Personal trainer, founder of Bumps and Burpees and new mum Charlie Barker on keeping fit in pregnancy the second time around…
Once upon a time pregnancy was seen as a time to put your feet up, to sack off the gym and indulge in that extra bar of chocolate (after all, you’re eating for two, right?).
Yet, with studies showing that keeping active in pregnancy promotes a range of mental and physical health benefits, coupled with the fact that mums simply want to keep on working out throughout pregnancy, many women want to do more than the stereotypical maternity yoga class and gently swimming laps of the local pool. They want to continue to lift weights or run in a way that is safe but still allows them to maintain their fitness.
“I think it's becoming a bit more normal to see pregnant women training,” says Charlie Barker, founder of Bumps and Burpees, which offers specialist personal training to both expectant and new mothers.
“Women ask me things like: ‘I love doing HIIT workouts or I love lifting heavy weights, but I'm pregnant so when do I need to stop?’ And I tell them you don’t need to stop training, what you need to do is just make sure that you're lifting weights that you feel comfortable and you're not going to get light-headed and lose your balance. It's all about adapting and making it work for you.”
Pregnancy the second time around
Barker gave birth to her first child Alfie in 2020 and is at the time of writing, a few short weeks away from welcoming her second baby, so she understands first hand what its like to train throughout pregnancy.
“The first time around I found it quite stressful at time because I had suffered multiple miscarriages before,” she says. “I was just hyper aware of every little niggle or twinge, but I focussed on strength work and enjoyed the fact that I felt well enough to continue to exercise. I certainly took more rest days though as I was much more tired than usual, so made sure not to make myself feel bad if I took a day off.”
This time, she stresses, she feels much more confident in what she can and can’t do. “I am much better at listening to my body and resting when I need to without worrying about it so much. I have also been much less worried about miscarriage having done it once before, but it has definitely still played on my mind at times”
Motivation levels with a toddler
She does admit though that having a toddler has definitely had an impact on her motivation levels in this pregnancy. “I am tired all the time! He gets up early and needs attention all day. Some days I am really not motivated and need to start the session demotivated which is a lot harder and other days I do feel motivated and I go for it.” But she does have a strategy to deal with the tougher days. “When I feel demotivated, I have to remind myself why I am doing it and how good I feel after and I need to remember that when I am struggling. The endorphin rush is like nothing else. But it is harder when I am exhausted so I do have to dig deeper some days.”
Fitting workouts around a toddler
As any mum of small children knows, finding time for yourself can be a real challenge. “When Alfie was smaller and slept more, I would time my exercise with his first nap. Then when he got more active, I would exercise when he was awake. As long as he was fed, had slept and was happy I would try and exercise with him with all the toys or on a bouncer. Then when he got more mobile it wasn’t as easy to exercise with him awake so I started trying to do it with his lunchtime nap but of course it doesn’t always go to plan which is frustrating. Now I try to do it when he’s asleep, or at nursery, or my husband is around to take him from me so I don’t have to worry about stepping on him!”
Bumps and Burpees the book
Barker launched Bumps and Burpees back in 2014, and last year published her first book of the same name.
“I felt like there was a gap in the market for a pregnancy fitness book that was real – a book that understands that you're not going to feel like exercising every day, you might have morning sickness, you might be exhausted,” she says. “Yet all I could see was exercise books with models holding coconut for weights and bikinis in the Maldives with the perfect bump and you know you just think, ‘Oh my god, that's just not how you feel at all in pregnancy’.”
The book is split up into sections for each trimester and includes a mixture of science, fitness and Barker chatting through her own diary – “I wanted it to feel like somebody was holding your hand throughout your pregnancy – like you've got friends with you,” she says. “The idea of the book is to empower women to feel confident in exercising, because there's a lot of people who get really put off and afraid of exercising during pregnancy.”
There are 12 workouts specific to each trimester and each workout is split into upper body, lower body and full body – with core exercises spread out across all of them. Each workout takes around 25 minutes to half an hour and the only thing you need is a pair of dumbbells and you’re good to go.
“The exercises are the same throughout,” she explains. “I wanted to show people that you don’t have to do different exercises as you get more pregnant, but what you do need to do is adapt that exercise. For example, in trimester one press-ups will be done in a full plank position, and then in trimester two, you might drop the knees – but you're still in kind of a half plank position like your hips are tucked under and your core is really working, and in trimester three you might bring your knees a bit closer to more of a box position, and your bum stays in the air while you drop your shoulders down.”
The old advice when it came to exercise and pregnancy was if you haven't
exercised before pregnancy, don't start during pregnancy – but Barker
says people have been taking that too literally.
Barker stresses that every woman is so different at this stage of life, “If somebody is pregnant at 20 years old and a marathon runner, you can't put them in the same bracket as someone who is 40 and never exercised before – their heart rates are going to be different, their bodies are going to be different. You have to listen to your body.”
"It’s not just about staying physically strong and chasing that endorphin high", she adds, on the mental side of things, it's important to keep doing something that makes you feel good too.
Treat pregnancy like a marathon
The old advice when it came to exercise and pregnancy was if you haven't exercised before pregnancy, don't start during pregnancy – but Barker says people have been taking that too literally.
“Don't try and become a runner in your pregnancy – running is something that needs practice and something that you probably shouldn't take up if you've never done it before, but in terms of the resistance and gentle strength training, I would absolutely say if you haven't done it before it doesn't matter. Start now. Start steadily, get some advice, follow a plan. And don't jump into the deep end, because you don't want to get an injury whilst you're pregnant because it's hard enough.”
It seems this area is still very much rife with confusion and misinformation. On one hand, too many women still give up exercise and do nothing as soon as they find out they’re pregnant.
“I love and I always use the analogy of pregnancy being like a marathon. If you were coming to me as a client, and I told me that you wanted to run a marathon in nine months, I would not be telling you just to go and lie down and rest. You need to prepare your body because labour can be long – some people have 36 hours in labour. So, you've got to be mentally, physically ready for that.”
It’s also key to remember, she says, that the baby is only going to be small for a very short amount of time, and then they’ll start to get heavier. “I've never been so strong as I am now having a toddler as I'm lifting him the entire time. I'm so thankful that I had a base level of strength before he got big. A buggy and a car seat are both actually quite heavy and awkward objects to hold, so you need strength not just for labour, but for motherhood too.”
The pressure to bounce back
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s this pressure to ‘snap back’ to your original figure quickly.
“Go through social media and unfollow anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself,” she advises.
With a large social media following, Barker admits she did feel under pressure to keep everyone updated with what she was doing during her pregnancy – but instead of showing how much she was working out she also wanted to let everyone know it was ok not to work out every day throughout pregnancy. “When I was exercising, I was asked a lot about what I was doing and what was safe and what wasn't, so I just felt the pressure to be doing it ‘right’ rather than enough.”
Getting your postnatal mojo back
Barker admits that she found getting in to an exercise routine after Alfie was born, really difficult. “I think it was one of the things I struggled with most in the first six month,” she says. “Before babies you are in total control and all of a sudden this tiny person controls everything for you. By around 4/5 months we got in to a bit of a routine and I set my expectations to be realistic so I was working out in 25 mins blocks. As he got older and his sleep was more reliable, I felt like I was getting back to myself – at about 7/8 months. But you have to be flexible as babies don’t stick to the rules every day! And it keeps getting easier as they get bigger and more predictable.”
Barker says its easy to overestimate how quickly you can recover and that its easy to go back in too quickly. “When I was pregnant with Alfie I thought I would be raring to get back to the gym but actually found it the opposite.” In terms of the advice Barker says she would give other new mums on looking to find their fitness mojos again postnatally, she says "My first piece of advice is not to worry if it isn't there to start with, this is totally normal. It is totally understandable to not fancy a workout if you have been up every hour in the night. Try to ease yourself back into it here and there when you feel ready, or find little snippets of time.
"Even now I will sometimes wear my gym stuff all day so that if and when I see a window of opportunity, I can just get going with a workout immediately and if it only lasts 15 minutes then that's fine. You will get more time as the weeks go on, you will get more energy and your mojo will come back but make sure to set your expectations to match your new life with a baby!”