Training while pregnant

This section on Training while pregnant provides information for tai chi, kung fu and other martial arts instructors who may not be familiar with the unique challenges of a pregnant woman in their class.

It is the personal experiences of the author and should not constitute medical advice. Every pregnancy is different, so all training should only proceed under the agreement of a woman’s doctor and her instructors. Please ensure you consult your doctor prior to continuing with your training.

Training while pregnant in tai chi or kung fu

There is no reason that a pregnant woman cannot continue to train in her chosen martial art. In fact, there are many benefits to ongoing exercise. However, due to the changes in her body during those nine months, there are some allowances which need to be made.

First trimester with tai chi, kung fu, or martial arts training

Privacy: The mother should inform her instructors of her condition as early as possible to make them aware of the items below. However this news is usually not yet to be shouted from the rooftops! The risk of miscarriage is greatest in the first trimester and should the worst happen, she may not want to deal with everyone’s well-meaning solicitations.

Taking it easy: Despite its name, morning sickness can strike at any time of the day. Most common in the first trimester, it can also last the entire pregnancy. Lowering the training intensity, taking a break during class or even eating a small snack may be necessary to calm the nausea down.

The mother’s blood vessels widen during pregnancy (to channel more blood to the baby) which lowers her blood pressure: light-headedness is a common symptom. Sitting or lying down may be necessary, and taking one’s time in getting up off the ground.

Throughout the pregnancy, many women experience fatigue. This is caused by a number of factors: their body is busy creating new life 24/7, they probably aren’t sleeping too well, and there’s a potent cocktail (which is no dacquiri) of hormones coursing through their system. If they yawn, it’s not because the class is boring, they’re just exhausted. They may miss classes semi-regularly, in favour of an early night.

Frequent pee breaks. The weight of the baby rests right on the bladder. Not helpful. Who designed this system? What were they thinking?

Poor Balance: Relaxin and other pregnancy hormones are released early and enthusiastically. Their job is to prepare the mother’s body for birth, involving loosening her joints by making the ligaments and tendons floppy. Unfortunately, the hormones aren’t picky about what they affect and it’s not just the pelvis: back, knees and ankles are most at risk to the martial arts practitioner. Practically speaking, this means that her balance will be poor as previously stable joints now struggle to take the strain. Compounded by the fact that as her belly grows, her centre of balance will change from what she’s used to, she needs to take care when in one-legged stances or kicks where balance is important.

Wide stances may also be a problem, such as a low horse stance or forward stance. The woman may struggle to keep the knee tracking over her toe, as the hip joints in the pelvis, knee and ankle are now more mobile and no longer keep her so tightly ‘in line’.

Overstretching: Great! Relaxin is the key to improving your stretches – it makes everything limber and loose, surely the tai chi or kung fu splits will be easy as pie now? Certainly increased flexibility is an added bonus, but it comes with a warning. It is easy to overstretch muscles without the tendons able to act as a safety system. This can result in injuries that do not recover, even after birth. Be aware of the pre-pregnancy limits and try to stick within reasonable boundaries even if going further seems to be no problem.

No contact sports: Sparring in Kung Fu is a definite no-go. Despite the best of intentions and the greatest of care, a punch in the wrong spot or losing balance and falling over is a risk to the baby.

Applications work in Tai Chi can be continued if care is given to ensure all moves are kept slow and there is no chance of falls.

Overheating and high heart rate: Generally, most doctors advise keeping the heart rate down in order to keep the body temperature approximately normal. The baby within can’t lower its temperature via sweating or taking a cool shower or chugging a cool drink, so when the mother gets too hot, the baby does too. This puts the baby’s health at risk.

Chi Cultivation: Within our Tai Chi and Kung Fu training is aspects of Chi cultivation. Unfortunately, this is not good for pregnant woman. Chi cultivation centres on the Dan Tien, which is right over the baby. Chi cultivation raises the body temperature in that area. From the above point, we know that overheating is not a good idea. So from the moment you’re pregnant, Chi cultivation is no longer part of your training. Use this time instead to focus on some pelvic floor or stomach strengthening exercises (just sucking in the weight of your belly is quite a good workout!).

Second trimester in tai chi, kung fu or the martial arts

No lying down: From now onwards, no lying down for any length of time, for most women. The weight of the baby can compress a major blood vessel in her back, resulting in dizziness and light-headedness as the woman’s blood supply is cut off. 5 minutes is probably fine, 15 minutes is probably not. Lying down on the stomach is right out, just because it’s mighty uncomfortable.

Wellbeing: Most women feel much better during their second trimester. Fatigue and nausea have eased off, their pregnancy ‘glow’ is in place, they have gone public with their big news and excitement has taken over. They still need to be aware of the changes to their body and adjust their training to how they feel, but the smile is probably back on their face for the first time in months!

Third trimester training in tai chi, kung fu or martial arts

Core instability: Some women experience separation of their stomach muscles as their body grows to accommodate the baby human within. This obviously causes problems for core stability! While the core muscles still can tighten to support her body, they may not have their pre-pregnancy strength. Keep kicks low and avoid low stances – getting out of a low position, particularly with the increased weight of the baby, will be difficult at best.

Hip rotation: The pelvis is now really getting its mojo on in preparation for the birth. The woman has developed the classic pregnancy ‘waddle’, as her pelvis has widened and hips have rotated slightly to let the baby pass. A percentage of woman experience severe pelvic instability: this means they basically need to keep their knees together or in-line at all times which means no one-legged stances or horse stances. The rest just tend to have some joint pain. Take it easy!

Preparing for natural birth: If the baby is in the wrong position for birth, spending some time in horse stance can be a good idea. This keeps the pelvis wide, encouraging the little one to turn head down. It also strenghtens the mother’s legs, which she may need during the process of labour. (Even sitting in horse stance on a fit ball can help, since most of us can’t manage horse stance for more than a few minutes!)

Birth: The odds of a pregnant woman going into labour during a class are small but not beyond the realms of possibility. Spontaneous birth may take her by surprise, with babies deciding to turn up as early as six weeks (or more) before their due date. But this doesn’t mean you’ll need to lay in a supply of clean towels and hot water! The process of labour takes many hours: she should be driven home or picked up by a partner/friend.

Post-pregnancy training in tai chi, kung fu or martial arts

Taking it easy: Most doctors advise against exercise (and driving, if there was a caesarean birth) for the first six weeks after birth, to give the woman’s body time to recover minimal function. Thereafter there is often more enthusiasm than capability as she tries to gain some baby-free time and regain her pre-baby body. Alas, the nine months of changes takes nine months to recover from. The effects of the relaxin stay in the system after the birth. The stomach muscles and pelvic floor are weak. Hormones are still going wild. Sleepless nights are causing fatigue. She may need a gentle reminder to take it easy and not expect that she can magically do all the things she could do pre-pregnancy: it will take time to rebuild her strength and balance.

The positives

All these things that are no good: why would anyone even contemplate training while pregnant? Or continue to do martial arts such as tai chi or kung fu training while pregnant?

Exercise is still good for the body and mind. Fortunately, martial arts can be tailored to the state of one’s wellbeing and while the low sweeps and high kicks are no longer a good idea, keeping the body active and mobile every day is good for the baby and the mother. Often the rhythm of gentle tai chi exercise can lull the unborn baby back to sleep, providing some welcome relief to the mother who may be fearing her child is showing a disturbing predisposition to Kung Fu fighting even while in the womb!

Thanks to Golden Lion tai chi student Nicola Nye for this contribution.

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