There’s nowhere to hide your pregnancy under a powerlifting singlet. Not that Sarah Strong was trying to. She was a full-time personal trainer with two certifications in pre- and postnatal exercise.
“I have always been passionate about empowering women to stay active, if suitable, during their pregnancies,” she says.
And it was suitable for her. Strong (most fitting last name ever) was a competitive powerlifter when she got pregnant with her son in 2017. Throughout that pregnancy, she competed twice – lifting most of her pre-pregnancy weights well into the second trimester.
As her stomach grew larger, her squats took a hit, so she modified by lowering the weight or skipping squats altogether if it didn’t feel right. She says she was careful to take extra-long rests when lifting while pregnant and paid close attention to her breathing, nutrition, and hydration.
Strong’s last lifting session was three days before her son Max was born.
Sarah Strong with her kids. Courtesy photo
He turns 5 this month. And he’s grown up in the gym watching his mom lift weights and help others train, too. Strong has now been a personal trainer since 2011, and her specialty is pre- and postnatal fitness and powerlifting. She’s a USPA powerlifting coach and offers custom, remote coaching.
We wanted to know more about lifting weights while pregnant – and as a mom with young kids – so we sat down with Strong to learn more about her story and experience as a pre- and postnatal personal trainer. Here’s how it went down.
We know everyone’s situation is different and depends on the doctor’s recommendations. But generally speaking, what do you tell women who want to keep working out when they’re pregnant?
For most women, continuing lifting during pregnancy is safe for both mom and baby. Of course, you should always consult your medical team first. If your doctor or midwife gives the clear to exercise during pregnancy, make sure you listen to your body. I know that sounds cliché, but pregnancy is a time when a woman really gets in touch with her body. Some things to consider: your breathing, whether you get lightheaded, if there’s any pain present in performing movement. Pregnancy is not a time to ignore or push off pain — listen to it.
What are the benefits of working out while you’re pregnant?
Exercising during pregnancy has many health benefits for mom and baby. It can limit excessive weight gain during pregnancy, which lowers your risk for gestational diabetes. Moms who exercise during pregnancy also tend to have shorter and smoother labors with less complications. Both of my children were born vaginally with no medication, and I attribute their smooth deliveries to how healthy and active I was during pregnancy. In addition, exercise during pregnancy can lead to a quicker postpartum recovery time, and it often results in leaner children who are less likely to develop diabetes in childhood.
What about after the baby is born? Can you keep working out?
Sarah Strong with her son at a powerlifting meet. Courtesy photo
After the baby is born, it can be difficult to get back into the routine of lifting. Early postpartum, I started with simple bodyweight movement with baby. Babywearing was a huge staple with both of my kids when they were newborns. I even “babywore” both of them as toddlers, and they were so used to it, that they were happy to be on my back during lifting, up through age 3.
Before beginning exercise after birth, it’s important to get checked by your physician or midwife, especially if you had any complications, tearing, or a C-section. With my oldest, I had external tearing and could barely go for walks for at least six weeks. I had to resume exercise very slowly. But with my second child, I had zero tearing and was able to go for walks immediately. My midwife told me I was good to start bodyweight exercise at about three weeks postpartum, and I was safe to resume lifting at six weeks postpartum.
Everyone is different. The general recommendation is to wait six weeks, but there are many factors to consider.
What are some misconceptions you think people have about exercise and motherhood?
A misconception that people might have is that exercising with a newborn is selfish; however, it’s actually great for the mom and can help fight postpartum depression and consequently enable her to be a more active and attentive mom. Exercise can also help a mom’s energy levels. Another misconception would be that exercising postpartum would tank a mom’s milk supply. But with proper nutrition and hydration, this should not be affected. I was able to nurse both of my children into their toddler years while staying active competing in powerlifting.
How do you keep lifting as a mom with growing kids? Any tips or recommendations for other moms?
I have had to learn to give myself an immense amount of grace when it comes to working out with young children. I usually set goals for things I need to do and things I would like to do. For example, if I am training for a meet, I will prioritize my top sets, and my accessories may get postponed if I have to change a diaper or tend to one of my kids. Giving myself some grace allows me to be both a good mom and a good lifter.
Now, how do you include your kids in your working out?
Sarah Strong lifting in her home gym. Courtesy photo
I have included my kids in working out in several ways — we are a very active family. As babies, I wore both kids while I lifted when I needed to. This was especially useful when they first learned to walk. I didn’t max out ever while babywearing, but I could lift lighter loads safely with them.
I have also taken the time to teach my kids some basics in the gym. My son, at age 4, loves doing push-ups. When they see me workout, they’re often encouraged to be active themselves. We also hike and participate in various other sports and activities together.
Now that my children are older, 9 and 5, I sometimes include them in my workouts. They have toy weights and I teach them bodyweight exercises when they want to be involved. I never force it, though. My kids have grown up in the gym. They have been taught gym safety and to stay out of the way of people lifting.
One big factor for many parents is childcare to be able to lift. I have brought my kids to powerlifting gyms and just kept an eye on them while I lift. Sometimes that’s their time to play on a tablet so mommy can work out. Other times, I have taken them to commercial gyms and put them in the childcare there.
How has having a home gym helped make it more accessible for you to keep lifting with kids?
Up until 2020, I lifted out of commercial and private gyms. In commercial gyms, I had to put my kids in their daycare. This was limiting because they often had restrictions on time. When I lifted in private gyms, childcare often wasn’t available. This is when I would have to work out with my kids next to me or baby wear.
In 2020, I was fortunate to be able to build a home gym in my garage. This was a game changer in being able to work out as a parent. Having a home gym gives me ample flexibility with my workouts. I can lift whenever I want.
For a busy parent, having a home gym is clutch. Sometimes, my kids come out to the garage with me. They have some toys out there, as well as their scooters. This way, I can keep an eye on them while I lift. I have taught my kids about gym safety from a young age, so they don’t get in the way while I’m lifting.
Having a home gym also gives me the flexibility to stop a workout and take care of my kids, if needed, and then resume when I’m able again. Now that my kids are getting older, I feel confident in having them in the house while I’m in the garage lifting. I can go out and lift after they go to bed, and I know they’re safe and I can get my workout in.
Why do you think it’s important for moms to exercise?
It’s difficult to describe how significant continuing lifting as a mom has been to me. Waiting for my sumo deadlift to break the floor has taught me patience. Grinding through my sticking point on bench has taught me perseverance. And feeling 300 pounds on my back in squats taught me that I can handle anything. Lifting has taught me skills that enable me to be the best parent I can.
Growing up, I never had healthy adult role models. I am proud to be a healthy parent and to teach my kids about health and fitness by being an example for them. I don’t just tell them how to be healthy; rather, I show them how to be healthy by living in that way myself.
I hope other moms understand that they don’t have to give up lifting because they have kids. It might be challenging at times. But we can do hard things. That’s my mantra: I can do hard things. If I can grow and birth two amazing humans, I can lift some weights and continue to take care of my body.
I want to be careful to clarify, though, that I am not advocating a “no excuses” mindset. Sometimes, there are excuses for why we can’t make it to the gym. Maybe your kid just puked all over. Don’t fret and bust out a hundred burpees in the living room because you feel guilty for missing the gym. The gym will still be there.
Being healthy isn’t an all or nothing mindset. You have to learn to prioritize exercise when you can but give yourself grace when other matters take precedence.