Training While Pregnant

I’ve only worked directly with a few pregnant women and don’t consider myself to have a lot of experience dealing with this. However, I got an e-mail inquiry from Sarah, wife of Joe (hey Joe), on how best to train through a pregnancy. The interesting part about Sarah’s situation is that she only recently started working out by doing push-ups, pull-ups, and body weight squats. Right as she was about to transition into lifting barbells with Joe in the gym, they found out she was pregnant.

Before we get into Sarah’s specifics, let’s discuss some points about training during a pregnancy.

Training can and should still occur while pregnant.
There’s no question that good training with quality nutrition improves health. There’s also no question that there’s a baby growing inside of a pregnant woman — I’m pretty sure this is the case. There’s also no question that the health of the woman is going to have an effect on the health of the baby. Thus we can conclude that since “good training and quality nutrition” improve health, it will be provide an optimal set of characteristics for the baby to develop in.

Hard, intense training isn’t necessary.
We’re talking about health as opposed to optimal performance. The mother doesn’t have to train like she’s getting ready for a meet or a Spartan race. She shouldn’t be trying to PR her squat or jumping around excessively when 8 months pregnant. Even if she did want to maintain optimal performance, we know that the female body experiences a steady state of flux. The hormonal response to training will be jumbled up with the natural hormonal changes that occur to create an environment for the baby to grow. In other words, let’s let the system prepare for the baby instead of trying to have an optimal increase in performance.

By using this logic, we can agree that training should occur, but it doesn’t need to be excessive or “super intense” so that we don’t disrupt the biological preparation for the baby. Furthermore, we don’t want to physically bother a developing baby. We don’t want to significantly increase the intra-abdominal or thoracic pressure, and we don’t want to jostle him around in the womb by jumping around like a spaz. We don’t have to “baby” the baby, but we don’t want to give him the equivalent of elbow dropping him or putting him in the sleeper (NOBODY GETS OUT OF THE SLEEPER).

Don't do this to your baby

Lifting weights is still okay.
Yet, as the last section showed, it doesn’t need to be super intensive. I would have a pregnant gal do squats, presses, RDLs, and chin-ups (or whatever assisted equivalent like pull-downs, ring rows, etc.). I’d probably split it into two days and not really worry about the weight increasing. I’d also include conditioning, but the term “conditioning” is relative to the person. If they are un-adapated to anything, then fast walking can act as conditioning. I’d probably prefer to schedule walking, rowing, and stationary cycling for the bulk of conditioning later on in the pregnancy while the earlier stages would still use barbells, implements, and calisthenics. The main theme will be to not do too much, especially in the second half of the pregnancy.

The training should change over the course of the pregnancy.
Here is a snippet of an e-mail that I wrote to someone about half a year ago when they asked about training while pregnant:

On a given workout you probably shouldn’t deplete yourself to the extent that you can…meaning don’t do conditioning till you’re lying on the ground and don’t squat 1RMs and don’t try and get a 20RM with your previous 10RM — keep it all under control so you’re not putting a huge systemic stress on the body. This means that you should leave each training session refreshed. Keep the volume of lifting and conditioning low, and keep an eye on the intensity so that it doesn’t get too out of hand (maybe keep it below 85%?).

Training while pregnant should exist to maintain, or slightly improve the health of the mommy, not the performance. Leaving the gym refreshed and rejuvenated is better than leaving wiped out. Why? Because we don’t want to require a major systemic recovery because the system should be preserved for developing the baby and staving off illness. The mother shouldn’t be in a weakened state because her immune system is now treating her plus the baby. Most people — male or female — don’t understand that the “system” is essentially the same thing as the “immune system”. If the system is depressed, then it’s defenses are lowered and more susceptible to sickness. If you’re constantly sick (or a sniveling Expert Shoveler), then look to see if your training is depressing the system.

Three words: eat right.
A mother’s body should be ready. Along with exercise, she should eat a healthy, nutrient dense diet. At this point, a newly pregnant mother will have read as much as she can about eating when pregnant, now combine that with the quality nutrition information we know about nowadays. Things like eating nutrient dense foods, avoiding processed foods, not eating frivolous carbohydrates, and sticking to quality meat, fats, fruits, and vegetables. It’s okay to give into the weird cravings every now and then, but don’t splurge regularly. Just because it says “pregNANCY” doesn’t mean you should act like a Nancy.

If there was ever a time to take care of your health, this is it.
My mother took her health very seriously when pregnant. Despite her efforts of eating healthy and avoiding anything “bad”, she contracted cytomegalovirus (CMV), a mono-like virus that can have congenital birth defects. This virus is the reason that my older brother is mentally handicapped (yet he is much better off than the majority of kids that are handicapped by CMV). My point is that even when everything is going right, weird things can still happen. Do everything in your power to optimally prepare your body’s health prior to and during the pregnancy so your little babe can be a healthy little butter ball.

Sarah’s situation is no different. She can certainly start learning how to use barbells despite the recent news that she is pregnant. However, she and Joe don’t need to worry about putting weight on the bar every session, and instead should just get quality muscle contractions with some medium conditioning. It’s a perfect opportunity to work on the technique of all of the lifts without the pressure of having to increase the weight on the bar.

To all of you mothers out there: train well, eat healthy, only splurge occasionally, and your baby will pop out with a mustache to make Burt Reynolds jealous.

If you are a mother who has experience training while pregnant, share your thoughts in the comments.

18 thoughts on “Training While Pregnant

  1. thanks for addressing this topic, justin! i definitely plan to continue training when i am pregnant in the future. i’ve already done a little research…here are some super super super awesome resources:

    (this website has information for training throughout pregnancy based on which trimester the woman is in as well as training following birth. it’s a GREAT community that i plan to join someday)

    (this amazing dude has a whole series on pregnancy and childbirth and how to be as healthy as possible. just search his site and you’ll find it)

    Thanks for the links, Becky. I’ve seen the first one a couple years ago, but I don’t think I’ve seen the second one before.

    I didn’t have enough time to reference the CF stuff, but they routinely have women train while pregnant. I just wouldn’t want too much intensity (in lifting or conditioning) in the later stages of the pregnancy.

    Edit: haha, I’m not a fan of women training in a sport bra while mega pregnant, though.

    Edit 2: The trimester info on the left side of the CF Mom website is excellent. Everyone should read that.


  2. I’ve been pregnant four times and I totally agree with you! For my first two pregnancies, all I did was walk. Then I began lifting weights, so I continued to work out with #3 until almost the third trimester, when I stopped for no good reason. With #4, I stayed at it all the way through, even lifted weights and ran on the morning of the day he was born. All my pregnancies and babies were healthy – but I suffered substantially less discomfort with the fourth one and had the best, easiest birth with the quickest recovery too. I would encourage expecting mothers to follow the guidelines you set out.

    Those are excellent points — the kind that I would never even be able to think of since I will never be pregnant. It makes sense that a healthy body will make for a better recovery, and I didn’t even consider the ease of birth.

    Thanks for the info — this is one way how I learn.


  3. Here is a picture of a setup that we used for my friend when she was pregnant. I know it’s awfully elaborate, but it’s pretty friggin cute. It allowed her to do pushups while 8 months pregnant as her big belly fit perfectly into the center of the tire. Could be a good option for you, Stroup. Something to think about . . .

  4. Great advice. It’s just as important for the woman to live a healthy life before becomming pregnant too. My grandmother always told my mother “It’s nine years, not nine months!”

  5. Thanks for the info, Justin. The wife’s three months along, and we’ve been at a loss for acceptable things for her to do, and the doctor hasn’t been much help.

  6. My wife and I just found out that we’re preggers. Sweet, it works. What we’ve decided to do is Front Squats twice weekly, starting at a weight that she can “comfortably” do for five, but we’ll do sets of 3 to keep volume down.
    So, 165x3x3 and we’ll drop 5#’s every week or workout depending on how she feels. For conditioning we’ll go on walks and swim (we were both competive swimmers). Intensity is medium to low and muscle recruitment is high. Hopefully this works.

  7. I knew a woman at a crossfit box that competed in the open while pregnant. She was fit as hell but it always freaked me the fuck out. I remember her running something like a 7 minute mile about 3 weeks before she had her baby. Her little dude was healthy, but he was tiny. Like ~5 pounds.

    My wife hit up squats ~135x5x3 twice a week and did deads, press and pullups. We were still doing crossfit at the time so she still did a fair amount of circuits but always kept it on the mellow side of things. Lifting was the most important activity though.

    Everything went so smooth and our little lady dude was sleeping through the night in 1.5 months. I know it’s anecdote but I’m pretty happy making the observation that fit babies are happy babies.

  8. 6.5 months in, and all anecdotal/sample size of 1, but so far: I’ve been staying on 5/3/1 for PL, and have been playing each cycle by ear in terms of projected training max. I’ve had to reset my squat once so far and my deadlift twice; press and bench have remained unaffected, but they kind of sucked to begin with.

    A couple things are different: In the first trimester, I was so tired all the time that if I hit the 5/3/1 rep minimum, it’d be a victory. Now, in the second trimester, I have much more energy, but increased blood volume has diminished my cardio capacity to the point where a set of 8 feels like a barbell complex, so I’ve scaled back both volume and assistance work significantly and am focusing mostly on the singles.

    Physical things: I was belting everything until I got too big a few weeks ago, and at a lighter weight than I usually belt, just because of concerns about joint laxity etc. I asked my OBGYN about the Valsalva maneuver and she wasn’t concerned, so there’s that — similarly, as long as I’m not lying on the bench for extended periods, she’s ok with me benching. I just switched my deadlift to sumo in order to give my belly room; I’ve also long since stopped doing anything stretchy (like pullovers) or compressy (like deficit pulls).

    Initially, I was recovering much worse than usual (tons of DOMS, etc), because the baby gets the nutrients, but PWO chocolate milk seems to have solved that nicely. I have no idea what fish oil accomplishes but I take it anyway.

    Thanks for this post!

  9. Pingback: Technique Thursday « « Adapt CrossFit Adapt CrossFit

  10. Pingback: CrossFit Intrepid » Training For Two

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.