As soon as you call your family, text your friends, or make a Facebook post announcing you are expecting, it seems like everyone you know will take that as a cue to start giving you advice - everything from what to eat and what books to read to whether or not you should have a natural birth or breastfeed. One of the biggest areas in which everyone has an opinion lately is exercising during pregnancy. In the past, CrossFit™ has posted a few videos of women exercising at various stages of pregnancy, and all you need to do is scroll through the comments section to get a feel for the wide range of reactions viewers have to those posts. In no way do I think it is appropriate for anyone, let alone a complete stranger, to make comments about your body or tell someone what they can and cannot do with their body, but we live in the age of social media, where everyone is an expert and everyone feels the need to share their opinions. I think there has been a positive shift in the last few years towards realizing the benefits of continuing to train during pregnancy; our pregnant bodies aren’t so fragile as we’ve assumed in the past, and exercising throughout your pregnancy not only has benefits for you but for the baby as well. I want to first touch on a few important changes that you may or may not know occur during the first few months of pregnancy and then go into my recommendations for an appropriate training program.
This article is about being pregnant, having babies, and how working out and continuing to train fits into the mix. Now fellas, before you click away to the next website, hear me out. I'm sure you know a female - sister, girlfriend, wife, friend - who may end up pregnant at some point in her life, and this post has valuable information! Don't leave yet; you may learn something. Help support and encourage the woman you love during an emotional roller coaster time in her life. And to all the former, current, or to-be pregnant ladies out there, this post is going to begin by telling you how awesome you are. Anyone who can navigate nine months of the physical and emotional changes that come with growing a tiny human, all while continuing some kind of training plan, is a rock star in my eyes. I’ve been through it twice, but my training was very different for each pregnancy, and each came with its own challenges and were different learning experiences. My hope is this post will help answer some questions you may have about training while pregnant, but mostly I want to continue to remind you that you are Super Woman, even though you may not feel so super at times.
(Disclaimer: I am not an OB/GYN. Please always consult with your doctor about your training program, diet, or any concerns you may have during your pregnancy.)
Pregnant women experience many adjustments to their endocrine systems, and various levels of hormones increase in production in order to allow the body to undergo all of the changes needed to grow a human for 40ish weeks. Beyond the obvious physical changes, there are two important changes to your physiology that have an impact on the way you need to exercise and will also give you some insight as to why certain modifications need to be made to movements and intensity.
• Cardiovascular: cardiac output (the volume of blood pumped by the heart) increases by about 50%, with most of those increases occurring during the first trimester. Your heart will need to work harder to pump blood for both of you for those nine months, which is why you will start noticing you feel out of breath doing “easy” things.
• Musculoskeletal: posture changes as pregnancy progresses. Increases in the hormones estrogen and relaxin result in joint and ligament laxity, especially in the pelvic region. That big belly slowly offsets your center of gravity, and combining that with loose joints can lead to hip and/or low back pain.
The entire process is really amazing when you think about it - your body changes so much in order to create this new life, that even your organs rearrange their positions. I know it doesn’t really feel amazing when you’re in the midst of it all, when you feel huge and uncomfortable and are getting kicked in the ribs 24/7, but let me just remind you - you are Super Woman!
The changes mentioned above are the reasons why we feel workout intensity needs to decrease during your pregnancy, why dynamic movements like snatches and cleans can become higher injury risks, and weight lifted during your sets will most likely decrease. These changes are the reason we suggest things like breathing and bracing, strict bodyweight movements, and preserving as much overall strength should be the priorities. Having a fit, healthy pregnancy looks different for everyone, but there are a few things I think we can all agree on as far as what is beneficial and what to avoid. Things to avoid include:
• Starting a new training program: now is NOT the time to start anything new when it comes to fitness. Stick with what is comfortable and familiar. If you feel like you need to “do something”, or your doctor suggests to increase your physical activity, you can do things like daily walks, easy to moderate intensity hikes, or even experiment with prenatal yoga. Your OB will also be able to give you advice based on your specific needs.
• Anything that feels uncomfortable to you: it is very cliche to say “listen to your body”, and if this is your first pregnancy, you most likely have no idea what is normal or not. All I can say here is, you will know when something isn’t right. You’ll know when you need to stop jumping. You’ll know when to cut out running. You’ll know when kipping pull ups start to hurt. That point is different for every woman, and just because your friend could do double unders until she gave birth, doesn’t mean you should.
- To go along with this point, you also want to keep your heart rate under control during lifting or aerobic exercise. Your doctor may tell you to stay under a certain beats per minute, but my personal favorite is to try to exceed a pace where you are able to maintain a conversation.
Those two bullets make up my comprehensive list of “Things Every Pregnant Woman Should Avoid”. I have an additional list, something I’d probably call “Things No Pregnant Woman NEEDS to Continue Doing In Order to Maintain Fitness” that includes:
Kipping pull ups or HSPU
Squat cleans or snatches
Running or rowing
My reasons for this list have a lot to do with my personal experience during my two pregnancies as well as the experiences of my friends and clients who have trained throughout pregnancy. This list comprises most of the things that I recommend to phase out throughout the course of those nine months. Yes, you are Super Woman, but even she doesn’t need to do dynamic squatting movements involving a loaded barbell when her pelvic ligaments are intentionally loose or kipping pull ups with a big belly and separated abdominal muscles. I know, I know, you’ve seen some pregnant woman on Instagram doing squat snatches on her due date or bragging about still having her kipping muscle ups at the start of her third trimester or squatting your 1RM for a set of five back squats. Just because someone out there is doing it, doesn’t mean it’s a risk for you to take when you’re working out for two.
The next list is “Things You CAN Do”:
Squat variations (with moderate weights)
Deadlift variations (with moderate weights)
Single leg exercises: lunges, step ups, Cossack squats
Lay on your back
Maintain upper body strength with a wide variety of pulling and pushing exercises
Implement focused breathing and relaxation techniques
Continue improving movement quality
Caveman squat (this position can aid your labor if you practice and feel comfortable doing it)
Incorporate cat/cow poses as a way to release your low back muscles
Take naps...I know this isn’t completely training-related, but really - SLEEP WHILE YOU CAN
Training during your first trimester can and should look very similar to what your training has been for the months prior to you becoming pregnant (barring any early complications, in which case, you need to speak with your doctor about appropriate modifications or progressions for your specific condition). Usually modifications will need to begin to be implemented during the second trimester, but this is completely dependent on you and how you are feeling. What I want to make clear with my lists above is you can have a healthy pregnancy, continue to train throughout, and retain a high percentage of your overall strength if you stick to the basics plus a little extra emphasis on rest and recovery.
I guess you could say I take a very conservative stance on training during pregnancy. While I am wholeheartedly an advocate for any kind of exercise, especially for pregnant women, I really don’t agree with a lot of what is posted on social media. This is one case where doing more or trying to push your limits or being comfortable with the uncomfortable is the last thing I would ever recommend. I believe in using training during pregnancy in order to maintain as much of your current fitness level as possible and to help prepare for labor, and that switching your focus for just nine months of your life won't derail you from any bigger goals you may have.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists - FAQs on Exercise During Pregnancy