With the careful precision of a surgeon I extract myself from the tiny space where I was nestled between my two sleepy babes, hoping the breastmilk knocks them out for just a few more minutes. They have cuddled up as close as possible to me over the night leaving me barely any room. But I don't mind the tight squeeze; I so love being close to them and they to me, keeping each other warm.
Well, I wasn't smooth enough. My boob dairy didn't have the sedative effect I hoped for, and both kids are decidedly bright eyed and bushy tailed, with the toddler beginning his morning routine of jumping on everybody.
My husband reluctantly wakes as you do when you're being jumped on. I take Archie out into the yard to jump on the trampoline with him. His 6am squeals of delight ricochet off the wooden fence and I send a silent apology to the neighbours.
Our jumping serves not only to start burning off my toddler's seemingly infinite energy supply; it's also a warmup for my morning strength training session.
You see, I'm about to head into our garage home gym to lift some heavy ma-fa weights.
And after I do it I am going to feel like all the pieces of myself, the bits I've given out to my children and others in nurturance over the last 24 hours, are again my own.
Releasing the weight of the world
But the hardest part of breastfeeding an infant and a toddler at the same time lies in the mental and emotional realms.
Getting down to one feed a day for my two-and-a-half year old has taken time, and I'm happy with where we are. But this week Archie got sick and I've found myself feeding him three or more times a day. Combine that with the usual multiple wakings for baby Kairi's feeds and you've got one tired, cranky mama at her wit's end.
At times it has made me feel totally insane. I feel like too many people depend on me, and I'm being crushed by the sheer weight of that responsibility.
Such is the nature of tandem breastfeeding.
On the positive side, boobing multiple little people has driven me to take self-care far more seriously than I have in previous years.
Part of that care has involved taking up strength training, mainly in the form of lifting weights.
And I don't mean doing dozens of bicep curls with 2kg hand dumbbells; I mean lifting serious heavy weights. Let me explain.
When I'm in our garage home gym or with my coach squatting, bench pressing and deadlifting, something lights up in my over-worked, baby vomit covered, under-appreciated mama soul. I feel as though I'm reclaiming my sanity and sense of self-worth, minute by minute, rep by rep.
Motherhood is fucking hard. Most days I feel like I'm carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. But as I move my muscles against gravity to actively get that bar back onto the rack, I sense not only a physical release but a simultaneous emotional and spiritual release from the enormous psychological weight of being a mother of small children.
As I rack after each set, I also slowly unload the weight of the world I've been carrying. I am reminded of how strong women really are. How strong I am.
Some neurological, hormonal and psychological magic takes place. In one powerlifting session I can go from bitchy wife and impatient mother pre-workout, to patient, content, soul-satisfied, and loving mama again post-workout.
Such is the nature of weight lifting for mums.
strength training: a boon for breastfeeding mamas
Moderate exercise is safe for your baby and does not restrict baby's growth. And it's awesome for your physical and your mental wellbeing.
Strength training (or resistance training) in particular has many benefits for breastfeeding mamas. This is any activity where you use resistance to make your muscles contract, which in turn builds the strength, anaerobic endurance, and - to some extent - size of your muscles.
There are impressive benefits that you get from weight training that you just cannot get from running for kilometres on end, smashing it out on the elliptical, or HIIT (high intensity interval training). When your body is under load, you enjoy benefits that you can't glean from anything else.
One thing I love about weight training is that women can do it all through their fertility journey, all through pregnancy and postpartum, when done with intelligence and when it's tailored to your body and your needs.
When it comes to strength training you have many options to choose from, from traditional weightlifting (e.g. powerlifting with a barbell - which is my jam right now - or using kettle bells, or dumbbells) and bodyweight exercises (e.g. pushups and chin ups), to practices and sports that involve a strength element such as pilates, yoga, pole dancing, aerial and circus arts.
Women strength train because there are so many wonderful benefits to it including:
- increasing muscle mass and strength
- increasing or maintaining bone density
- increasing metabolism (due to the increased muscle mass)
- improving insulin sensitivity
- improving joint function
- reducing risk of injury to connective tissue
- reducing psychological stress
- feeling and being more physically capable and independent.
Add breastfeeding to the mix and pretty much all of these benefits are going to become even more appealing, and crucial.
The benefits of strength training FOR BREASTFEEDING WOMEN
1. Keeps bones strong and healthy
While we are breastfeeding, oestrogen levels remain loooooow. Aside from vaginal dryness, a libido that's MIA and no periods, another fun side effect of this dive in oestrogen is that during the weeks, months or years we spend breastfeeding, bone mass decreases more rapidly than usual.
As you may be aware lower bone mass increases the risk of osteoporosis. Broken femurs and carrying babies are not a good mix.
While it doesn't seem like we can completely stop the decline of bone mass while we're breastfeeding, we can slow it down. How? Strength training. In one study lactating women who lifted weights three days a week and did 45 minutes of weight-bearing aerobic exercise three days a week lost significantly less bone mass than women who did not (1).
The added bonus of lifting weights while you're breastfeeding is that you can actually reshape your bones so that in the long run, they become stronger. Although bone loss accelerates during lactation, in the long term it appears that women may have the opportunity to rebuild and create fresh bone (2). Again, a great way to lay down strong healthy bone tissue is by lifting weights.
In short, strength training while breastfeeding is an awesome way to both slow down the rate of bone loss and rebuild healthy and strong bones in the long run. Since bone mass and bone density start to decrease from age 35-40 years onwards (3), and I'll soon be staring at my mid-30's in the face, it seems like now is a good time to get lifting.
2. Increases lean muscle mass
After giving birth most new mamas feel like they've suddenly landed in a new, softer, sorer body. Over the following weeks, months and years, our bodies can remain drastically different or morph in unpredictable ways.
We may have fat where there used to be none and missing muscle where there used to be bulk - flat mum bum is a real thing!
It's the reason many new mums launch too soon into long duration cardio and high intensity exercise that only increases their risk of injury, stress and cortisol dominance (more on that soon), and why many new mums under eat in order to "lose the baby weight". Sigh.
A totally new body composition after childbirth is something our culture frowns upon. It's also something that makes many women feel is their own fault, which it's not.
Part of the reason for flabby mum bits where maybe there used to be muscle? Low testosterone.
Testosterone is the main hormone responsible for building muscle which is why women have a much harder time gaining size from strength training than men. Women have 10 to 30 times less testosterone than men.
This is why you need not worry about getting Schwarzenegger-bulky if you weight train - women just can't look like that. Unless they're doing an absolute shit tonne of training and possibly taking some questionable performance-enhancing substances.
Women have even less testosterone during breastfeeding, when our testosterone and oestrogen levels remain low until we reduce and eventually wean our babe/s.
This all means that if you're breastfeeding, building and maintaining muscle and muscular strength is even harder than usual.
And when you're holding an infant in your arms for hours a day breastfeeding, lack of physical strength is going to be bad news.
One way around this is strength training. Even though it's harder to build muscle, lifting weights or some other form of strength training while breastfeeding will at least maintain strength and reduce your chances of being injured. Which brings me to the next point...
3. Reduces your risk of baby-related injury
Weight training not only increases strength in your muscles, but also strengthens connective tissues and joints. Strong joints, ligaments, and tendons are crucial to prevent injury.
When you're lifting babies and/or toddlers all day long, trying to wrangle kids in and out of cars, and using your body to stop your toddler from jumping on the baby for the 137th time that day, injury becomes a real risk.
Especially repetitive strain injury which I experienced after having my first baby, before I started strength training.
Strengthening muscles and connective tissue will make injury from daily mummy tasks and exercise less likely.
4. Releases stress (and maaaan do we need that.)
Lifting weights makes me feel bloody good, so there's a chance it might for you too. There are a bunch of hormones and neurotransmitters at play here, but we'll focus on just two: endorphins and cortisol.
First, endorphins. As you probably know, exercise and weight training release endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that prevent pain, improve mood, and alleviate depression, stress and anxiety. Endorphins also give you an alertness and energy boost.
Of course not just any exercise will do, and more is not better especially for breastfeeding mums who are already under more physical strain than usual.
This is where cortisol, a long term stress hormone, comes in.
When your cortisol levels are increased for extended periods, and your stress is up, you're more likely to be insulin-resistant and have high blood glucose.
Consistently high blood glucose levels along with insulin suppression lead to cells that are starved of glucose. And since those cells are screaming out for energy, you feel hungrier than usual (4). This can lead to overeating and craving all-the-things.
And, of course, unused glucose is eventually stored as extra body fat above and beyond the extra fat your body needs for breastfeeding. Persistently elevated cortisol also suppresses your immune system and is linked to poorer digestion.
Running miles and miles a day at 4 months postpartum might release endorphins, but too much steady state cardio also increases cortisol which we know as a nursing mum we do not need. Plus, who has time or energy to exercise for hours a day when you've got kids literally hanging off you?
Not eating enough - which is a major stress on the body - also increases cortisol, just in case you were wondering. This is partly why the standard recipe of calorie restriction and heaps of cardio is so ineffective and counterproductive for women, especially breastfeeding mothers.
When you're a busy mum the goal is to exercise smarter and more effectively, not harder. Heavy weight training, when approached intelligently, lowers cortisol. As long as you're eating enough and aren't stressed AF, which leads me to my final point...
5. May minimise fat storage... as long as you're not stressed AF
For me, lifting weights leads to a decrease in visible body fat, and an increase in muscle mass. For me.
I didn't actually want to draw attention to this fact and was tempted to leave it out altogether.
Because I don't want "fat loss" to be the sole reason you start lifting weights. As a HAES dietitian I emphasise that there's nothing wrong with body fat. It's a neutral body tissue and it exists to keep you alive. Having a certain amount of fat on your body says nothing about your worth as a human being and gives surprisingly little information about your health.
Plus, due to genetics and a host of other factors, fat loss from weight training doesn't happen for everybody, especially if your body doesn't think you can afford to lose said fat. For example, when you're breastfeeding, or you're overly stressed.
As I've alluded to a few times already, excess cortisol from too much stress (i.e. insufficient sleep, over training, under eating) leads to insulin resistance.
This in turn may increase body fat storage above and beyond the body fat range where your body might otherwise be to produce breastmilk.
Basically when your body is under stress of any kind - which includes dieting and over exercise (ironically, the things that people do in order to lose weight) - your body will probably eventually lay down more fat to keep you alive through this perceived threat. This is partly why diets backfire, i.e. they actually lead to long term weight gain, 95% of the time.
The other part of this equation: when you add muscle to your frame, your body has to expend more energy (burn more calories) to maintain that muscle tissue. So when you are at rest, even sleeping, the more lean muscle mass you have, and the more calories you will expend.
At least, this is the logic so many crazy fitness people use when touting weight training as a fat loss panacea.
But just because your metabolic rate is higher and you're "burning more calories at rest", doesn't necessarily mean you'll automatically lose weight. If you've gained muscle but aren't eating enough calories to feed that new muscle, it won't stick around for long, if at all.
For me, putting on muscle just means I want to eat more. Which probably helps my body not think it's in a famine, stress the eff out, and slow my metabolism down.
Eating plenty keeps my cortisol levels down, which - you guessed it - minimises fat gain. Does one's head in, especially if you're a dieter.
To summarise, strength training lowers cortisol, lowers insulin resistance AND increases lean muscle mass, meaning you may store less fat than you would if you didn't lift weights.
However, if you're coming at strength training with a weight loss mindset, chances are you're also doing other things that will stress your body out such as under eating and doing too much steady state cardio, which will only slow your metabolism down and can lead to more insulin resistance and more fat storage, not less.
A good way to sidestep all this worry about whether or not weight training will result in fat loss? As Nia Shanks, one of my favourite strength coaches says:
Forget fat loss, just get strong.
Ah, that eternal question about postpartum weight loss. Since I don't weigh myself I can't be certain, but I'm pretty sure lifting weights has lead to an increase in my overall weight.
Yes, an increase in weight.
I can tell because very few of my T-shirts fit me anymore, and Andreas now struggles when he tries to pick me up. This is all probably due to the fact that muscle weighs more than fat, and whilst I've lost a bit of fat I've also gained significant muscle.
And I couldn't give a rat's arse. I say, take up more space.
Basically, don't approach strength training with a weight loss mindset. Your body will do what it will do. If you lose some fat and gain muscle mass and overall weight like I have, great. If you don't lose any visible fat nor gain muscle but your bones get stronger and you feel more calm and centred, well that's awesome too.
Like Nia, I like to just focus on getting strong. Physically strong, mentally strong, and spiritually strong.
(1) Lovelady CA, Bopp MJ, Colleran HL, Mackie HK, Wideman L (2009). Effect of exercise training on loss of bone mineral density during lactation, Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Oct;41(10): pp 1902-7.
(2) Hopkinson JM, Butte NF, Ellis K, Smith EO (2000). Lactation Delays Postpartum Bone Mineral Accretion and Temporarily Alters Its Regional Distribution in Women, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 130, Issue 4, 1 April 2000, pp 777–783.
(3) Mann J, Truswell S (2017). Essentials of Human Nutrition, p 550.
(4) Aronson D (2009). Cortisol — Its Role in Stress, Inflammation, and Indications for Diet Therapy. Today’s Dietitian Vol. 11 No. 11, p 38.