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Is CrossFit safe during pregnancy?
This questions has been floating around the Internet for a while now with differing opinions. I’ve been CrossFitting for almost four years now, including my first pregnancy and my current one, so I figured I’d throw my opinion out there, as well. The truth is, there is no final ruling that can be given to answer this question. Every pregnancy, and every woman, is different; meaning what is right for one woman may not be right for another. Sadly, though, there are people who try to lay down blanket statements that heavy lifting and intense exercise are not safe during pregnancy, while some even go so far as to call it “selfish”. Women have even been publicly shamed for CrossFitting while pregnant. Why do people think an overhead squat is unsafe during pregnancy? Are they worried the baby is going to fall out? This causes unnecessary fear and worry for women who want to stay healthy during pregnancy, but ultimately just want to do what is best for their baby. The real answer is a little longer than a simple “yes” or “no”, so let’s break it down…
Who should do CrossFit during pregnancy?
As I wrote in my book, The Everything Paleo Pregnancy Book, with the go ahead from your doctor, you are safe to continue any exercise program you were already participating in prior to pregnancy. Is pregnancy the best time to start a new fitness program? Not really. The goal of staying active during pregnancy is to prepare your body for birth, to have a healthy baby and to recover as smoothly as possible. If you already participated in CrossFit before getting pregnant and feel comfortable with the basic movements of CrossFit, there is no reason to stop during pregnancy. If you have never taken a CrossFit class before, it may be best to stick with exercised you are comfortable with and give CrossFit a try after you have your baby (and I hope you do!).
What precautions should you take during pregnancy?
The pregnancy precautions that should be considered during pregnancy are really no different than those for any other exercise during pregnancy. There are definitely safety precautions to be aware of, but the best advice is to listen to your body and only do what you are completely comfortable with during pregnancy. For example, I just cannot bring myself to do a handstand during pregnancy. I’ve tried, but my brain won’t let me do it. I think it is the fear of falling and hurting the baby. Other women, however, don’t have this fear and feel perfectly comfortable doing handstands during pregnancy. Because I am not comfortable with it does not mean no woman should do handstands while pregnant. That is ridiculous. That being said, there are some general safety guidelines that all pregnant women should keep in mind, no matter what exercise program you are participating in:
- Talk with your healthcare provider FIRST – Your doctor or midwife can give you the best advice on what is safe or unsafe for you during pregnancy. Be open and honest with your doctor about your exercise program and they can tell you what is best for your body and your baby. This can change throughout your pregnancy, so be sure you are discussing any changes or concerns with your practitioner. My midwife has always been supportive of my plan to continue CrossFit during pregnancy, but it definitely gave me reassurance knowing that she was aware of and comfortable with my plan.
- Protect your joints – During pregnancy, your body produces a hormone called Relaxin to help prepare you for all the growing and stretching your body does during pregnancy and labor. This hormone can also cause your joints to be looser, making you feel more flexible than usual. This might seem great for your back squat, but it can leave you at risk for injury. The best thing you can do is to make sure you have a knowledgable coach watching and guiding you.
- Take breaks as necessary – I take so many more water breaks during pregnancy than I normally would. I even stopped to eat a snack during the middle of a workout once. Leave me alone, okay. 🙂 Sometimes I just need to catch my breath, but sometimes I really am thirsty (or hungry, apparently). Listen to your body and do what feels right. Nobody cares about your Fran time during pregnancy…your friends know you are a beast just for showing up, okay?
- Look out for warning signs – There are usually early warning signs that will tell you when your body is not happy. During pregnancy, these can include dizziness, abdominal pain, vomiting, bleeding and abnormal shortness of breath. If you experience any of these symptoms, stop your workout right away and call your doctor or midwife.
- Don’t (always) try to PR – This just isn’t the time to take it to 100% every. single. day. You don’t want to push yourself to the brink of being sick or not being able to get your breath under control. Your baby does need that oxygen and blood flow. 🙂 The reason I added the “always” caveat is because if you work up slowly and have a day where you are feeling totally awesome, why not go for it? I wouldn’t say to try to max out your legless rope climbs or handstand walks, but if your back squat is feeling smooth and easy, I don’t see the harm in adding five more pounds. Adding twenty or thirty pounds is a different story, but small, incremental jumps should be fine as long as you take your time working up and only move up if you don’t lose your good form in the process.
- Watch your form – On that same note, no matter what weight you are working with, always pay attention to form. If your form starts to falter, go down in weight until you regain good movement patterns. As your belly grows, this may become more and more difficult, especially for things like cleans and snatches. Set your pride aside and do what you can. You can get back at it after baby gets here.
Should you modify any CrossFit movements during pregnancy?
There are definitely movements you will want to modify during your pregnancy. In the first trimester, you may not modify any movements and that is totally fine. Your body doesn’t usually change much (from the outside, anyway) during the first twelve weeks so you should be able to continue working out as normal if you feel up to it. In the second and third trimesters, though, your body takes on some major physical changes and you will most likely need to modify some movements. Again, do what you feel comfortable with and stop immediately if something doesn’t feel right. Here are some modifications to consider after the first trimester (or earlier, depending on your needs):
- Abdominal Exercises – You want to avoid activities (including sleeping) that have you lying flat on your back, such as sit ups and crunches, which can restrict blood flow. To get a good core workout, you can hang from a pull up bar and do knee raises or straight leg raises. Or, if you have access to an exercise ball, you can do sit ups or crunches from a reclined position, as opposed to flat on your back. Planks are also perfectly safe during pregnancy, as long as you do not have diastasis recti. I really like Knocked Up Fitness’ guide on when it is safe to do planks during pregnancy. I actually have noticed some “coning” of my belly when doing planks, so I am modifying with some of the other suggested abdominal strengthening exercises.
- Rope Climbs – I, for one, am not a huge fan of being that far from the ground during pregnancy. This one is up to you, I guess, but why risk it? You can substitute with modified rope climbs, which is simply using the rope to pull yourself up from lying on the ground. Your coach should be able to guide you on this one.
- Box Jumps – I was fine with box jumps until my belly got a little bigger and my changing center of gravity began to make me feel a little wobbly. I gave them up somewhere between 15 and 20 weeks last time. This is really one where you need to listen to your body because you may feel fine doing box jumps throughout your pregnancy.
- Toes to Bar – This is another one that is really just a fear of mine…I don’t really want to be hanging practically upside down what far in the air. At some point, your belly will probably get big enough that these will get uncomfortable anyway. A good modification are the same knee raises that can be substituted for other abdominal exercises.
- Burpees & PushUps – At some point, you will probably be uncomfortable smooshing your belly into the ground over and over again. This is different for everybody based on the size of your belly and how far along you are. I am 16 weeks right now and I do have quite the bump, but the baby is so small and still has plenty of cushion in there so I can still do burpees and pushups as long as I am slow and careful about it. In the next couple of weeks, I will probably start to modify. You can do this a few different ways — you can do a regular pushup or burpee and not go all the way to the ground, you can use the handles that are used for negative pushups to keep your belly a little further from the ground or you can do standing pushups against the wall.
- Handstands and HandstandPush Ups – There are plenty of women who perform these movements throughout their pregnancy (not just CrossFitters), so this one is really based on your comfort level. There is a slight risk of falling, but if you are super-comfortable with handstands then I don’t see any reason to avoid them. I, on the other hand, have a mental block about getting upside down during pregnancy so I choose to modify. Again, you probably won’t make it to the CrossFit games during your pregnancy, so this is no time to freak out if you have to take a few months off of handstands. I like to do strict dumbbell presses or dumbbell holds (depending on whether we are doing handstand pushups or handstand holds).
I really love Carrots’n’Cake’s post on how she modified movements during pregnancy. I think the more women who feel comfortable sticking with their workout routine (safely) during pregnancy, the better example we will be able to set forward for future CrossFitting mamas.
The final word…
CrossFit is all about functional fitness for EVERYBODY…including us pregnant folk. There are always modifications for those who need them and a knowledgeable, experienced coach will be more than happy to help you figure out the best modification for you. Pregnancy is not a disease. Yes, it is a time that requires special care and consideration, but that doesn’t mean you should be relegated to the elliptical for the next nine months, either. Life is dangerous. I could get in a car accident when I leave the house today or trip over a pile of Legos and fall down the stairs, but I’m not going to stop living my life.
CrossFit is keeping me healthy and happy and it is also providing benefits for my baby, such as improved heart rate variability and an increased chance of being born at a healthy weight (you can learn more about these in my book). You need to go into it knowing that your safety and the safety of your baby are more important than how many pull ups you can do. You need to be ready to swallow your pride and modify when necessary. As long as you go into it with the right attitude, there is no reason not to keep up your CrossFit routine during pregnancy (with your practitioner’s okay, of course).
Find comfort in the fact that an active pregnancy is much healthier than an inactive pregnancy, both for you and for your baby. Your body is doing something amazing every second of every day and my hope is that you now have the knowledge and the confidence to keep being a badass strong mama while you prepare to meet that precious baby.