CrossFit and Pregnancy
Myths and Modifications — Personal Experience
I’ve been a CrossFitter for just over a year. Nine months of that first year, I also spent pregnant. I dispelled two myths about CrossFit in 2018; doing CrossFit will cause you to look like a body builder, aka, by those that don’t know better, —have the “CrossFit body”, and that CrossFit isn’t safe while you are pregnant. I was no exception to these misstatements looking in at this sport from the outside. While learning that I couldn’t achieve a “CrossFit body” no matter how hard I tried, (somewhere, Paige Semenza is throwing her head back in laughter envisioning me thinking I could ever actually have a body like hers with my workout routine and addiction to food) I do have a better body thanks to CrossFit. I was able to gain strength, energy, and stamina all while pregnant. I was able to take better care of my body (and even my brain) during pregnancy through CrossFit. Here’s how with my own personal experience and a brief guide at the end with my actual modifications as to what I learned to do and more importantly, not to do, to compliment my growing body and baby.
“No. No CrossFit during pregnancy”. “You don’t want to do that. You don’t want to lift anything, really”. I was three months in to starting CrossFit and finally over the — I’m going to die doing one of these workouts — hump. I was in a groove and starting to actually feel good coming out of the gym, to the point that I was looking forward to the next workout. Unless you’re offering chocolate brioche or pistachio macaroons during the 4:30 class, you won’t get me excited about lifting weights and sucking wind. That changed with CrossFit. It was a combination of the notion that this sport was out of my league dissipating, the supportive members and coaches, the mini adrenaline surge occasionally, and my husband’s involvement that turned it around. Now I was being told that in planning a pregnancy, CrossFit was off the table for me. To say that I was deflated was an understatement in hearing this from medical professionals that were overseeing my care. I follow the rules and the safety of a growing fetus comes before anything else. I began accepting the idea that if our family was going to grow, it didn’t matter how much I liked it or how great it made me feel, I would need to sacrifice my time at the gym for my little one.
Then my OBGYN stepped in and saved the day. This man wears an “S” on his chest under his lab coat for so many reasons. Side tangent; ladies, having a solid, trusted OBGYN makes life so much easier. In expecting the same answer I had already been given twice at the fertility clinic by two separate Physicians, I begged the question one last time — can I still participate in CrossFit while pregnant? “Yes”. Huh? He proceeded to tell me that I know my body and to simply listen to it. That I’d of course have to make modifications based on how my body grows and my energy level but there was no scientific evidence supporting CrossFit as being a dangerous activity during pregnancy. It was good to stay active and fit. It was healthful to my pregnancy. He sent me on my way in much brighter spirits and reassured me that I could stay active and safe with CrossFit with the help of my coaches.
All was well. And then the first trimester hit me in the face like a brick. I did have to skip out 3 full weeks and slowly work back into CrossFit over the next 3 week period due to implanting our little fertilized egg. That part was no joke — no running, no lifting, no activity, no exception. You spend a lot of time and money to get that baby in there with IVF, you don’t want to lose it. I had serious stress about the baby taking and even more so, that she stay there. I grew stir crazy those few weeks, then coming back was brutal. It was almost like starting over again but with adding nausea, dizziness, irritability, and exhaustion. How can you fall asleep holding a barbell one may ask? Two words: first trimester. That’s how. There were many days during that period where I developed a “screw this” mentality and wanted no part in my regularly anticipated CrossFit classes. My husband had no clue what I was experiencing which made me even more irritable. He’d never been through it so why I expected him to know better escapes me. Not being able to fuel my body properly with food because S’Mores cereal was the only thing I could eat without wanting to vomit didn’t help. I showed up anyway. I did the workouts anyway. I stuck it out and then a couple of weeks into my second trimester, I was really glad that I had.
Two weeks into my second trimester the nausea had subsided and I was starting to feel more energetic. I was in that — did she put on weight or is she pregnant — phase. Being my fourth child, my body’s muscle memory kicked in and was kind enough to force me into maternity clothes swiftly. I also was gaining muscle so most likely felt larger than I was as my thighs were actually expanding in a good way. All this to say, I felt great as far as energy was concerned but was not feeling good about my body. Despite that, this was where the sport became fun again. This is also where I learned that coning is a real thing and you should do everything you can to not encourage your abdominal muscles to separate during pregnancy. I had this idea that I wanted to keep my abs working so that recovery would lead to them snapping back and maybe I could at some point actually see my abdominal muscles more clearly. What I didn’t realize is that all of those long plank holds, high rep push-ups, and abmat sit-ups were contributing to the separation of my abdominal muscles. I weeded out anything that put pressure on my abs or worked those 6-pack muscles.
I had fantastic days during the second trimester sprinkled with a few confusing and frustrating days. There were days where I thought I had done the workout incorrectly because I wasn’t the least bit winded and hadn’t even really broken a sweat. Then there were days like the one where I had to do 20 pounds lighter on a movement I had just done a few days prior, (literally). I remember being so frustrated that I knew I could do more and my body just said no. The kind of frustration, (thanks to those lovely hormones surging through my blood) that caused me to drop the bar and walk away into the privacy of the bathroom to collect myself while sparing others from witnessing my mini tantrum. The thing is, not one person was concerned with what I couldn’t lift except for me. It took me a bit to get past that. The voice of my OBGYN repeated in my head and I let it sink in — “listen to your body”.
Third trimester. Home stretch. It hurt to run at that point, (belly cramps galore) so I wore a supportive belly band. I also found that single unders, (because I can only do about 5 double unders at a time still) and box jumps were also activities that led to cramping just underneath the baby bump. Initially I was skeptical of the benefit until two incidents — the first, I took it off immediately after the workout while in recovery mode thinking I could breathe easier and instantaneously got fierce belly cramps in the lower part of my abdomen. The other time I had forgotten it and completed a workout with a lot of running. Belly cramps once again. From that point on, I kept the support band on during all workouts. This was the first pregnancy that I tried one of these and I ended up using the Belly Bandit. I did look into using athletic tape for support, however, my OBGYN reported that if anything, it may provide a placebo as again, no scientific evidence to support that it actually works was available. I decided to skip it and stick to the belly band.
For working out, most of the third trimester felt really good. My sleep patterns started to wane bringing my energy level down some but other than that, I was looking forward to each workout just as much as I had in the second trimester and prior to pregnancy. The members and coaches were very encouraging and they really kept me motivated and feeling positive.
As I rounded the final weeks of pregnancy, I received an email from my gym notifying me that I had been voted as Member of Inspiration for December. It was an unexpected surprise and I was proud of it. Initially I was almost embarrassed thinking of how difficult it was, how my “gains” were laughable compared to that of others who were not pregnant. That I didn’t deserve it when I could only complete the lower levels of classes and throw around so much less weight than other women my size. But it’s not about the most weight, the most reps, the best time. Other people had taken notice to the effort that I put in and even commented that they showed up even when they didn’t want to because if I could, then they could. It made me feel good to know that I was in some way encouraging other people to keep going. Even on my worst days, I was having a positive impact on those around me and that felt pretty good.
On to the modifications. First, for reference, I am 5’5”, 122 pounds pre-pregnancy, and gained 30 pounds while pregnant. During the first trimester I worked out two days a week. During the second and third trimesters, I worked out mainly four days per week. I dropped my weight load to the lower level, (L1 as it was referred to at my gym at the time). I stopped taking pre-workout supplements and only took in additional protein via shake or a protein bar directly after workouts. With the help of my coaches, here are the specific substitutions / modifications that I made to keep moving safely:
Burpees — I used a 20# slam ball and did over the shoulders instead. This helps not only avoid coning in the abs but is much easier on the back as well.
Pushups — I substituted the dumbbell press with 20#s on low rep exercises and 12–15#s on higher rep exercises. This got heavy fast for me at the 20# weight (my strength is not in upper body).
Hand Stand Pushups — I substituted handstand holds against the wall. During more intense workouts, I would occasionally get dizzy inverted and lose balance after a few rounds but was still able to hold 20–30 seconds once up.
Deadlifts — I found Romanian deadlifts easier than regular deadlifts during pregnancy. This was one movement that I did not have to modify nearly as much in regard to decreasing weight.
Prowler Sled — I pulled the single stack weight sled with the over the shoulder strap rather than pushing the prowler sled.
Core work — I substituted the Farmer’s Carry, (aka Farmer’s Walk). These took the strain off of my rectus abdominis while letting me still work on overall core strength. Some people use dumbbells for this exercise — I used kettlebells. I also did American kettlebell swings in place of abmat situps or GHDSUs occasionally.
Running — I decreased the distance in most workouts as advised. I most likely could have run the full distance at each workout but was cautioned by coaches that running is the one activity to slow down on and decrease distance. I did cramp fairly often while running, (lower abdomen under the bump) so I welcomed the decrease in meters, especially during the third trimester.
Barbell Work — The larger my belly, the more I modified. There’s a natural instinct to protect your baby bump making it difficult to keep the bar close to the body when lifting. This shifted the work more to my arms and less in my hips and core making movements such as power cleans, snatches, jerks, and thrusters more challenging. I compensated by doing these movements from a hang, (position one) when the workout called for starting from the floor, and by decreasing the load. I would thrust from the hips as much as possible to assist my arms in the additional work to get the bar around my abdomen.
Ski Erg, Assault Bike, Rower — I did not modify any of these movements. I continued to do the prescribed calories, time, and distance. On the rower, I did have to spread my legs wide on the return from each pull to get a good full pull since physically I couldn’t return the handle all the way back to position with my legs straight, the larger my abdomen grew.
Box Jumps — I did step-ups for roughly 3 weeks just after implantation when I was allowed to start back up, then for the rest of the pregnancy did box jumps on a soft box at 18–20 inches. It’s so easy to accidentally miscalculate as your body grows with the baby, especially in strenuous workouts where you fatigue quickly — I personally wouldn’t risk normal heights on box jumps especially in the third trimester when your joints start spreading. I’m also not very graceful and lack a decent vertical so the risk of hurting the baby by landing on my abdomen outweighed any desire I personally had to jump any higher.
Rope Climbs — I did full climbs with a soft mat under the rope into the beginning of the third trimester, then went to half climbs, (halfway up the rope), and then let-downs, (lowering to the floor holding the rope then pulling back up to a standing position) the final weeks of pregnancy. I was already a month into pregnancy the first time I learned how to do a rope climb. I use the J-Hook method. I started at 7–8 pulls to reach the top and my last climb, as I got heavier, was 9–10 pulls, (which is a lot). I love rope climbs but I’m “blessed” with a thicker bottom half and don’t have great upper body strength to pull, plus again, no vertical so I don’t get that head start that tall people who can jump get. All this to say, I fatigued fast doing a lot of these in a workout and a fall is the most important thing to avoid. The heavier I got, the harder these got and the weaker my grip on the rope got so I just kept adjusting along the way.
Pull Ups — I modified to jumping pull ups until the last couple of weeks of pregnancy where I weaved in some ring rows.
Toes to Bar — Strict Tuck-ups. I hadn’t mastered toes to bar yet so did strict tuck-ups, then once there was a big belly in my way, I simply did wide leg tuck-ups to roughly between elbow height and waist level.
Kettlebell Swings — For Russians I maintained weight throughout the pregnancy. For Americans I dropped the weight some since these are done overhead and injury is more of a concern. I mostly used the 12kg kettlebells but would increase weight occasionally depending on the workout.
The movement I struggled most with while pregnant was overhead squats. I was particularly unbalanced in the third trimester and it felt awkward even taking all of the weight off of the bar leaving 35#s to work with. I felt that I would fall forward or backward at any given point and really had to focus on this movement to make it happen correctly.
Being both pregnant and new to the sport, I was excited to hit a couple of numbers such as 135#s for a three rep max on deadlifts, (2nd Trimester), 75#s on bench press, (2nd Trimester) and 125#s for a three rep max on back squats, (3rd Trimester). These are decent numbers for a female novice, (I know you’re still laughing Paige). Overall, I hit some personal happy milestones all throughout my first year, including doing the Murph workout with my husband in the first trimester for the first time.
If I get the chance to do it over again, I plan on introducing more yoga to compliment my workouts and also to better destress. I learned to remember to breathe, and that I wasn’t trying to set any records — rather just to keep moving. I think it fair to say that I safely shattered a few myths about CrossFit during pregnancy. I also think it fair to say that I’m pushing 40 and this was my easiest pregnancy of my four. Coincidence? I think not.
Now on to the postpartum comeback…
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