Ellie M. a couple months ago
CrossFitting While Pregnant: An Interview with Four Women and a Coach, Part 2
By Kate Reece
In case you missed it last week, we began our three-part series about training CrossFit while pregnant. In Part 1, we introduced you to four CFSBK women who became pregnant in the midst of their training, and also spoke with Coach Fox. The women answered our questions about their reaction to finding out they were pregnant, and the best kinds of advice they received. This week, we hear from them about whether they continued to CrossFit after becoming pregnant and how that decision affected their experience. We also asked them to share any advice they might have for other women. Coach Fox weighs in with his advice for women who become pregnant and want to continue training.
CFSBK: Did you continue CrossFitting after you got pregnant? Tell us about that experience. What did you notice was different about your performance, and how did you have to adjust your expectations?
Bethany E.: I did continue to CrossFit after I got pregnant. I really appreciated (and recommend!) being in Strength Cycle for the first trimester of both of my pregnancies because pregnancy hormones and morning sickness—which for me, was really all day long, every day—can be a real energy drain. Having that set date with a barbell two or three times a week is a real lifesaver. There’s no “Oh, I’ll go to group class tomorrow”—you just show up and do your lifts and feel better for it. I also found the pace of Strength Cycle to be very compatible with the first trimester. It’s hard work, but also chill and involves a lot of rest and not too much over-heating and sweat.
During my first trimester/early-second trimester Strength Cycles, I experienced no negative impacts to my training. I continued to be able to put weight on the bar, and all of my current strength PRs were made during pregnancies—squat and press with Alex, and deadlift and bench with Oscar. As for group class performance, I found that being pregnant forced me to slow down immensely. I remember doing a track WOD with CFSBK and being dead last in every run. I’m not normally a strong runner but my lack of speed became even more pronounced when pregnant. On the other hand, even though I was slower, I found that with the increased blood volume and lung capacity in my second and third trimester, I took a lot of pleasure in the metcons and rowing that I normally dreaded.
After the Strength Cycle was complete, with my first pregnancy I switched to Strength Cycle “Continuing Ed” and group classes. I participated in the Tough Titsday meet at around 32-weeks pregnant and was still pulling some pretty significant weights. I’d planned to cut back on the weights but didn’t really, because it “felt good” still and I mistakenly thought it would help me bounce back somehow after the baby was born—wrong! Then unfortunately at around 35 weeks, my back started spasming and I had to stop training (and walking!) for the remaining four weeks of my pregnancy.
I’ll never know if the heavy squats caused the back spasms or if I’d just plain ran out of room in my abdomen, but I decided for my second pregnancy to take a much different approach to my training. After Strength Cycle ended when I was pregnant with Oscar, I returned to group class. In my late second trimester, I started dropping weights (subtracting five pounds each exposure) instead of adding them for my lifts. This approach worked well for me because I did my last WOD at CFSBK 24 hours before I gave birth to Oscar!
Noor A.: I was lucky to have a surprisingly easy pregnancy. My biggest problem that first trimester was a major craving for sweets, which luckily helped me to carb up for my Strength Cycle Total. I still remember Coach Margie bringing a gorgeous chocolate cake for us, which was meant to be enjoyed after the Total, but my mommy cravings were so strong, and the Total was taking so long, that I ended up stealing a piece between pressing and deadlifting. I got a bit of a scolding, but that piece of chocolate cake really did the trick for my deadlift!
And one factor that I had not taken into account was the effect of the growth hormones that were pumping throughout my pregnant body on my workouts. Throughout my pregnancy, while I may have ended up slowing down a bit because of the added bulk on my belly, I felt as though I stayed pretty consistently strong.
Courtney S.: I did CrossFit up until the day the baby was born and I truly credit it for keeping me sane throughout my pregnancy. In a time when so much in my life (and body) was changing, it was great to be able to step into the gym and put it all aside for an hour.
Since I hadn’t really known anyone else before me who did CrossFit while pregnant, I was actually pleasantly surprised to learn how much I could continue to do. One of the most challenging parts for me was recognizing that training intensity would be different and that my goals would change, at least temporarily. The first trimester was probably the hardest for me because even though I didn’t necessarily look or feel much different than my pre-pregnancy self, I was just so tired all of the time. I actually took a fair bit of time off in the early days and I just kept reminding myself: “You’re making a baby—it’s okay to rest.” After the first few months, I started feeling much better and was able to continue training mostly as normal. When I really started showing, I simply modified the movements to accommodate for my growing stomach and general comfort level. It’s funny, but in a weird way I felt like I actually got stronger those last few months because I was doing most everything strict and weighted.
Ellie M.: The first thing I noticed was being out-of-breath. I was 12 weeks along and participating in the Open, and just couldn’t breathe as well during the high-intensity metcons. As my belly grew, I had trouble engaging my midline, so I stopped lifting as much as I had previously. No more pushing to the point of breathlessness, and no more competing against myself or others. It was a hard adjustment to make at first, but it felt right.
Toward the end, I just did my best to show up. My workouts sometimes barely resembled CrossFit, but I kept it up because the fitness I’ve built here was so important to my pregnancy and my own feeling of wellness.
CFSBK: Coach Fox, how has CFSBK usually approached pregnant mothers?
Coach Fox: We’ve always had a “That’s awesome, we would love for you continue training,” approach. In the beginning, we’ll ask how far along they are (after lots of congratulating and hugs, of course). The first trimester is always about doing what they were doing before. Independent of morning sickness, there’s really no drop-off in training intensity or volume. The first trimester is when women are dealing with morning sickness and lack of energy. There’s no danger in training or risk of anything going on with the baby. So, training depends on how you feel. It’s just like any other day—if you woke up with the flu, you wouldn’t train with as much intensity. Most everything you’ve been told that you can’t do, is bullshit. But this isn’t the time to PR your lifts. Bethany did, and that was her path, but I wouldn’t recommend that.
As you get into the second trimester, the belly starts to grow and especially in the latter second trimester, we advise women to be cautious and not do anything where the risk of falling is involved—something like a box jump or a pull-up off a high bar. This varies from person to person. Courtney was a competitive gymnast, so she could probably do a handstand, given that she has great body awareness. Even as her body grew and changed, she could adjust easily. Ellie said a handstand still felt great for her, too, up until very recently.
A common recommendation in the second trimester onwards is don’t lie on your back. In the gym, that translates to don’t bench press. When you’re lying on your back for long periods of time, the pressure of the baby on the abdominal aorta cuts off blood supply to you and your baby. But we’ve had many women go through full-term pregnancy and continue to bench press. Because you’re around so many people and are only lying there for 30 seconds, we’ve never had an issue.
Also, the hormone relaxin increases during pregnancy and relaxes the joints, the pelvis, and the rest of the body. So we usually suggest not doing full cleans and snatches—maybe switch to power versions. Even things like wall balls, which involve a really dynamic squat-type motion, or thrusters, become a much more controlled movement. So we start to move away from really dynamic movements in the second and third trimester. This is also an issue postpartum. Your shoulders and knees will all be less stable, which puts your joints at risk.
Third trimester, in our experience, usually becomes self-regulatory. We’ve had only one pregnancy over the years CFSBK has been in business where we had to put the reins on a woman, and say, “Hey, you can’t do box jumps today,” or “You need to slow down a bit.” Usually you become tired. You don’t want to run; you’d rather row. Weights feel really heavy and women will knock their weights down naturally (as Ellie mentioned). Then it’s just the physical impediment of the belly. You can’t do a sit-up or toes-to-bar. You can’t conventional deadlift, you can’t clean, you can’t snatch. So there are exercise substitutions that work around the belly. We’ve included the list of substitutions below:
Sit Ups: plank, pallof press, slam ball, side plank, hanging knee raise
Bench Press: press, push up (elevated as necessary)
Handstand Push Ups: Dumbbell or press/push press
Box Jumps: lower box at first, and then step up
Kipping Pull Ups: should be on low bar and then strict or ring row.
Kettlebell Swings: possibly fine throughout, may need to modify to single arm swing for comfort
Deadlift: possibly okay throughout, sumo or kettlebell deadlifts may be more comfortable
Snatch/Clean: hang power versions, then dumbbells as necessary once the belly is in the way. You can perform the power version of the movement and then squat under control. Squat versions of the lifts should be avoided. Light/moderate deadlifts are also a great sub.
Jump Rope/Running: as far as your level of comfort allows, keep doing them. Rowing is a common sub, as are kettlebell swings and/or slam ball for a similar metabolic effect.
Thrusters/Wall Balls: controlled squat and presses, either with a barbell or dumbbell
Push Ups/Burpees: on a raised surface, i.e. parallettes or a bar in a squat rack.
Usually by the time women are in their third trimester, it just feels good to be in the gym—that’s the success.
CFSBK: Do you think being an active CrossFitter before getting pregnant influenced your experience of being pregnant?
Ellie M.: CrossFit helped me approach pregnancy and childbirth with strength and confidence. I just gave birth on September 6, and it was a very positive and empowering experience. Staying committed to CrossFit and having a wonderful community of support (including other badass CrossFitting mothers) really contributed to that experience.
CFSBK: What advice would you offer to other mothers about their time in the gym while pregnant?
Bethany E.: Know yourself. If you have a hard time NOT putting weight on the bar, then plan for that—tell your coach or training partner that you aren’t going to lift more than X and make them hold you to it. If you know you have a hard time not pushing yourself to the point of being winded, then ask someone to have a conversation with you while you work out.
Learn where your transverse abdominus muscle is and how to engage it. This will help you push during labor and will help you heal your mushy core after the baby is born. If you see any ridging or doming on your belly during a movement during pregnancy, stop. In general just because you physically can do a movement doesn’t mean you should. Enjoy the more relaxed pace of your pregnant workouts and enjoy all the awesome support you’ll get from your fellow CFSBKers. Also: turn on the floor fan and stand right by it.
Noor A.: I continued doing CrossFit throughout my pregnancy, up until the last two weeks or so, because it felt good, and more importantly, it did not feel good when I didn’t come. But I know for other mothers the experience of being pregnant was very different than mine. I don’t think it’s because I’m extraordinary in any way—I just had an easy pregnancy. How you feel while pregnant will depend on how you carry, where the baby’s sitting, and can vary from one pregnancy to another. My daughter was considerate enough while I was pregnant to not sit on my bladder, so I was able to run longer than most pregnant women. I also didn’t suffer from the fatigue that many other women feel. Perhaps this means that I’ll be paid back when she is a teenager. Anyway, the takeaway is that there is no one standard for how you should be while pregnant, you have to know yourself, and stay tuned with your own body.
Courtney S.: Listen to and respect your body—it will tell you what it needs. Be okay with taking things slow and even taking an extra rest day if you need it. Most importantly—enjoy this time! Especially if it is your first, really take the time to savor those moments that you have that are just for you.
Ellie M.: Take it one day at a time and don’t be too hard on yourself. There will be good days, and bad, and just know this is only temporary and for the best possible reason. There are few times in life when you truly have permission to slow down, so if anything, embrace it while you can.
Coach Fox: Listen to your body. Use this as a time to just enjoy moving, and come in with the mindset that you’re doing something healthy for your body. Get out of any competitive zone, whether against others or yourself. It’s almost anti-CrossFit, since CrossFit is all about quantifying and always getting better. As Bethany said, at a certain point, she started subtracting instead of adding five pounds every week. That concept makes a lot of sense—at a certain point, you’re going to do less and it’s going to be scaled to a larger degree. In general, keep moving. You’ll have a healthier pregnancy because of it.
We’ll be back next week, with Part Three!
- Happy birthday, Eric M.!
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