This is a guest post by strength & conditioning coach Phil Nourse. Phil is a certified weightlifting coach by both BWLA and USAW. And he recently became a dad.
Gubernatrix stated in her manifesto that “I am more than ever convinced that there is a great need for support for women to get involved, break down barriers, educate and be educated and be able to empower themselves through strength training.”
Not only do I wholeheartedly endorse this statement but I want to add an extra dimension to it, namely the vital role which I believe strength training plays in pre-natal preparation.
A very good friend of mine is Jenny Burrell, a lady who is seen as, arguably, the leading pre- and post-natal training specialist in the UK today. To any woman who is planning on getting pregnant, is pregnant or whom has given birth I implore you to get in touch with Jenny. To any coach or personal trainer with an interest in this field you simply have to get onto one of her training courses (www.burrelleducation.com).
Jenny is someone who eats, sleeps and breathes her field; hell, how many people are so passionate about their profession that they are prepared to be vaginally probed to further their understanding?! More on that later.
Jenny’s approach is far more sophisticated than the traditional, haphazard “just kinda squeeze your pelvic floor muscles every so often” protocol which is basically what the NHS and many other pre/post-natal trainers have long proposed. Although Jenny uses these conscious, ‘squeezing’ techniques, known as Kegels, she largely advocates a much more subconscious approach to training the pelvic floor. If you have read the quite wonderful paper ‘The Myth of Core Stability’ by Dr. Eyal Lederman, then this approach will make perfect sense to you, if you have not then hunt it down.
In this paper Lederman talks at length about his concerns over current trends in training core muscles. At one juncture he states:
“The new models encourage the subjects to “think about their core” during functional activities. One wonders if David Beckham thinks about the “core” before a free kick or Michael Jordan when he slam-dunks or for that matter our patient who is running after a bus, cooking or any other daily activities. How long can they maintain that thought while multitasking in complex functional activities? Maybe thinking about the core is not such a good idea for sports training.”
My contention is that Lederman is absolutely right. In a healthy individual the core muscles work reflexively in sporting environments as generally actions occur far too fast and far too unpredictably for blanket ‘core bracing’ to have any relevance.
There is actually a very strong argument that bracing the core, e.g. setting the transverse abdominis, whilst training for sporting activities impairs that ability of the core muscles to receive a reflexive training effect and thus their function in a real world sporting environment is heavily impaired. I often watch videos of my weightlifters frame by frame and some of the work you see take place in the trunk is quite simply phenomenal…but I can guarantee you they weren’t thinking about that mid snatch or jerk.
So what is the relevance of this borderline tangential debate to pre/post natal training? Well let me sum it up in this way: you’ve just had a baby, you’re up at the Comedy Store, someone tells a funny joke, by the time you’ve thought to brace your pelvic floor you’ve already wet yourself!
Which brings us back nicely to Jenny’s subconscious, reflexive approach to pre/post-natal training. Jenny and I have actually done some very interesting EMG based testing of exercises and the involvement of the pelvic floor in each. As I mentioned previously, Jenny’s passion for this area is so great that she volunteered to perform these exercises whilst wearing (I’m really not convinced that’s the right word!) a vaginal EMG electrode probe. This probe allowed us to measure the activation of the pelvic floor in each exercise, measured in microvolts (µV). The results were fascinating to me. The traditional Kegel exercises, the fundamental shortfalls of which have already been discussed, brought about an EMG response of just over 75µV.
Now when we tested a wide stance squat (unloaded) what did we see? Interestingly the EMG recording showed peak values of almost double that recorded with the conscious, ‘isolation’ Kegel exercises; they were getting on for 150µV!
To understand this we need to go back to the Dr. Lederman debate and some basic physiology.
The pelvic floor is quite simply a ‘figure-8’ of muscles which surround, in a woman, the vagina and anus. In the basest of terms these muscles exist to stop your insides falling out of your body through your holes. So logically if your feet are wide spread and you drop into a squat there is a reflexive, instinctive response contraction (a stretch reflex perhaps?) in your pelvic floor muscles; there simply has to be or else everything falls out!
It appears as if the response is even greater if speed of squat is increased. What is interesting is the magnitude of this contraction, i.e. the EMG signal with a reflexive contraction is almost twice that of a conscious one!
To those of us who understand how to take advantage of the stretch reflex in a countermovement jump, jerk, push press or the transition/’double knee bend’ phase in a clean or snatch, this will make perfect sense. The subconscious is less inhibited than the conscious when it comes to innervation, contraction and force expression.
We then took things a step further and had a look at squat jumping. The results were staggering. We witnessed EMG recordings approaching 900µV! That is 12 times greater than the Kegels!
Clearly under explosive conditions the reflexive, subconscious engagement of the pelvic floor takes what we saw in the wide stance squat to new levels.
So what can we take from this information? Well how about this as a recommendation? “Just do stuff”. It strikes me that what this evidence should be telling women is that if you want to keep your down belows in the best condition possible through pregnancy and after you simply have to move and move vigorously.
The other thing I find interesting is that squatting and jumping give us the greatest responses. Hmmm…squatting and jumping, sounds an awful lot like Olympic weightlifting no? Now if we can get a response 12 times greater with a bodyweight squat jump, imagine what we could produce with a 1.5x bodyweight clean and jerk, or bodyweight snatch!
I will end this discussion with a real world example very close to my heart…and in fact physically close to me as both of the two people I am about to mention are lying next to me as a I write this. On August 25th 2010 I was blessed with my first baby, a beautiful strapping little boy called Dallas David Nourse. Now my wife, Veronika, started training in Olympic weightlifting for about a year before we conceived little Dallas and competed until 3½ months pregnant. Even after stopping lifting competitively she continued to train at a lower intensity and was sumo deadlifting around 50kg (very light for her), as well as squatting, benching and shoulder pressing, until 8 months gestation.
What was Veronika’s payoff? Well the pregnancy was textbook, better than textbook in fact, she actually enjoyed every day of the process. The labour was, dare I say it, easy. Little Dallas came out with so little hassle that I almost missed it parking the car after dropping her at the maternity wing! The midwife simply could not believe how straightforward it was. She said that every mother would like to know Veronika’s secret. None of them could get over it. I, of course, knew the secret.
There is a lesson to be learned here from both the science and the real world experience. Women simply need to be more active, they need to be vigorous in their activity and they need to develop strength and power. They need to move quickly and learn to handle the forces this generates. This is how pre-natal, and eventually post-natal, training should be addressed and it shouldn’t just start when you find out you’re pregnant, it’s too late by then.
As Gubes said, “I am more than ever convinced that there is a great need for support for women to get involved, break down barriers, educate and be educated and be able to empower themselves through strength training.” Ladies…this is ‘The Secret’.
Folks, Phil originally wrote this piece last year. I bumped into Veronika a few months ago at a weightlifting competition; I thought she had come to watch, but she was back competing about 6 months after the birth.
If you are interested in more real life experiences, check out my friend Sally Dixey‘s Crossfit-while-pregnant blog, and for a great post-natal story read about my friend Lieke’s experiences via Stumptuous.
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