PREGNANCY MYTH #2: NO HEAVY LIFTING

Still lifting heavy stuff at nearly 16 weeks

Pretty much all of the pregnancy exercise guidelines I’ve read very explicitly state that a woman should not engage in heavy weight lifting during pregnancy.  I’ve seen some amazingly arbitrary numbers tossed out there, such as one well-known website that suggests pregnant women not bench press more than 40 pounds.  What?!  Oh, of course: obviously, all pregnant women have the same level of strength; therefore a one-size-fits-all recommendation is completely appropriate.  Sigh.

 

Personally, I believe that weight training during pregnancy is of critical importance for the maintenance of core strength, bone density and joint integrity, and for the prevention of muscle atrophy (shrinkage).  Doesn’t it make intuitive sense that a program of moderately heavy deadlifting might actually help develop the lower back strength necessary to support a growing baby, or that a squatting program will greatly assist a woman to more comfortably labour in the squatting position?  And after the birth — lifting baby, putting baby down, carrying baby for long periods of time, lifting strollers in and out of the car, bending over to pick up toys — the applications are endless.

 

If you’ve been following my blog thus far, you will know that early into the second trimester, I am still lifting relatively heavy weights — in some cases (depending on the lift and on how I’m feeling that day) as much as 95 percent of my pre-pregnancy one rep max.  I intend to continue to lift throughout my pregnancy, making ongoing modifications as my body changes.

 

Now, this is not to say that there aren’t some fundamental considerations for weight lifting during pregnancy, but I think it’s important to remember that an experienced lifter (e.g. someone who has been doing CrossFit for a couple of years) is going to have much different limitations than the “biceps curls with pink rubber weights” set, which is why a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work.

 

Below, I will outline some of the factors to take into consideration when pursuing a lifting program during pregnancy.  I do not believe in setting absolute limits; rather, I support the idea of using common sense and self-awareness to determine one’s own individual limitations on any given day.  In other words, use these guidelines to know what to be aware of, but use your intuition to tell you when to pull back or stop.

 

1. Lying on your back. Somewhere between the twelfth week and the start of the third trimester (most sources say around 12-16 weeks), the uterus becomes large enough that when you lie flat on your back, it can exert pressure on the vena cava — the vein that returns blood from your lower body to your heart — which reduces blood flow and may cause acute hypotension (lowering of blood pressure).  Lying on your back for too long is believed to interfere with the flow of blood and nutrients to the placenta, with the implication that this could be harmful to the developing fetus (note that there is no clinical proof whatsoever of this being dangerous, and that even the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists only cautions against extended periods of supine lying).  If you feel good and your stomach is not yet very large, bench presses may still be an appropriate exercise for you after the first trimester, as long as you keep your sets relatively short and make sure to sit upright or stand in between sets.  Push-ups make a great pregnancy alternative to the bench press.  If your belly gets in the way, dumbells or yoga blocks placed under your hands can help to raise you up a few inches.  Weighted push-ups using a  weight vest or some bumper plates placed on your mid back can provide an extra challenge that approximates heavy bench presses.

 

2. Valsalva manoeuvre. A valsalva manoeuvre is a forced exhalation against a closed airway.  It is useful in equalizing pressure in the ears, and in the achievement of heavy one rep maximum lifts 🙂   It also causes a sudden spike in blood pressure, and may result in dizziness.  Valsalva manoeuvres are not recommended during pregnancy.  Instead of holding your breath during lifts, try using a regular pattern of exhaling during the concentric (resistance) phase and inhaling during the eccentric (negative) phase.  The main implication here is that you will probably have to reduce your weights from pre-pregnancy levels in order to accommodate a continuous breathing pattern.

 

3. Balance. During pregnancy, your body is growing, your centre of gravity is constantly shifting, and hormonal changes may interfere with mental concentration.  This results in many pregnant women becoming rather clumsy and prone to falling… and the last thing you want to do during pregnancy is lose your balance and fall over with a heavy, loaded bar!  Balance is an important consideration in the overhead squat, as well as the ballistic lifts: the snatch, the clean and the jerk.  As your pregnancy progresses, you might even start to find that balance becomes an issue in front and back squats — especially if your technique pre-pregnancy was less than perfect.  Don’t be afraid to reduce your weights to whatever level is necessary to ensure your safety — even if this means using a training bar or wooden dowel for overhead squats, cleans, snatches and jerks, and switching from weighted front/back squats to air squats (body weight only).  Eventually, you many find that you feel uncomfortable or unsafe performing ballistic lifts, and if that’s the case, simply discontinue them for the remainder of the pregancy.

 

4. Hormones. Beginning as early as two weeks after conception, and possibly lasting as long as three to five months post-pregnancy, the hormone relaxin works to slacken supportive tissues in a woman’s body.  This allows the body to stretch to accommodate the growing fetus, and also allows the joints of the pelvic girdle to ease in anticipation of labour and delivery.  While this is obviously a desirable effect, it does have implications on a woman’s prenatal exercise capabilities.  Because relaxin causes a softening of ligaments (especially those supporting the joints), pregnant women must use caution in conducting ballistic movements and movements that exercise the full range of motion of a joint.  In early pregnancy, you will want to start to scale back the weights of your cleans, jerks and snatches, and in later pregnancy, depending on how your joints are feeling, you may even want to avoid them altogether.  You will also want to avoid doing max load squats (especially below parallel), since your knees and hip joints will not be as stable as they were pre-pregnancy, and relaxin reduces the amount of elastic energy available to propel you back up from the bottom of the squat.

 

5. Physiology. As your belly grows, you might find it difficult to perform standard deadlifts, cleans and snatches.  Using a sumo (wide) stance for deadlifts, and using dumbells or kettlebells for cleans and snatches can help you safely continue to perform these lifts while accommodating your growing belly.

 

6. Lower back strain. Deadlifts, done consciously, with an appropriate amount of weight and with proper form, do not cause back strain.  Leaning over to pick up a pencil off the floor might hurt you if you’re not being careful, but a properly executed deadlift is a safe movement.  A couple of lifts that might be aggravating if you are experiencing pregnancy-related lower back pain, however, are the overhead press (shoulder press, push press and push or split jerk) and the clean, especially if you have a tendency to lean backwards and let your hips shift forwards when straining to execute or catch heavier lifts.  This can be easily remediated by reducing the weight to one which you can perform comfortably and safely, and by focusing on keeping your hips back and your spine in a neutral position.

 

In summary, lifting during pregnancy is a safe and essential activity, that when executed with careful attention and proper form, can help to reduce pregnancy aches and pains, and may even ease the process of labour and delivery.  But pregnancy is not a time for egos, nor a time to be setting personal records (save that for a few months post-delivery, when your body will experience its biggest surge in human growth hormone since puberty!).  Your pregnancy lifting program needs to be guided by a combination of common sense, intuition, impeccable technique and ongoing modification.  And unless you are a strong, confident and experienced lifter, I would highly recommend enlisting the guidance of an expert trainer, who can both ensure correct form and assist you with the necessary modifications as your pregnancy progresses.

42 responses to “PREGNANCY MYTH #2: NO HEAVY LIFTING

  1. First of all, I just found your website through Mark’s Daily Apple, and I LOVE it!!!! I have found it difficult to find women who are like-minded as far as viewing exercising during pregnancy as the great thing that it is. You have amazing drive, and you look great too!

    I am currently (very newly) pregnant with my second baby. During my first pregnancy, I exercised very similarly to how I did before pregnancy, but I did hit some road blocks that forced me to scale back. First, I started having a lot of cramping while doing any sort of crunch exercise around the 5 month mark, so I continued to work my abs but more through plank-like positions. Then around the 7 month mark the relaxin started to catch up to me and my joints (specifically elbows, hips, and knees) started to get a lot more sensitive to weight-baring activities. I just reduced the weight I was using and oftentimes the reps as well.

    So I say all that to say that I agree with you on simply listening to your body. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. If you continue to feel energized and stronger through your prego workouts, then keep at it!!

    BTW, keeping up with your workouts is going to make a HUGE difference in you getting your pre-pregnancy body and energy back…you’ll be there in NO time 🙂

    • Hi Emily,
      Thanks for the words of encouragement! I’ve definitely noticed some changes in the past couple of weeks; for example, exercises that compress the abdominal area (sit-ups, rowing) are starting to become uncomfortable, but I’m just taking everything day by day, doing whatever feels right at the time, and I’m not ashamed to scale things back as required 🙂

  2. My previous trainer recommended your blog to me after I found out I’m pregnant with my 2nd baby. I have to say you have an amazing fitness journey throughout your pregnancy! I’ve been attending bootcamp classes for over 2 years, and I plan on continue this through my pregnancy. However, I am uncertain if plyometrics are safe for me with all the jumping and bounding. Or should I stay with lower impact exercise? Your comments?

    • Hi Mish,

      I was doing plyometrics into my eighth month with absolutely no problem, and then I suddenly hit a point where my ligaments were loosening up in preparation for birth and knew it was time to stop, lest I sprain an ankle (or worse, a knee). The main thing is to listen to your body. If it feels okay, do it; if it starts to become uncomfortable, it may be time to look at lower impact activities. You might also find that some days you feel okay with jumping and bounding, and other days you don’t. Also, as your stomach (and boobs!) get larger, you may require additional support, such as a belly band, to make these activities comfortable.

      In terms of risk to the fetus, there is no problem with jumping and bouncing, unless you have a specific condition (for example, incompetent cervix) that would contraindicate such activities.

  3. Great post.
    I completely agree with you on this. I am getting to the point (4 1/2 months) where I am needing to modify exercises and lift a bit less on some days and certain lifts, but, I fully plan on doing as much as my body will allow. Its definately about being smart and listening to your body, not just giving up exercise completely just because you are pregnant.
    Thanks for your wise words of advice.
    I love your blog so much that I have it linked up to mine. 🙂

    • Thanks for the link! 🙂

      It’s all about listening to your body. Some days you’ll need to modify; other days you’ll surprise yourself. Enjoy your pregnancy! 🙂

  4. This brings me back when I was being seen by an OB/GYN during my second pregnancy. I was told by my doctor “no excersise of any kind during your pregnancy”… I though “what? when I was pregnant with my first baby I was a senior in high school, running track and field (until my 5th month, when I started to “show”), in ROTC, in capoeira… what is this woman talking about no exercise?!” I was also told in the same appointment that since she was going on vacatin a week before my son was due, she wanted to schedule induction… When I got home, I called the midwife I had with my first son, told her what happened, made her my primary prenatal care provider, dropped the OB/GYN, and exercised until I couldn’t anymore. My 2nd son? Well, he was born a week late, it would have been a mistake to induce me when the OB/GYN wanted to. I birthed to an 8lb, 3 oz baby (one ounce heavier than his brother), with no drugs. None. Exercise helps with your delivery endurance.

    • Sorry for the late reply – I just saw this comment today!

      It’s astounding to hear that a contemporary doctor told you not to exercise during pregnancy! Good thing you trusted your instincts. 🙂

  5. Hi.
    I love this sight i read alot and i decided to ask you….
    I am 5 weeks preqnant . I lift like 20 pounds
    Every 10 mins .. i dontt feel any pain wen im doinq it but i get cramps sometimes.. does that means i have to stop it or its just normal to have crampinq at that stage..?

    • Hi Jackie,
      If you are having cramps and you are worried, it would definitely be a good idea to get checked out by your OB or midwife. Lifting 20 lbs is not likely to cause any problems, as long as you were accustomed to lifting this weight before you became pregnant. Good luck!

  6. Are you a medical doctor? If not, you should ABSOLUTELY not advice women to put their pregnancies at risk just because you are willing to do so…follow your doctors ladies.

    • Hi. Thank you for bringing up your concern! This is one of the early posts I wrote when I was brand new to blogging, and I made the mistake of not providing links to any medically-sanctioned pregnancy exercise guidelines.

      I wrote above, “Pretty much all of the pregnancy exercise guidelines I’ve read…” by which I meant guidelines that I found on various websites dedicated to pregnancy, parenting and fitness — NOT the official medical guidelines of the ACOG and SOGC.

      So, to clarify, here are a few pertinent points:

      1. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG) does not advise against lifting during pregnancy. The only three physical activities they advise against for all pregnant women are downhill skiing, contact sports (e.g. hockey, rugby) and scuba diving.
      http://www.acog.org/~/media/For%20Patients/faq119.pdf?dmc=1&ts=20130107T2340416827

      2. The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiologists (CSEP) and Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) states in their most recent guidelines, “All women without contraindications should be encouraged to participate in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercises as part of a healthy lifestyle during their pregnancy.” They also state, “Women should be advised that adverse pregnancy or neonatal outcomes are not increased for exercising women.
      http://www.csep.ca/cmfiles/publications/scholarly/Joint_SOGC_CSEP_Guidelines.pdf

      Basically, the current thinking is that a woman who is experiencing a normal “low-risk” pregnancy can continue to participate in most fitness activities to which she is already accustomed, other than activities that are known to present a danger to the fetus (such as those listed in point #1 above).

      Hope that helps to clarify things for you, and for anyone else who may stumble across this post.

  7. This is a very detailed and well laid out post. I wish more women had your knowledge of weight lifting. Much respect.

  8. OH MY GOD@!!!!!! So SO glad I found your blog! I have been weightlifting for about 3 years. I am very fit and until I found out I was pregnant I was training 2 x per day for a comp.
    THEN I freaked out wondering if the tiny bub is ok and eased right off training. My doctor told me to train like a ‘normal’ person. With an obesity epidemic in Oz..I hazard a guess that most normal people don’t train!!!
    I have only just read this post and intend to have a read of more later. Do you have any tips for good exercises or shall I just keep doing what I’m doing?
    Thanks,
    Amy

  9. I love this blog!!!!

    Thank you for sharing your view from a fit expecting mother. My husband and I are currently trying for baby number 2 and I’m not giving up my weight training this time around…

    With my first child I was still teaching Zumba up until I was 36 weeks. My labour was only an hour long and drug free. I would love that a 2nd time around. Add to the fact that having to lay off the training for months on end will undo all my efforts I have done in the last few months in getting back into shape…

    Again thank you for this blog ❤ 🙂

  10. Thank you for this information. I just found out I’m PG and I’ve been lifting weights for three yrs. I’m also 40 :/ so I want to continue but also need to be safe. So I’m look at different sites and came across this!!

  11. I’m 7 months into pregnancy number 2, having lifted weights through both pregnancies. The main difference second time round has been that I developed hip discomfort at 3.5 months instead of 6 months this time so I modified my squat weights and depth to accomodate this. Otherwise still cheerfully deadlifting. I also set myself the challenge this time of continuing to be able to do pull ups until the end of pregnancy as I thought it would be a fun way of getting beyond doing them at my normal body weight. I admit I’m down to a single rep now but at 15% over pre-pregnancy weight I’m happy with that.

  12. Just found out were having a baby! YAY! My biggest issue is that I’m in my 2d year of competitive powerlifting, I have a meet this Saturday and am hoping to breat the world record! I have another National meet 2 weeks later. I just took a positive pregnance test today, I’m SO worried about doing my squat and dl maxs….Any advise?

  13. Thank you for this! I was young with my first pregnancy and lost weight quickly, but after my 2nd (7yrs later), I did not lose weight quickly and all my strength was lost. I’ve now been lifting for just under a year (with a 22 mon old and 9 yr old) and love having the body I had in Highschool. And I don’t want to lose my strength and “all” of my progress with number 3. So thank you for this encouraging blog!

  14. Oh my goodness THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!! I love this and I am so glad you posted this online because it is so hard to workout doing crossfit and Muay Thai (training only of course) while pregnant!!! Everyone has an opinion including my doctor and all I want to say is shut up! Its my baby, my body, I feel great! I’m 4.5 months, haven’t stopped training since day one and so far NO issues. Glad I’m not the only one who thinks this way!

  15. This seems like a great article (I’m no expert, lol). I do have a connective tissue disorder that may be similar to how women’s ligaments react during pregnancy, and the only thing I’d like to see is caution for what is even attempted.

    Sometimes in ‘listening to your body’, mistakes are made while listening, lol. I can’t tell you the number of twisted knees, ankles, or inflamed bursa sacs I’ve gotten from attempting too much at one time (it sounded safe, but my ligaments aren’t normal). That’s fine for me, but are there any things that pregnant women would want to avoid as they go?

    A sprained ankle is one thing, but if important parts could be stretched or torn, etc, I’d recommend scaling back on any maneuver that could cause those. Just think of what you’d do if you overstretched or tore X, and make sure you and the baby would be OK with it. Know the body parts you are working and think hard about it, lol. I hope I’m conveying what I mean well. I’d just hate to see any ‘mistakes’ be something pregnant women regret instead of just small bumps in the road.

  16. I am 5 weeks pregnant with my second child. I ran cross country and took a weight lifting class a few months before I got pregnant with my first. My OBGYN told me not to exercise, lift more than 15lbs or doing anything that will make me break a sweat. I gained 60lbs. I just got pasted my pre pregnancy weight at 113. My fiancé and I have a gym membership and I’ve been doing 5 sets of 20 65-75lbs squats and since I found out I was pregnant I decreased to 40lbs and 10 sets of 20. Is that too much weight? I feel great after doing it. I also like to do cardio, such as the cybex for like 30 minutes but I don’t want my heart rate to get too high. I’m 5’1 113lbs and 18 years old. Just wondering your thoughts about dead lifting 20lbs 100 times and the weight doing squats? Thanks a lot love this blog!

  17. My question to you is how can you substantiate doing any of these lifts without maintaining proper intra abdominal pressure required to execute the lift safely. That amount of g-force being applied to the body of a person who isn’t pregnant can be dangerous enough and cause injury when you take into account form, muscular and core engagement (or lackthereof), and joint mobility (or lackthereof again). My question is why take the risk. The argument isn’t a matter of women shouldn’t be exercising during pregnancy we are well past that so let’s not be foolish. But why risk doing exercises that require coordination, greater levels of g-force application to the thoracic and pelvic regions, intra abdominal pressure, and add too it decrease oxygen and iron distribution inthe body and relaxin increase it’s just begging to get yourself and worse yet your baby hurt. It’s like standing in front of a ticking time bomb and just hoping its a dud. The risks far outweigh the benefit and there are far safer ways to maintain a high level of fitness during pregnancy than powerlifting and crossfit style workouts. And I didn’t even mention adding fatigue to all of those contraindications. Don’t get me wrong I think there is a lot to be said and creditted to the crossfit community for the drive they have given their followers and the great mentality they have developed but they go and screw it all up by not knowing what the hell theyre talking about and end it by just saying “well screw it, to each his own and just let people do what they want or juat listen to your body.” The problem with that is that people are coming to you force sound, truthful, and professional and quantifiable advice on how to develop a better body and . Lead them into something as risky as powerlifting during pregnancy is uninformed, unprofessional, and unscrupulous. In my experience most professional athletes dont have perfect form during their olympic and powerlifts, olympic and powerlifters included. So its safe to say it might not be the best idea to recommend most of the general population do them especially pregnant women. When it comes to human mechanics and kinetics the screw it just do it attitude just doesnt work. In my

    • Thank you for saying this, ConcernedCitizen
      How long in our lives are women pregnant? This is like smoking women who argue that their baby “turned out fine.”
      If you can’t tone it down for a few months to minimize risk to your baby…

  18. Concerned Citizen – Clearly, you did not do your research and read her posts thoroughly. She gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Mom and are doing just fine. You can write about g-force application and abdominal pressure all day long…she is living proof that she was right and this was in fact, a myth. You clearly don’t know her strength personally, so who are you to say this was too much for her? Have you ever been pregnant? Can you actually relate? Because it sounds like you haven’t, and you can’t.

  19. So happy i found this site! Im 41yo with a 23 yo daughter and 2 grandaughters…just found out im pregnant. I started competitive powerlifting 2 years ago. Ive broken state and world records i cant imagine not training heavy. Any advice on how i can modify my training? Im due in july i plan on competiting at worlds in november. Keep posting;)

  20. Pingback: Debunking myths about exercise during pregnancy | weighting for nothing·

  21. I just love your honesty about weight training and pregnancy, most people especially black still have a lot to learn with the subject, I am 7months pregnant, I just put in my music and keep going.

  22. Hubby and I have been trying to get pregnant with no success yet. I’ve been CrossFittting for two years now but I’m worried if trying to PR while trying to get pregnant is OK. I guess I’m worried that any little thing might affect the outcome since it seems like we’re having trouble and want to maximize all chances of getting pregnant. It’s too early to tell yet, if we would be, it would be about a week after conception, maybe just after implantation. Am I being overly paranoid? I don’t want to ask my obgyn because I feel she’s a little clueless in that department. Thanks!

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  27. Great post! I agree with everything you said so much. One of my doctors said to keep going with crossfit, just modify as I need to while listening to my body, which was great advice. But the other doctor said not to lift anything over 25lbs. Yeah right! Anyway, my question is for the snatch and clean and jerk, what about that hip contact? I mean, everyone says you can probably keep snatching as far along as you feel safe, but that you might just have to switch to always doing the power position…Well I’m only 12 weeks along so I don’t have much of a bump yet, but I just don’t feel like the hip contact with the bar on the way up is safe. I can’t find anyone talking about this. Do you have any thoughts?

    • Congrats on your pregnancy! I’m 15 weeks. I’m a competitive powerlifter still deadlifting 300lbs (rack pull, not from the floor) 245lbs is the most I’ll do from the floor. I’m squating 225lbs, benching 190, my Dr. said keep doing what your doing, making sure I breathe through reps, don’t hold my breath. I get short of breath so I can only do 2-6 reps. She told me at 20 weeks I should avoid laying on the bench for a prolonged period. She also told me to use common sense if it hurts don’t do it, if you feel too much strain or become lightheaded, stop.
      So keep doing what your doing, I also have a 15 month old, it gets really awkward at about the 6-7 month mark. Your balance is off and the relaxin kicks in.
      Good luck during your pregnancy. Such an amazing time.

      • Dede. That is awesome. I did more weight when I was doing crossfit but now I am just mingling around. I was told it isn’t the time to PR but to maintain so that’s what I have been doing. lol

  28. Pingback: Losing weight whilst pregnant? - BabyandBump·

  29. I don’t know if this is an old post but I just did hip thrusts with the Smith Machine at LA Fitness with my back at an 45 degree angle leaning against the bench i placed behind me. While doing the hip thrust, the bar isn’t hitting but putting pressure on my lower abdomen (below my belly, an inch above my, uh, vagina openings, lol) I’ve only done this couple of times but I fear that the pressure may hurt my baby. I am at 18 weeks. I got a baby bump but not full on baby pregnant bump. I am pretty active in lifting weight. I hope my little girl is ok.

  30. Did you do squat snatches while pregnant?
    I am 34 weeks pregnant and still doing them and feel okay but there is a lot of opinions. Thanks.

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