“Pretend these two 8-pound weights are newborn twins,” commands my fitness instructor as she hoists dumbbells above her waist. Between a few huffs and puffs, she ups the ante, adding, “Your baby will want to be held all the time, so get used to it. You have enough time to train those muscles!”
I’m at FPC, a newly launched prenatal fitness studio in Soho in Manhattan. Against the backdrop of a pink-colored brick wall and minimalist mid-century furniture accented with potted succulents, a group of expectant moms shuffle through a medley of cardio, yoga, and strength training. For $40 a session, new moms and moms-to-be learn how to treat their body during a pregnancy, prepare for the rigors of delivery, and reconstruct their body after childbirth.
This is not a gentle prenatal yoga class; these are real, sweat-inducing workouts with fast-paced movements and challenging lunges. There are, however, plenty of distinctions between FPC and your average fitness class–think triple the number of water and bathroom breaks and constant dialogue about pregnancy (“Tune into your body, but also hug the baby,” the instructor reminds the class).
Perhaps the most striking difference is the nature of the community at FPC. Excited members quickly introduce themselves to fellow parents and exchange baby advice. Even as they move through their workouts, the attendees discuss everything from when to expect a volunteered seat on the subway (second trimester) to the stress of divulging a pregnancy to coworkers (how soon is too soon?).
“Baby naming is so nerve-wracking,” says one four-month-pregnant woman as she maintains a downward dog position. Meanwhile, two other ladies bond over names that begin with an A or an S. “There are too many Sophies,” chimes in another.
“Women open up here,” says FPC cofounder Carolina Gunnarsson. “It’s a safe zone.”
A Fitness League Of Their Own
Gunnarsson, a former luxury fashion PR executive, was inspired to build the first brick-and-mortar pregnancy studio after suffering two extreme pregnancies. During her first, she stopped working out entirely and gained a significant amount of weight, which subsequently made for a hard labor and recovery.
“It took a long time to get back to myself,” she recalls.
During her second pregnancy, Gunnarsson hired a personal trainer–though not one who specialized in prenatal fitness. While she experienced a much better delivery, she came out of the experience with the postpartum abdominal condition diastasis. Doctors told her it was likely due to overworking out. “I thought, ‘There has to be a middle ground,'” says Gunnarsson.
In 2016, she met FPC cofounder Joanie Johnson, a new mom who shared Gunnarsson’s frustration with the fitness options available to pregnant women. Johnson, a postnatal corrective exercise specialist and certified pilates instructor, would walk belly-first into a fitness class and immediately see the color drain from an instructor’s face. They would tell her not to raise her heart rate above 140 (a belief that has since been largely debunked) or to skip the entire abs section.
“You always know that you’re the pregnant person in the room,” recounts Johnson of working out in regular gyms. “You’re always getting told a modification . . . the industry treats us like we are ill; they tend to be overcautious with us.”
Was just asked to leave a Pilates class by the instructor (a man) who was "too nervous" to instruct a ????past 20wks. I've taken a private modification class (for Pilates!), I'm ????, have my OB's ???? for all exercises I do–including Barry's Bootcamp! Silly of me to be super pissed?
— Chelsa Crowley (@chelsa) November 15, 2017
While many community centers and gyms offer some prenatal classes, most veer toward yoga–and without their own dedicated space, such classes are few and far between compared to regular workouts. At some large fitness chains, the FPC founders felt that they were putting themselves at risk with instructors who didn’t know how to accommodate a growing belly. “I didn’t feel safe,” stresses Gunnarsson.
Why, the duo wondered, were they paying full price for a class that did not cater to their needs?
“There was a gap in the market for something like [FPC],” says Gunnarsson, “where you can educate yourself on your workout and be with a community of women who are going through exactly the same stage of their life–with the same problems, the same concerns–and have a challenging, fun group atmosphere.”
Running The Maternity Marathon
Last month, Johnson and Gunnarsson opened FPC on Soho’s busy Broadway, alongside fashionable stores like Aritzia and spas like Bliss. Inside the brightly lit loft, an entire assortment of products cater to moms. There’s a tea station offering Bundle Organic pregnancy wellness tea bags, pamphlets on baby care topics, and an entire shelf of products for sale, including Nine Naturals pregnancy-safe haircare products.
The studio offers three classes: a foundation class to properly integrate the entire core from the diaphragm to the pelvic floor; prenatal yoga combined with strength training; and a “signature” class of cardio, dance, barre, yoga, and interval training. Throughout the classes, instructors lead attendees through diaphragm breathing and belly exercises to better engage midline muscles.
Gunnarsson likens pregnancy exercise to training for a marathon, which usually lasts half the time of a typical 10-hour labor. “Childbirth is a lot harder than a marathon,” laughs Gunnarsson.
However, the cofounders are quick to point out the goal isn’t to lose weight, but to enhance women’s fitness. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, including for pregnant women (provided they have no known medical conditions).
“We’re training the specific muscles you need for pregnancy and delivery,” explains Johnson, who claims most women are unaware of fitness’s role in the childbirth experience. She says not all doctors, for example, test for abdominal splits following delivery. That test helps predict whether or not one can safely resume their former workout routine, or if they are at a higher risk for conditions like hernias.
In addition, says Johnson, proper exercise and nutrition can often prevent overall pain and fatigue. “So many times, women are just told, ‘Yeah, new moms just have aches and pains.’ Well, there’s a way to prevent all this and to make her core fully functional during and after birth,” she argues.
To that effect, FPC’s instructors are certified in prenatal fitness, and are also either doulas or lactation experts. Johnson herself spent over a decade teaching fitness, and completed certified training in pre- and postnatal corrective exercises and holistic health coaching for moms-to-be.
“It’s a difference between going to someone who has a general knowledge of subjects, and someone who has a specialty in that subject,” Johnson says. “We give women peace of mind.”
At the same time, the team clearly advises members to, first and foremost, follow their doctors’ orders. FPC instructors are clear with clients that the course teachers are not medical professionals, but more like “a second voice,” says Gunnerson.
The Fitness Connection
As Johnson–who has an infant at home–led a recent signature class, she fumbled a cardio move and said “bottle” instead of “body.” She laughed it off, explaining that her daughter had slept in her bed the night before. “I’m in feeding mode!” she announced.
The class loved it. Later, at the watercooler, two moms told me that such personable moments are exactly the kind of solidarity they’re looking for at the gym. It connects them to the instructor, and makes them feel less alone as their body transforms–and they suffer through sleep deprivation.
FPC is utilizing the mommy community’s need to connect. Along with advertising on parenting messaging boards and newsletters, the studio hosts weekly events featuring female empowerment groups or brands like intimates company Lively, which just launched a maternity line. FPC also organizes workshops on breastfeeding, baby nutrition, and health.
“We want to be a community hub,” says Gunnarsson, who plans to expand the brand into digital content as well as a franchise format. She envisions a future in which women nationwide can access the best care for their growing body, and perhaps prevent potentially painful conditions along the way. But more than anything, say the founders, they want to provide relief from the anxiety of pregnancy.
“It’s a scary period of a woman’s life,” says Gunnarsson. “This space is so important to us because here, everyone is a pregnant person, and everyone is in it together,” adds Johnson. “There’s no outsider. No one is ‘ill.'”