Modifications For The Pregnant CrossFit Athlete

I have pretty much been an athlete my entire life.  So, when I took up weightlifting as a teenager, the workouts I did in the gym were not the typical workouts in which most teenage girls partake (e.g. endless amounts of crunches, sit-ups, and minutes slaving away on the treadmill).  I’ve always lifted heavily in the gym, and challenged myself more than I thought mentally and physically possible. So when I discovered CrossFit, it seemed like a natural fit for me.

Since I have spent the last few years coaching CrossFit classes a few times per week, I can easily say that I have come across my fair share of expecting and postnatal CrossFitter’s that share the same fitness work ethic.  For many of us women who are used to working out at such a high intensity, it can be very frustrating and confusing when you become pregnant and you try to combine your need to want to protect you and your unborn baby with the need to really  exercise.

I totally understand the need for wanting to get your high intensity exercise “fix”.  I went through it myself for three pregnancies.  However, there needs to be a “meeting in the middle” shift for your high intensity exercise program as you progress further into your pregnancy and transition into the postpartum period.  Unfortunately, with all CrossFit’s videos and images of women peeing their pants, or heavily pregnant women lifting insane amounts of weight or flinging themselves around rings and bars, millions of women around the world have been lead to believe that this is perfectly normal and acceptable (100% NOT THE CASE).  Heck, it’s even often considered “bad-ass” or something that will earn you some sort of female “badge of honor”.

Part of my mission is to spread the word that changes NEED to occur to a pregnant athlete’s exercise programming.  I want to provide these women with good information and clear direction on how to adapt what they are currently doing in the gym for the safety of their baby, and for the safety of their OWN body, while still allowing them to keep doing what they love -within reason.  There is massive value in strength training through pregnancy.  I want you to feel strong, pain-free, and prepared for the “demand” of your life: birthing your baby and being a fit and able mom!  I want you to focus on ALL the major movement patterns: squat, hinge, push, pull, and lunge, for a more balanced approach to fitness, as well as safe core training during pregnancy.  That’s why I have taken 9 of the common movements found in CrossFit and provided pregnancy-safe modifications for each of them that you can use as you move into the second trimester of pregnancy (when you REALLY want to be thinking about safer exercises choices for you program).  Remember, exercising through pregnancy is a GREAT thing for you when deemed appropriate by your doctor or midwife.  Let’s just do it in a way that recognizes and honors your changing body and baby.  Enjoy!

CrossFit Exercise Modifications:

Before we cover the modifications, there are a few “house rules” I want you to keep in mind:

  • The concepts of “For Time” and “AMRAP” as a way to gauge the intensity of your workouts should be replaced at this time (even more than normal) with the concepts of simply moving well and monitoring how your body feels. If you feel any strange sensations in your body -slow down and see if that helps the situation or if you need to stop all together.
  • I know you may “feel fine” running short distances for your workouts. Just keep in mind the large amount of impact you are placing on your pelvic floor and unstable pelvis with every foot strike during a run combined with the additional weight you are gaining through pregnancy.  Even if you wear a pelvic support belt -that is still a lot of impact on your pelvis.
  • Practice your core breathing with every rep. You can learn more about this technique here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6P5EFmC9-o
  • Watch your alignment during the set-up and execution of every exercise
  • Ask yourself if you feel supported through the core and pelvic floor with every exercise. Or, do you feel like you are going to “fall out” and struggle to find support through the abdominal wall and pelvic floor?
  • Rest whenever you feel the need to rest.
  • Choose options for certain exercises (i.e. overhead press) where you can be in either a seated, tall kneeling, or ½ kneeling position to get off your feet as much as possible -especially deep into the third trimester.
  • Remember -you have nothing to prove to anyone!

 

  1. Kettlebell Swing

I know you’ve probably have seen plenty of pregnant women across the internet performing kettlebell swings during pregnancy, but I like to err on the side of caution when it comes to these ladies and kettlebells.  The kettlebell swing produces a very strong ballistic force through the hips and pelvis.  The pregnant pelvis is in a bit more of a compromised state than normal, with loosened ligaments and stretched muscles. It’s not able to fully stabilize against and distribute these forces evenly enough throughout the torso.  This can mean more work and pain for your lower back -which is something we want to avoid as much as possible during pregnancy.  A better fit that still mimics the hinging pattern of the swing would be a kettlebell deadlift.  That is if it still feels comfortable for you to deadlift, and you don’t see any bulging, doming, or coning along the midline of your belly when performing these.

 

  1. Box Jump

There is WAY TOO MUCH impact on the core and pelvic floor with box jumps.  Just think of all the jarring force you are placing on your pelvic floor with each jump up onto the box, and that is on top of all of the extra weight your pelvic floor already had to support from pregnancy.  Plus, why put yourself through the risk of falling should you miss the jump onto the box.  A better alternative to the box jump would be a simple step up.

 

  1. Deadlift

You can absolutely continue to deadlift through your pregnancy as long as you feel supported through your core and pelvic floor.  What do I mean by this?  As long as you don’t see any signs of Diastasis Recti, or any bulging, doming, coning, or anything protruding from the midline of your belly during the exercise.  You also want to make sure that you don’t feel any pain, dragging, “heaviness” in your vagina, or like something is going to fall out during this exercise or after your workout.  These are all signs that this is too much for your body right now, and it may be time to back off from deadlifting for a while.  You may especially feel this way during your third trimester.  If you still feel up for deadlifting though, some alternatives to the conventional deadlift that may be more comfortable for you include the sumo deadlift, KB deadlift (bell sits in between your feet), or trap bar deadlifts (extra points for your gym if it has one of these!).

 

  1. Burpee

So -a few years ago, I was at a weekend workshop at a CrossFit gym in Virginia.  It was also about the time that the CrossFit Open was going on.  The gym owner offered to finish each day with a group workout, so that any of the attendees who wanted to get their Open WOD done could do so in time to log their score on the Open’s website.  I WILL NEVER FORGET there was a very pregnant athlete at the workshop who was participating in the Open, and she wanted to complete this particular Open workout that had burpees in it!?!?!?  Her way of modifying burpees was to slowly jump down onto the floor and then twist her torso to the side so that she could get as much of her chest to the floor without her belly getting in the way.  OMG!!

Ladies -please -please -please -for not just the safety of your baby (although baby is well pretty protected inside the womb), but for the safety of your poor core and pelvic floor -you DO NOT need to be doing full out burpees during pregnancy.  Oh -and placing an ab mat on the floor to cushion your belly and dropping down to your knees isn’t any better of an option either!  Yes, I’ve seen that method used before too.  Opt instead to step in and away from a high box with a push-up in between (as long as you feel supported through the core and pelvic floor), or substitute wall push-ups + bodyweight squats:

 

 

  1. Sit-Up

Hopefully, you have heard by now that sit-ups and crunches ARE NOT suitable for core training during pregnancy.  Most women experience some degree of Diastasis Recti during pregnancy -it’s absolutely normal.  What is Diastasis Recti? Diastasis Recti (or “DR”) is a separating and stretching of the abdominal muscles and weakening of connective tissue that joins the abdominal wall along the midline of your body. This leaves you t with a gap between the two sides of the abdominal wall and a core that doesn’t function well.  Diastasis Recti occurs during pregnancy as a result of hormones and increased pressure from the growing uterus pushing out against the abdominal wall.

Now, why aren’t sit-ups and crunches appropriate for a pregnant mama! Sit-ups and crunches, when done poorly, can severely increase the intra-abdominal pressure of your core.  This increased pressure needs to go somewhere, and so it ends up pushing your organs outwards against that gap we previously talked about, and downwards onto your pelvic floor.  Think of your core as a softly inflated balloon.  Now think about what happens when you squeeze that balloon.  The pressure in the balloon (your core) has to go up, down, and sideways.  Believe it or not, you can actually see how you’re doing more harm than good to your core when doing crunches with a Diastasis Recti present.  The goal for core training during your pregnancy, as well as beyond, should be to focus on exercises that brace the spine and keep it in neutral alignment such as elevated front planks (when I say elevated I mean preferably against a wall so the belly isn’t hanging towards the floor), side planks, and kneeling or band pull-overs like the ones in the following videos.  You can actually do these for reps, just focus on quality -not quantity:

 

 

  1. Rowing

Rowing can be a great aerobic activity for you during pregnancy -as long as the belly with allow for it! J  Alignment and breathing mechanics are KEY here.  ESPECIALLY during both the drive and release, you will want to make sure that you are maintaining a neutral spine, or hinging at the hips with no rounding through the upper back.  Remember our discussion about DR in the previous section.  It’s that constant rounding of the spine, and holding of our breath that we want to avoid that can greatly contribute to worsening DR and placing more stress on the pelvic floor.  You will want to inhale with every release and exhale with every drive:

 

  1. Back Squat

As your belly grows, you will more than likely find it harder and harder to get low in your squats.  One way to give yourself a little bit more room is to take a slightly wider stance (about shoulder width apart).  If back squats become too uncomfortable for you then give the goblet squat a try.  Also, if your butt winks when you try and squat to a low depth, then it’s probably a good idea to asses at which point in your squat that you don’t “butt wink” and only lower to that depth.  Also, try adjusting your alignment and using the core breathing technique with every rep to see if that helps to clean things up a bit.  Lastly, you DON’T have to always go “ass-to-grass”.

 

  1. Front Squat

Many women experience Carpal Tunnel Syndrome during pregnancy, especially during the second and third trimesters.  It happens when there is a build-up of fluid in the tissues in your wrist. This swelling of the tissues squeezes a nerve, called the median nerve, that runs down to your hand and fingers, causing tingling and numbness in these areas. You may also find if you have CTS that your grip is much weaker and that it’s harder to move your fingers.  You may further find that it’s pretty painful trying to do exercises like a front squat where your hands and wrists are greatly being compressed by the weight of the bar.  If so, try and switch to a dumbbell version of the front squat as seen in the following video:

 

  1. Pull-Ups

Pull-ups -not kipping pull-ups, but strict pull-ups -are a great exercise to help build upper body strength.  You will probably need some sort of assistance (resistance band) with these as you progress further along into your pregnancy.  You can absolutely keep doing these as well during your pregnancy as long as they feel comfortable for you and you don’t see any doming, coning, or bulging along the midline of your belly and too much pressure bearing down on the pelvic floor when you pull yourself up.  If you feel or see any of these symptoms then it’s probably a good idea to switch to inverted/ring rows.  I also like ½ kneeling lat pulldowns because they mimic the same movement pattern as the pull-up, and a great way to get off your feet for a little bit during your workout…a huge plus during your second and third trimesters!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkaAVa5x9Tk

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