Bodybuilding While Breastfeeding

Because of countless stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding bodybuilding and weightlifting, many women are discouraged from even picking up a dumbbell for fear of “getting big” or “looking like a man”. This is quite a shame because studies have shown that a combination of weightlifting, aerobic exercises, along with a healthy, well-balanced diet are the keys to achieving a toned figure and improving overall health. So this leads us to the question “is it possible to carry out bodybuilding while breastfeeding

The life of a mother is essentially a full-time job but making time to workout is a must if you want to have more energy and strength to do everything you need to do in a day. If you are looking to get into the best shape of your life but also want to continue nursing your baby, consult with a doctor along with a dietician and personal trainer to create a personalized diet and exercise plan

Things to know before picking up the weights

However excited you may be to kickstart your fitness journey, lifting weights is not as simple as, well, lifting a weight. Understanding your body type, current health status, and fitness goals are essential. 

If you have never done strength training or any sort of weightlifting before, it would be best to have a personal trainer assist you with learning the proper stretches and forms for each exercise. Bodybuilding while breastfeeding means a nursing mom needs to be extra aware of her dietary needs as she is also feeding her baby.

“Abs are made in the kitchen”, as the popular saying goes. What goes into your body is just as important as the amount of exercise you do, if not more so. As a nursing mother, your nutrition is extremely important to keep track of because a bad diet can adversely affect your breast milk production and quality which ultimately affects your baby’s health. 

Again, it would be best to consult with a doctor and/or nutritionist to design an optimal diet and meal plan that would help you achieve both your body and motherhood goals.

Building muscle while nursing

Yes, building muscles while nursing is indeed possible and even encouraged! Higher muscle mass correlates with an increase in metabolism and fat burning, even at rest. But like all things, some limits and guidelines should be observed. Here are some factors and tips to consider if you want to work out while nursing:

Timing

Sticking to a strict schedule may be extremely difficult while nursing since your baby may have erratic feeding times, especially within the first few months after birth. As you get accustomed to your baby’s feeding times, you can start planning a workout schedule around these times.

Age of your baby

As mentioned previously, the age of your baby will affect the timing, length, and amount of breastfeeding you will be doing. Generally, younger infants will have less consistent and shorter feeding times while older children will start to show predictable hunger cues and require higher volumes of milk per feeding.

Knowing your baby’s patterns will make it easier to plan around feeding times.

Intensity

If you are a beginner or have taken a long time off from weight training, it’s important to start slow and low. Lower weights and reps are ideal until you are comfortable with the form and load. It’s normal to feel sore one to two days after a workout, but it should not prevent you from doing your daily activities. Excessive muscle soreness may make it hard for you to comfortably breastfeed.

If soreness lasts longer than two days or you can hardly get yourself out of bed, it may be a good idea to lower the intensity, have a rest day, and reassess your pre- and post-workout nutrition. Proper stretching before and after can minimize soreness and prevent training injuries.

Your health status

It goes without saying that you should be in generally good health to breastfeed and more so if you would like to build muscle while doing so. Malnutrition or a systemic illness can hinder your progress, make you susceptible to injuries, and alter the quality of your breastmilk.

You should have your baseline health status evaluated by a health professional and have a diet and exercise plan tailored to your body’s needs.

Previous delivery

In line with knowing your current health status, taking your recent delivery into consideration is also important. If you had recently undergone surgery, such as C-section delivery, you need to give your body ample time to rest and recover. Lifting heavy weights and doing certain exercises such as squats should be avoided until your doctor says your body is ready.

The consequences of doing too much too soon can be disastrous. Insufficiently healed wounds can open, cause profuse bleeding or herniation, and require an emergency trip to the hospital. Not only will the cost be unwanted, but the chance of scarring increases and the amount of time needed to heal the incision is reset to the beginning.

The typical recovery time after a C-section is one to two months. While heavy lifting and high-intensity training are not recommended until several weeks after delivery, regardless of method, there are low-impact, core-strengthening exercises that can be done to help speed up recovery. Belly breathing, meditation, Kegels, and wall sits are some exercises that are effective for working the core and reinforcing the pelvic floor.

Pumping breast milk

Prepping bottles of your breast milk is a great way to reap the benefits of exclusively breastfeeding your child while giving you more freedom to do things you want to do. If your baby is an erratic feeder, having pre-pumped breast milk in the fridge will allow you to feed your baby while working out without altering the taste of the milk or requiring you to hop into the shower to wash off the sweat on your body.

Motivation

Above all, being motivated to work out while nursing is essential. Keep your body goals in mind and have a good support system at home. As you progress toward your dream body, your body will respond positively, and those happy hormones will not only keep you feeling good but your bond with your baby and family will also likely improve. Exercise can be especially therapeutic for women who are experiencing postpartum depression and anxiety.

Can I lift weights while breastfeeding?

Literally speaking, no, you should not lift weights while breastfeeding. Though it may be physically feasible to lift weights while breastfeeding, it is not something anyone with a shred of common sense would rightfully advocate— no matter how good at multitasking you think you are!

With all jokes aside, lifting weights while nursing is definitely something you should do if you are looking to tone down your arms and build up your upper body strength and stamina. If you think about it, cradling your baby while nursing serves a dual purpose: feeding your baby while also giving your arms a daily anaerobic workout. It’s a win-win situation!

To prevent asymmetrical muscle building, try to alternate between both arms from time to time. Aim to use both arms evenly each day. To develop well-toned arms and balance the biceps, you should try lifting weights and do exercises that target your triceps. This will give your arm that nice, lean look without looking “too bulky”.

A typical breastfeeding session takes anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes and the entire time you are activating your biceps and shoulders (unless you make use of a sling or an alternative breastfeeding position). Because your arm is essentially stuck in the flexed position while cradling your baby, the type of activity is considered anaerobic.

Does weightlifting affect breast milk quality?

Anaerobic exercises help to build muscle and strength compared to the more oxygen and calorie-consuming, dynamic movements of aerobic exercises (such as running on a treadmill). Due to the lack of oxygen delivered to the muscles in anaerobic exercises, lactic acid builds up which causes cramping and soreness. Lactic acid carried through the blood and transferred into breast milk is said to make the taste of breast milk more tart which can cause babies to get fussier during feedings.

In order to reduce the amount of lactic acid build-up, you should not do too much weightlifting, especially an hour or two before your baby’s usual feeding time. Incorporate aerobic exercises into your routine and stay adequately hydrated to prevent excessive levels of lactic acid in the body. Also, your nutritional requirements increase significantly if you are breastfeeding while exercising, so consider adding more fat, protein, and carbohydrates when planning your diet.

Can I take protein shakes or supplements while breastfeeding?

To build muscle (anabolism), you need to have the right building blocks. You probably already know that proteins and amino acids are essential for muscles. If the body does not have enough or the right type of amino acids and proteins during and after a workout, it starts breaking down its muscle fibers (catabolism) in order to fulfill its needs.

This is why bodybuilders and athletes are keen on counting their macros and taking supplements as needed to fill in the gaps in their diets. Protein requirements are higher than non-pregnant and non-lactating women, and the need is even higher if a nursing mother plans on building muscles while doing so.

Protein shakes have had some controversy over the years with reported side effects of kidney failure and even death. Supplements, particularly herbal and those with “proprietary blends”, should also be taken with caution because they are not FDA-approved to treat any condition. Stick to protein powders and supplements that are from reputable brands with a good track record. 

The best source of protein, fat, carbs, and vitamins will always come from fresh, quality food. However, it may be hard to hit all your macros through diet alone, due to financial or physical constraints. Using protein or whey supplement products can be safe and highly effective only if they are taken as indicated. In a day, one to two scoops would be sufficient in conjunction with a balanced diet. Consume fewer protein supplements if you are having a rest day or stop lifting weights to prevent kidney damage.

Bench press and other workouts/workout plans that build muscle that is suitable when breastfeeding

A certified personal trainer would be able to give you a customized exercise plan and teach you how to properly execute the entire routine. If getting a personal trainer is something that’s not feasible for you at this time, there are some exercises you can try doing at home or at the gym to work out your body while you are nursing. 

Many of these exercises can be done by using your body weight, resistance bands, dumbbells, or substitutes such as water bottles filled with sand. To combine bonding and exercise, you can hold your baby as a weight during the following exercises: bicep curls, wall sits, squats, calf raises, and stair climbing.

Upper Body

ExerciseTargeted AreasRepetitions
Bicep curls*Upper arms8-15 reps x 3 sets
Triceps dipsUpper arms6-15 reps x 3 sets
Bench presses*Chest and upper arms6-12 reps x 3 sets
Rows*Arms, back, shoulders8-15 reps x 3 sets
Arm circles(wide and narrow)Rotator cuff, shoulders30-60 seconds (forward and reverse)

*weights or substitutes are required

Core

ExerciseTargeted AreasRepetitions
PlanksEntire abdomen45-60 seconds x 3 sets
CrunchesUpper abdomen10-15 x 3 sets
Flutter kicksLower abdomen45-60 seconds x 3 sets
Side planksObliques45-60 seconds x 3 sets

Lower Body

ExerciseTargeted AreasRepetitions
Wall sitsThighs, buttocks45-60 seconds x 3 sets
SquatsButtocks, thighs8-12 x 3 sets
Glute bridgesButtocks, abdomen8-12 x 3 sets
Calf raisesCalves10-15 x 3 sets
Stair climbing(short and long strides)Entire leg, buttocks10-20 x 3 sets(forward and reverse)

In addition to these strengthening exercises, no workout is complete without some aerobic exercises. Aerobics, or cardio, is a great way to stimulate blood flow, increase your energy levels, and burn body fat. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends that every adult should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week combined with muscle-strengthening activity at least two days per week. 

Some low-to-moderate impact activities and classes to consider doing are:

  1. Zumba
  2. Spinning
  3. Kickboxing
  4. Yoga
  5. Dancing
  6. Swimming
  7. Badminton
  8. Table tennis

References

American Heart Association. (2018, April 18). American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids. Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults

Breastfeeding USA. (2016, September 6). Exercise during the Breastfeeding Years. Retrieved from https://breastfeedingusa.org/content/article/exercise-during-breastfeeding-years

CDC. (2018, December 3). How Much and How Often to Breastfeed. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/infantandtoddlernutrition/breastfeeding/how-much-and-how-often.html

Dellitt, J. (2019, June 7). 6 Exercise Tips to Keep in Mind For Breastfeeding Moms. Retrieved from https://aaptiv.com/magazine/6-exercise-tips-breastfeeding

L.A. County Public Health. (2014). PDF. Los Angeles.

Mayo Clinic. (2018, April 11). Breast-feeding nutrition: Tips for moms. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/breastfeeding-nutrition/art-20046912

NHS. (2018, July 11). 10-minute workouts. Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/10-minute-workouts/

Zamora, D. (2008, February 12). Fitness 101: The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Exercise. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/features/fitness-beginners-guide#1

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