Pregnancy Weightlifting | When to push, modify, and scale

Fit Pregnancy

You’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant. You also lift heavy and the thought of not lifting for nine months makes you cranky.

You talked with your doctors and received mixed advice: keep doing the workouts you did before pregnancy, but don’t lift more than 25 pounds, or let your heart rate get too high, or go for a lifetime PR.

Fortunately, you did your research and have peace of mind that you can continue lifting heavy, but how heavy is too heavy? You’re making gains in the gym and seeing your numbers steadily increase and you’d rather not see that plateau or nose-dive.

You would also do anything and everything to keep your baby and yourself safe and healthy, so where do you draw the line? What is a good balance for continuing your training and having the healthiest pregnancy possible?

The answer, like all pregnancy-related questions: it depends.

As frustrating as this answer is, there is no one-size-fits-all training program for pregnant women. What works for one woman, may not work for another for a variety of reasons. Heck, the same woman may be able to lift throughout her entire pregnancy with one kiddo, but may have to scale way back or quit lifting completely in a subsequent pregnancy.

Here, we solicit advice from medical and fitness experts on when to push the boundaries, when to modify, and when it’s time to scale back.

The first trimester

Many medical professionals agree that early in an uncomplicated pregnancy, a woman can continue doing most of the activities she did prior to pregnancy.

In December 2015, The American Congress for Obstetricians and Gynecologists updated its physical activity and exercise guidelines, listing strength training as an activity that is safe to be started or continued in pregnancy.

“If the patient has no contraindications or relative indications, they can do almost anything they wish,” said Dr. Raul Artal, retired OB/GYN, has helped develop guidelines for physical activity and exercise in pregnancy for ACOG for 35 years.

ACOG Guidelines

That’s great news for women who want to continue their training.

Instead of relying on overly cautious parameters set by studies done on occupational lifting, fitness experts and doctors advise women to listen to their bodies to know if they are overdoing it.

In the first trimester, this means being aware of fatigue, nausea, and dizziness as the woman’s body adjusts to supporting her and baby.

“It takes 16 weeks for systems to adapt to carrying baby,” says Melissa Hemphill, regional director for BIRTHFIT, a coaching and consulting program geared toward pregnant and post-partum women. “In that time, many women report feeling lightheaded.”

For weightlifters used to heavy sets that may cause lightheadedness, it is extremely important to be aware of your body and the changes it is experiencing in early pregnancy, Hemphill says. As the cardiovascular system expands to support baby, the heart has to adjust and increase the level of blood it’s pumping.

Hemphill says that if the heavy weights aren’t going up, don’t stress. Instead, focus on accessory work or reduce the weight and go for higher reps.

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

Mom and baby in first trimester

In the first trimester, the baby is small — only an eighth of an inch long at 6 weeks and 2.5 inches long by 12 weeks — and well protected in the womb.

For weightlifters, mom’s belly has yet to “pop” and won’t interfere with bar movement.

Hemphill suggests being very aware of your body and look for warning signs such as extreme fatigue, spotting, and bleeding as signs to lighten the load or change up the workout entirely.

“Your body is wired to protect baby before you,” she said. “A major sign that you are overdoing it is how long it takes you to recover. You are allowed to be sore, but if you’re sore for days and days, that’s a sign that you overdid it.”

ACOG guidelines recommend discontinuing exercising entirely if a woman experiences the following:

Catherine Cram, fitness consultant and co-author of “Exercising Through Your Pregnancy,” said squatting can help open up the pelvis and it can be a useful position for giving birth.

However, she cautioned, squats can increase pelvic floor pressure.

“When you combine the squat position with weightlifting,” she said, “it adds additional pressure and care needs to be taken to ensure you’re not bearing down doing a Valsalva maneuver.”

Cram cautioned that bearing down while lifting may put undue pressure on the pelvic floor and cervix, resulting in spotting or bleeding for women with placenta previa.

“Many women aren’t aware they may have [placenta previa] so any time a pregnant woman notices spotting during or after exercise she should follow up with her healthcare provider before continuing her exercise routine,” she said.

BIRTHFIT
BIRTHFIT coaches provide instruction on form.

Workouts in the first trimester

Because baby is small and well protected, mom doesn’t need to adapt a whole lot in the first trimester. If nausea and fatigue aren’t slowing her down, it’s business as usual.

Dedicated to helping a mom-to-be maintain her fitness and connect with her growing baby, BIRTHFIT programmers focus on helping a mother train for birth.

Most people think that working out during pregnancy is simply modifying. It is not,” Hemphill said. “Moms need to be training in all of the metabolic pathways (CR-P, Glycolysis, and Aerobic Respiration) because labor will demand fitness in all of these pathways and we want moms to be set up for their ideal birth experience.”

Hemphill said BIRTHFIT coaches focus on the posterior chain, diaphragm, and neuromuscular stabilization.

“We train in all the different planes of movement (frontal, sagittal, and transverse) and intentionally program unilateral work,” she said. “Most weightlifting and CrossFit occur in the sagittal plane but we want moms to be even more resistant to injury through training in these other planes of movement.”

The second trimester

Once the cardiovascular and other body systems have adapted to carrying baby, life for mom-to-be gets noticeably better. Nausea and dizziness typically subside, the real weight gain has yet to start, and she recoups some of that energy.

Those changes can translate to the gym.

“In the second trimester, you often see PRs,” Hemphill said. “Your body has adapted, you’re feeling better.”

Pregnant Strongman competitor
Pregnant with her third child, Melissa Hemphill competes in a Strongman competition.

A mother of three, Strongman competitor, and Air Force captain, Hemphill has had a lot of experience working out in pregnancy. As a pole vaulter in college, she continued the sport throughout her first trimester with her first pregnancy. She later switched to CrossFit, qualifying and competing at regionals, during her second pregnancy. [Listen to her pregnancy saga on the BirthFit podcast, episode 12].

For women used to pushing hard and testing the limits of their strength, this can be a potentially risky time in pregnancy as women lifters may be tempted to push their workouts.

“There should be no fails when working out in pregnancy,” Hemphill said. “If you’re not sure if that barbell is going to go up on that fifth rep, it’s time to back off.”

Instead of going for huge numbers, Hemphill suggests women work the movements that will help them in labor and delivery, which includes developing the posterior chain and pelvic stabilizers (cue squats!).

“When it comes to lifting heavy, we have no problem with that as long as they are certain the lift will be a make,” she added. “If a mom is mid-second trimester and feeling like superwoman, she may lift at or above 100 percent because she knows that lift will be a make and her movement quality will be solid.  Pregnant women do not need to fail lifts.”

Body changes in the second trimester

The biggest change women experience in the second trimester is the growing belly and weight gain. As a result, a woman’s center of gravity changes, which means her stance for squats and other lifts may need to shift as well.

The hormone relaxin is in full effect by this point and women may notice their flexibility increasing. This is especially important to be aware of with lifting.

Dr. Lauren Puretz, OB/GYN and marathon runner, cautioned that ligament weaknesses may become more noticeable in pregnancy.

“Before pregnancy, women who have ligament issues may not notice them because the muscles compensate,” she said. “In pregnancy, the relaxin hormone relaxes those muscles so the woman may experience hip or other ligament pain.”

If this occurs, she said, a woman may need to revise the lifts or workouts she’s doing.

Adapting workouts in the second trimester

As the belly starts to pop, women may have to swap the barbell for dumbbells. If pull-ups (now weighted) become too difficult, bands may become necessary.

“Everything is scalable with bands, boxes, and dumbbells,” Hemphill said. “You can continue snatching, but when your belly pops, switch to dumbbells.”

Hemphill said women can continue doing their favorite lifts and exercises, but make sure it’s balanced.

“You can keep jerking, but work both legs with a weight you know you won’t fail at,” she said.

CrossFit Games athlete Miranda Chivers crushed workouts throughout her pregnancy. Here, she performs deadlifts and wall balls at 21 weeks pregnant.

The third trimester

Once a woman enters the third trimester of pregnancy, she gets to experience a whole new set of fun from backaches to Braxton Hicks contractions. Maternal weight gain continues during this time as baby packs on the pounds. Moms-to-be may experience waking numerous times each night to pee or suffer from pregnancy-induced insomnia. She may also feel like she can’t eat a full meal as baby takes up more room, restricting her stomach.

Early in the third trimester, women may still feel like they can handle their workouts and heavier loads, but experts caution pushing too hard.

Hemphill said she knows the desire to “push into the black” and go hard, even in the final trimester.

“I had a lot of ego,” she said. “In my second pregnancy, I did a hang snatch and matched my 1RM at 39 weeks, then I did toe-to-bar. It was really dumb.”

Leading into her third pregnancy, Hemphill took a new approach to fitness, which she calls “training for birth.”

To explain this, Hemphill uses the fork in the microwave analogy: sure, you can put a fork in the microwave, but should you?

Adapting workouts in the third trimester

By this point, most women can no longer lay in the supine position for bench and should adjust to incline bench press to work those chest muscles.

For those still chasing the Olympic lifts, Hemphill and other fitness experts recommend switching to kettlebells or dumbbells as the bar path can no longer be maintained once a woman’s belly pops.

“Think of this as paying it forward to your future, postpartum self,” she said. “Only take lifts you know you will make and make every lift beautiful.”

At this point, women may opt for lighter weight with more reps. If lifting is just too much at this point, women can switch to exercises that take the pressure off of her joints and ligaments, such as swimming.

Hemphill recommends all moms-to-be document their fitness by keeping a workout journal to track nutrition, sleep, emotional stress, and when she has those “off” days. 

“For moms who have a hard time being in touch with their bodies, this journal is really really helpful,” she said. “We also ask them to check in at the end of their workout.”

Workouts in the third trimester

For women able to continue working out in the third trimester, Hemphill has a key exercise: EMOMs.

“This is labor training,” she said. “Work hard for 90 seconds to  two minutes and then rest, breathe, and connect with baby.”

Hemphill recommends programming rest into each workout as the due date approaches and connect the breath daily. 

As a final note, Hemphill stressed that women who want to continue working out in pregnancy be very purposeful and know why they want 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.”

Did you miss parts one or two of our series? Catch up with Five Reasons to Exercise during Pregnancy and learn about the studies that prompted the 10-pound-rule for lifting in pregnancy.

Want more? You can read my story of lifting through two pregnancies followed by my own tips for lifting during pregnancy.

Disclaimer: Andrea Signor is a writer. She does not have any medical background or fitness certifications. She is a former journalist with an interest in weightlifting. Any woman interested in exercising and lifting in her pregnancy should consult with her medical team and fitness coaches.

17 Replies to “Pregnancy Weightlifting | When to push, modify, and scale”

    1. Yes! I was very cautious in my first pregnancy, but I lifted heavier in my second pregnancy and I credit that with a quicker recovery.

    1. Agreed. It’s so hard to say “this is what you should be doing” because every person and every pregnancy is different. But having the knowledge that you can push yourself is so empowering to a pregnant woman when so much is out of her control.

  1. You are awwwwwesome for posting about this!! So many mothers get shamed for exercising while they’re pregnant by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. I wish more people would listen to this!

  2. This is such great and important information. I’m so glad health care practitioners have come so far in terms of recommendations for exercise activity during pregnancy. It used to be considered a ‘condition’ (oh, she can’t do that in her ‘condition’!) Aye, aye, aye!!!

    1. I know! I couldn’t believe that docs used to recommend bedrest for women who were already struggling with a healthy lifestyle. I’m glad people are taking a hard look at this.

  3. I am so happy that I stayed active throughout my pregnancy, and that included some light weightlifting. I followed my OB’s advice, and I cannot stress enough the need for every pregnant woman to do the same in order to ensure that they’re taking care of both themselves and their unborn child.

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