PUMPING THE BUMP: LIFTING HEAVY IN PREGNANCY

Andrea Signor

At my first prenatal appointment, a nurse sat me down for my first pregnancy tutorial. We discussed future doctor appointments, what hospital I would deliver at, and what prenatals were best.

“Oh, and we tell of our moms-to-be not to lift more than 10 pounds,” she said.

What? I’d been lifting for six months and had just broken 200 pounds on my deadlift. I was consistently squatting more than my bodyweight. I didn’t want to give up on the progress I’d been making with the barbell for nine months.

When I told the nurse this, she said she’d clear me to lift 25 pounds.

No. Something didn’t sit right with me about this. What did moms with toddlers do for nine months? Did they never pick up their older children? What about the millennia of women who worked in the fields or traveled with across the lands with their tribes? Surely they didn’t get a nine-month pass just because they were carrying a baby.

So I began to research. I read medical studies and talked to fitness experts. I interviewed one of the top OB/GYNs in the country who, for more than 30 years, has advised the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists on proper guidelines for exercise and physical activity for pregnant women. And I spoke to other women who challenged the mainstream on fitness in pregnancy — climbers, marathon runners, crossfiters and powerlifters.

And you know the common answer?

You can work out in pregnancy. And you can work out hard.

Inspiring single mom and powerlifter @strongsarah

 

The 10-pound rule

More than 30 years ago, Swedish researchers documented the activity of more than 4,000 pregnant women whose work required them to lift 25 pounds or more numerous times per day. Over the course of the three-year study, they concluded that occupational lifting performed more than 50 times per week contributed to preterm birth; but did not increase a woman’s chances of miscarriage or stillbirth.

Similar studies conducted in the 1990s led researchers to draw similar conclusions. Alarmed, doctors worldwide began to restrict loads that women lifted while pregnant.

These warnings didn’t take into account whether or not the women doing the occupational lifting had any training on how to lift properly; nor did the blanket recommendations consider whether a women who lifted heavy prior to pregnancy could continue safely.

That is, until two doctors challenged this thinking and advocated for fitness in pregnancy.

Pregnancy is not a disability

In the early 1980s, Dr. Raul Artal specialized in working with high-risk patients. The women he saw struggled with obesity and diabetes.

“The recommendation for these patients at the time was bed rest,” he said. “But that just didn’t make sense to me to further confine these women and restrict activity.”

Artal became the first physician to introduce guidelines for exercise and physical activity for ACOG in 1982. He faced opposition at every turn, but continued to advocate for women.

“It has been an uphill struggle,” he said. “But we eventually liberated these women.”

Still making recommendations for ACOG, Artal successfully added strength training to the list of approved exercises for pregnant women in 2015.

“If the patient has no contraindications or relative indications, they can do almost anything they wish,” Artal said. “Pregnancy is not a state of confinement.”

Pioneering research

At the same time Artal championed fit pregnancies, Dr. James Clapp III conducted his own research of pregnant marathon runners. His discoveries were the foundation of his book, “Exercising Through Your Pregnancy.”

After following more than 240 pregnant runners, Clapp determined the following:

  1. Exercise early in pregnancy stimulated the growth of the placenta, transferring more oxygen and nutrients to the baby. While he admitted that all placentas do an adequate job of helping the baby to grow, Clapp determined that the placentas of active women better protected babies that experienced distress later in pregnancy.
  2. Fit women experience an expanded and better performing cardiovascular system. As the body prepares to support the baby in the first trimester, all women experience an increase in blood volume. Clapp found that plasma volumes, red cell volumes, total blood volumes, in fit pregnant women are 10 to 15 percent higher and the amount of blood pumped by the heart is 30 to 50 percent greater.
  3. Fit women reap the benefits of this cardiovascular system for up to a year after giving birth. Clapp found that the combination of training and pregnancy improves maximal aerobic capacity 5 to 10 percent. Women who are able to resume training after their pregnancies often report PRs 6-12 months postpartum.
  4. Women who exercise tend to deliver 5-7 days earlier than non-exercising women. The active women Clapp followed also had shorter, easier deliveries with fewer complications or need for intervention.
  5. Babies born to fit women tend to be smaller and score better on APGAR tests. On average, the babies born to the women Clapp followed weighed 7.2 pounds, 14 ounces lighter than babies in the non-exercise group. Those babies also were more alert and were able to regulate sugar levels and hold their body temperature better than the non-exercise babies.

Pushing the limits

More than three decades after Artal and Clapp challenged conventional wisdom, new studies of elite fitness are taking place. Cross Fitters, yogis, swimmers, climbers, and weightlifters continue pushing the norms.

“Your body is wired to protect baby before you,” said Melissa Hemphill, regional director for BIRTHFIT, a pregnancy fitness program.

Hemphill said that as long as women checked in with their bodies and were honest about how they were feeling throughout their pregnancy, they could continue pushing themselves, and even set PRs in running and weightlifting.

“It’s allowed to be hard, but you shouldn’t feel horrible,” she said.

Hemphill encouraged women to continue with their activities, stressing that all movements are scalable with bands, boxes, dumbbells, and kettlebells.

But, she continued, women who want to have a fit pregnancy need to be honest with themselves about why they are so determined to workout.

“Mentality is key,” she said. “There are so many ways for pregnant women to get fit as long as she is not doing this out of fear. Fear of gaining weight. You can’t hate yourself into a body you love. You need to love how capable you feel while working out.”

Squatting 115 pounds when I was 34 weeks pregnant

*Andrea Signor is a fulltime mom to two little girls, a blogger, and a weightlifter. Before kids, she worked as a civilian journalist for the U.S. Army. Her work has appeared on CrossFit media, Climbing magazine, Women’s Adventure magazine, and FloElite.com. She began writing her blog to help other moms balance fitness and parenthood. She hopes that through lifting and blogging she’s modeling confidence, determination, and grit for her daughters.

mamalifts.com

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There are 16 comments on this post
  1. November 29, 2017

    I think it’s wonderful that you are able to do that. Just watching that makes me nervous, I’ll leave that to the professionals.

    • Andrea Signor
      November 30, 2017

      Totally understand, Shelly. You have to do what you are comfortable with at any stage in life, but especially pregnancy. Thanks for reading 🙂

  2. November 29, 2017

    This comment spoke volumes to me and hit me at my core. “You can’t hate yourself into a body you love.” I’m currently dealing with this now. I am trying to love me for where I am now, but love me enough to make healthy changes for me not just to achieve a body that I think will make me happier. I’m not pregnant but have dealt with weight gain due to Lupus and high dose steroids.

    • Andrea Signor
      November 30, 2017

      Yes, I tell myself this every day now. It’s so hard to change your mindset when it comes to body image. Self image is tied up into so many things — self-esteem, self worth, etc. etc. I love that you are focusing on making healthy changes for yourself and I hope you see that inner and outer beauty coming through. Thank you for reading!

  3. November 29, 2017

    This is so amazing! I would’ve loved to be able to work out during pregnancy. So happy you and other mamas are going against the grain and sticking to something you love during pregnancy.

    • Andrea Signor
      November 30, 2017

      Yes, I’m so glad there are women out there pushing conventional wisdom when it comes to exercising in pregnancy. I feel like I owe them a debt of gratitude because they very much paved the way for me to be able to workout without fear or doubt when I was pregnant. Thank you for reading 🙂

  4. Julie
    November 29, 2017

    Wow! Go Girl! I taught exercise until about 8 months preggo with my first!

  5. November 29, 2017

    I love, love, love this post. I’m a big advocate for weight lifting/heavy lifting. I heavy lifted during my last pregnancy.

  6. Amy
    November 29, 2017

    Super impressed with what you did while pregnant. The weightlifting is great, but what about all those house projects too 😉

    • Andrea Signor
      November 30, 2017

      Lol. Thanks, Amy. Yes, the house projects were probably a bit more ambitious, but they had to get done. I like to think of it as “extreme nesting.” 😉

  7. Allison
    November 29, 2017

    This is awesome. Pregnancy is NOT a disability. There are so many blanket recommendations given for pregnancy that have no valid research to back it up. Bed rest is another example of this. Rock on mama!

    • Andrea Signor
      November 30, 2017

      Yes, Allison! I never realized how little research there was and how bad a lot of it is. I read somewhere that the two research subjects with the most questionable data are pregnancy studies and exercise studies, just because both rely on so much self-reporting. Even more reason for women to really know and understand their bodies before, during, and after pregnancy.

  8. November 29, 2017

    It’s so important to feel comfortable to share your thoughts and concerns – especially during pregnancy. I know many women who’ve continued an already established exercise routine during their pregnancy with the support of their doctors and care teams. Good for you!!

    • Andrea Signor
      November 30, 2017

      Absolutely, Lynn. I interviewed a couple of moms for this series who elected not to tell their doctors that they were continuing to lift heavy for fear of being scolded or told to stop. It’s very important to have a doctor who understands your goals/motivations, but who can also help you understand risks/complications and advocate for you and your baby. All of us are on the same page here: team healthy baby. And a happy mom is part of that equation.

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