What ‘Bouncing Back’ After Baby Is Really Like for a Fitness Trainer
Four and a half months after giving birth to my daughter, I met up with a friend. He took one look at me and said “Holy sh*t! That’s the way chicks need to look. Girls need to take a page out of your playbook.” It was meant to be a compliment, but it had me fuming. A week later, a girl I knew saw me in a bathing suit and casually asked, “You train in martial arts and lift weights all the time, but you still have cellulite! Why is that?” I know she was asking because I’m a fitness trainer and not out of judgement, but still, it stung—almost as much as the first comment.
To be clear, it isn’t men I’m raging about. It isn’t women who don’t have kids. It isn’t celebrities and influencers who have come back after pregnancy looking incredible. It isn’t my postpartum body either. It isn’t anything but the postpartum ideal society insists on that in reality doesn’t exist.
I’ve been a personal trainer, fitness instructor, martial arts educator and gym owner for almost two decades. I have a decent enough following in my field that when I announced my pregnancy, all eyes were on how I would “bounce back” afterward. But here’s the thing: The term “bounce back” is toxic. It’s too simple to describe the massive journey (of mind, body and spirit) women experience after birth, and too superficial to acknowledge there’s no going “back” after pregnancy. Instead, there’s something far greater: You get to go forward.
In martial arts, we’re taught that true refinement of one’s self starts at the black belt level—meaning there’s no end-point to your learning, and there’s no looking back (unless it’s to see how far you’ve come). In pregnancy and postpartum, the idea is the same. Regaining the exact version of your old self, your old body and your old time schedule is really not an option. Instead, you get to have a new experience, face a new challenge and discover a stronger you. Moving forward isn’t just more practical, but it’s also often far more rewarding.
But let me say this: It’s entirely possible to look even better, feel even stronger and get in the best shape of your life after having a baby. The key is following the right program and embracing a healthy, balanced diet. You don’t need to workout everyday like a maniac. With quality, efficient workouts, you can exercise a few days a week and reach your goals.
I knew that getting pregnant in my late thirties would be a challenge for my body—so I began a pre-pregnancy training regiment. I wanted to gain strength, work out any pains and imbalances and make sure I was going into pregnancy at the top of my game. For four months I never missed a workout, lifting weights, kicking and punching and swinging kettlebells, but I also took good rest days and nourished my body, as if I were going into a championship fight.
When I did become pregnant, I lowered the intensity of my training but maintained my workouts, no matter how exhausted I was in those first few months. Many women are simply too sick to exercise in that first trimester, but I was lucky: I found that my daily nausea and fatigue went away the moment I started my workout. Sure, it was beyond difficult to drag myself to lift weights, walk on the treadmill and hit those pads. I had to set a daily alarm to remind myself to workout and remember how much better I always felt afterwards. I adjusted as the months went on and things become more difficult, but staying active before and during pregnancy—even when it was just walking—definitely helped me postpartum. It was an easier mountain to climb, although still a mountain nonetheless.
I knew it would be difficult to find the time and energy to workout after pregnancy, what with a newborn to care for, the lack of sleep and the new pressures of motherhood. But before my daughter was born, I didn’t fully realize the level of recovery my body would require. I’ve had injuries and even surgeries before, but nothing prepared me for the total destruction of my pelvic muscles, the inability to engage my core and the lost mobility and strength I felt in those first few months postpartum.
In an odd way, I welcomed it. Sure, there were days of frustration, of wanting so desperately to run and kick and lift things without thinking about anything but my stamina and my playlist. This new me was different, but I actually liked being able to sit back and not rush to the gym. I enjoyed those moments where, instead of thinking about my glutes or abs, I thought for the first time in a long time about my mood, my energy and my spirit. And when I did start working out again, my entire process and goals shifted.
When people saw photos of me exercising, they assumed I had bounced my way back with an ease that should be bottled up and distributed to all women. But to be honest, standing naked in front of the mirror, what I saw before me was a stark contrast to what I looked like in lycra leggings and supportive sports bras. People thought what we all think when we see a cropped and filtered photo taken from the very best angle. They had a distorted reality of how I felt, caught by unrealistic societal standards.
As an advocate of pre-pregnancy fitness and (if allowed by your doctor) an active pregnancy, I’m happy to say my body is slimming down and gaining strength as a product of hard work. But I know it’s impossible to get back to my old self. My labrum (a cartilage in the hip) was torn during labor, which prohibits, among other things, deep heavy squatting, external rotation, kicking and grappling. I love these things, and I can’t do them the way I did them before. My body is not nearly as tight as it used to be. If I stand up straight my abs look good, but when I sit and actually allow myself to breathe, I see a cute little pouch settle at my belly button. Because of this my favorite jeans no longer fit. There are a million of these little things, each one a war medal, each one making me think of the person I’ve become, the person I was meant to be above all else in my life: a mom.
In the end, when my daughter looks at me, she’ll see love and nurturing, not my cellulite and loose skin. When she’s older and watches me lift weights and toss guys onto the floor while sparring, I hope she’ll see passion and hard work and find it empowering. And when she sees my little belly pouch, she’ll see me ignoring it. Because I don’t plan on having her grow up watching me sulk over the body I once had. I plan on her seeing my scars, wrinkles and muscles as strength and resilience.
Dasha Anderson is the founder of Kettlebell Kickboxing, KBBody Online Training and Nutrition, and KBIA Kettlebell Education. She holds a master’s degree in exercise science with a speciality in performance enhancement and injury prevention, is a kettlebell educator and martial artist and new mom. For daily workouts and fitness education, including postpartum tips, follow her on Instagram at @kettlebellkickboxing and @dashaanderson.
Published July 2019