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.
?now back to your regular scheduled programming ? 4th set of 135lb x 10. Slow and controlled. Easy peezy and due any day ?? . . . . . . . #pregnantnotpowerless #pregnantpowerlifter #pregnantlifter #strongmomslift #powerlifter #girlswhopowerlift #lifter #fitmom #fitpregnancy #survivor #powerbelly #gains #thisismybelt @theellenshow @liftersociety @strongmomslift @muscleandfitnesshers @deadlifttillimdead @girlswhopowerlift @moms_who_lift @strongfitnessmag
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.”
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
*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.