If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.