Part 4 of 5: How To Barbell Train During Pregnancy

You’ve been feeling kind of tired and a bit nauseous each morning. Your abs have been sore, and your desire to do anything other than sit on the couch and watch Real Housewives has dropped dramatically. You realized you missed your period and have taken a pregnancy test and it’s positive. The first thing that crosses your mind is not who you’re going to tell first, but “how will this affect my training?”

Well, hopefully you’ve read parts one, two, and three of this series (if you haven’t, please do so) and know that you’re going to be okay and you should be able to train through your pregnancy so long as you’re comfortable doing so and your pregnancy is not considered high risk and is uncomplicated. In this article I’m going to discuss what steps you can take before and during pregnancy to modify your training to serve your body and baby while baking the bun in the oven.

In parts 1-3 we discussed the general theme of “doing what feels right for you,” so I’d first like to introduce the topic of Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). RPE is nothing new to the world of exercise. It’s long been a subjective measure of an individual's perceived exercise intensity; essentially, how hard you feel like you are working. RPE takes into account perceptions of one’s physiological parameters such as heart rate, body temperature, respiration rate, sweating, and muscle fatigue. RPE was first discussed by Dr. Gunnar Borg of Stockholms University in the 1970s.

The Borg Scale has long been used as standard measure in the fields of exercise science and medicine and in recent years the use of RPE has been adapted into strength training program design. Since we are targeting the strength trainee with this series, we will talk about the RPE scale in the form that has been adopted for strength training rather than the BORG scale that is used for more generalized cardiovascular fitness and endurance-based activities.

The loads we are working with need to be effective to produce the correct stress-adaptation response for strength development. While general fitness trainers and medical professionals encourage pregnant individuals to work at low to moderate intensities and mid-to-higher rep ranges, if your goal is to a) continue to get stronger or b) retain as much strength as possible during pregnancy, then you need to train with the appropriate intensity and the appropriate volume to produce the desired effects while keeping you and baby healthy.

If you and your partner are in the family planning stages then now would be an appropriate time to start familiarizing yourself with the Strength Training RPE (STRPE) scale. The more you use it, the better you get at refining your individual STRPE scale, and the better you’ll be at implementing it to adjust training loads as soon as you realize you’re pregnant. Use of the STRPE scale allows you to adapt the training loads to what works for you on that day based on all things related to your pregnancy (Sound familiar? It should if you’ve read parts 1-3 of this series ;)). It is a great tool to allow you to continue to achieve appropriate training intensities without over-stressing your body because you’re not feeling it that day but your program says you’re “supposed” to hit a specific load. When pregnant, there is no “supposed to do.” It’s simply: “is this right for me today?”

Now we’ll discuss a little bit about the STRPE scale and how it’s applied to strength training on a set-by-set basis. The STRPE scale is a scale that ranges from 1-10 but anything less than 5 is of no influence for strength or hypertrophy training and should be considered warm-up and technical adjustment loads. Below is a list of what we are concerned with for strength training effects:

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STRPE is assigned on a set-by-set basis which means that the rating applies to a single set. The best way to begin using STRPE is to ask yourself THIS question at the end of each set: “how many more reps could I have really done?” Based on the chart above, and your response to the question, you’ll have an RPE assignment for that set.

As mentioned previously, the more you use STRPE, the more accurate your ratings become. If you are a novice lifter or new to STRPE, this is why I recommend using the practice of assigning STRPE long before you become pregnant: so you get good at using it before you really need it. If you’ve been using it as part of your training program for a while now, yay! Good for you. It’s a great tool for intermediate and advanced lifters to designate appropriate training loads AND it’s a great tool for novice lifters to communicate difficulty of training loads and identify when their incremental progress from session to session is becoming too cumbersome for continued progress and needs to be adjusted. So, spend some time simply taking note of how things feel and jotting down a STRPE for each work set in your training journal. You’ll be well prepared by the time you need it!

Now that we discussed how to integrate STRPE into training, what are some of the key programming considerations for the pregnant trainee? Below is a list of recommendations that can be adopted into strength training for pregnant lifters. These recommendations should be implemented in conjunction with the recommendations delivered in parts 1, 2 and 3 of this Pregnancy Series. Please make sure to read those before implementing the recommendations listed below.

For The Intermediate and Advanced Strength Trainee:

  1. Continue with your current program layout in terms of number of days and number of exercises per session but adjust intensity.

  2. Intensity should be based off of the STRPE scale and range from 6-8.5 STRPE for the working sets.

  3. Incorporate STRPE STOPS as needed to control volume and intensity:

    1. If you have performed 2 working sets at or above STRPE 8: STOP. No more than 2 working sets should be at STRPE 8 or (accidentally) higher.

    2. If a set feels like STRPE 8.5 before you’ve reached the assigned number of reps: STOP

    3. If you accidentally exceed STRPE 8.5: STOP

  4. The main strength lifts should continue to be performed in the 4-6 rep range taking into account the STRPE recommendations above.

  5. Accessory and supplemental lifts should be performed in the STRPE 6.5-7.5 range and 6-10 rep range and include STRPE stops at 7.5 to avoid over-fatigue.

  6. Incorporate Low Stress weeks with lower STRPE and lower volume every 3-4 weeks.

  7. Adjust exercise selection if you can no longer perform an exercise with adequate and safe technique due to your changing body or have pain or discomfort as discussed in part 3 of this series.

  8. If you need to skip or drop a training day or number of exercises per session, do so.

Below are examples from a PRS client’s program at various points throughout her pregnancy. Please note that the examples below are NOT intended for use by anyone reading this article. Her program was designed specifically for her based on her training history and response to training during pregnancy. Please use this only as an example to see how the recommendations above were incorporated into a strength training program for a pregnant trainee.

Gestational Weeks 25-28

Gestational Weeks 33-36

The use of STRPE, listening to her body, and doing what felt best on each day allowed this lifter to continue to train at advanced levels and maintain her pre-pregnancy strength throughout her entire pregnancy. Ironically enough, this strength trainee’s deadlift skyrocketed during her pregnancy and she hit a personal record for a single rep doing the conventional deadlift. Sidenote: This was not prescribed in the lifter’s program. She YOLO’d one day during her third trimester because she was feeling great. Remember, you know your body best: If you are comfortable and you know that it is not harmful to you or your baby, make a responsible decision for yourself. Lastly, because of these programming considerations, this lifter was able to train up until the week she gave birth. Now, both mommy and baby are happy in this new world together.

The Novice Strength Trainee: These recommendations are for the novice trainee who performs the main barbell lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press) 2-4 times week and is currently adding some increment of weight to each lift, every session. We recommend this novice program and as such, these recommendations are specifically for that program.

So you’re new to barbell strength training and on a progressive program. That’s great! And now you’re pregnant. Congratulations! So what do you do? The same concepts of STRPE that were discussed previously in this article apply to you as well. In the very early stages of strength training everything is likely pretty easy (that STRPE 5-7 range). While you are in the early stages of your linear program and your pregnancy, start playing around with that question, “how many more reps could I have done,” with your working sets. The more you do this, the better it will serve you as you progress in strength and in your pregnancy.

The novice recommendations are quite simple:

  1. Use small increments to progress sessions to session. The safest bet is 2.5-5lb jumps on lower body lifts and 1-2.5lb jumps on upper body lifts.

  2. Use the STRPE STOP rule to make adjustments to your program.

    1. If 2 working sets are at or creep above RPE 8 then drop the load for the last set 10% and finish your volume.

    2. Perform the same load the next session and if the STRPE still exceeds 8 or high for 2 or more sets then change the rep scheme going forward such that you follow the STRPE rules listed above.

  3. Here is how you can adjust the rep schemes to satisfy appropriate STRPE during pregnancy:

    1. 5 reps x 3 sets across for squat, bench press, or overhead press

      1. If the first set is NOT STRPE 8 or higher → 5 reps x 1 set then drop 10% and perform 5 reps for 2 more sets

      2. If the first set IS STRPE 8 or higher → 3 reps x 1 set then drop 10% and perform 3 reps for 3-4 more sets

    2. 5 reps x 1 set for deadlift

      1. 3 reps x 2 sets across if both sets adhere to the STRPE rules listed above

      2. 3 reps x 1 set then drop 10% and perform 3 reps for 1-2 more sets

  4. Add in a light squat day (20% less than your fist squat session of the week for 2 sets of 5 reps) sooner than you think you need it.

  5. Switch to a 4 day split program if:

    1. You’re feeling too fatigued or overwhelmed by 3 lifts per session

    2. You’re sessions are taking you longer than 1.5 hours

    3. Or sooner than you think you need it

The cool thing about being a novice strength trainee who also happens to be pregnant is that you can make some pretty awesome gains during your pregnancy and still keep yourself and your baby safe, so long as you're smart about it. You don’t need to be a strength lifting hero while you’re pregnant. You need to be a baby making hero first and foremost.

The rule of thumb, and what we continually reinforce throughout this series is do what feels best for you. Each pregnancy is different. Each woman is different and each growing baby is different. Therefore, everyone will have a different response to training during this time of growth and change, and why we recommend getting adjusted to STRPE as it can tune you in to what’s appropriate for YOU on the day YOU are training. This series and the recommendations in this article are simply for guidance and not prescriptive purposes and apply to pregnancies that are NOT considered high risk. Please consult your doctor and coach, or reach out to the PRS staff for individualized pregnancy programming, before applying these recommendations to yourself.

Dr. Rori Alter is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, Strength and Nutrition Coach, Competitive Powerlifter, and the founder of Progressive Rehab & Strength, LLC., providing rehabilitation, coaching, programming and nutrition services for competitive and recreation strength athletes. She is a nationally ranked Powerlifter having placed 1st in the Arnold Classic Sling-Shot Pro American 2017 (72kg Women Open), 4th in the USA Powerlifting Raw National Championship 2016 &, 2017 (72kg Women Open), and will be representing the USA for Bench Press at the International Powerlifting Federation's World Bench Press Championship in 2018.