Thursday, January 18th, 2018: Pregnancy: Perspectives for Trainers and AthletesJanuary 17, 2018
10 squat cleans (empty barbell)
5 good mornings
5 strict press
5 push press
For time: 12 min cap
Bar Muscle Ups
Burpees w/ plate 45/25
“Meet you in 5”
5 RFT: 25 min cap (including rest)
7 Squat Cleans 155/105
7 STOH 155/105
7 burpee pullups
2min rest after each round;
score is the time you finish the 5 rounds including rest
“It’s OK to stay fit during pregnancy—but not too fit.”
That seems to be the message society puts out to pregnant women.
Take, for example, a video posted by 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games competitor Miranda Chivers Oldroyd in early March. Nineteen weeks pregnant, she performed an effortless bar muscle-up as part of CrossFit Games Open Workout 17.2. Oldroyd included in her post what can only be interpreted as a pre-emptive strike against the criticism she knew would follow:
“Do I advise this for other pregnant ladies? For the most part—probably not. But after a decade of CrossFit and a lifetime PR of 20 (unbroken) reps not that long ago—1 rep every 20 seconds felt perfectly safe and right for me and my family!” Oldroyd wrote.
Still, people felt the need to judge and criticize her training decisions:
“Why though? I’m all for fit pregnancies but this is getting ridiculous, there is just no need for this except for selfish reasons.”
“Kinda of seems like this lady is doing this for herself despite what’s good for the baby and telling herself it’s okay. I worked out while I was pregnant with both my kids but this is overboard.”
“Yeah, that jerking motion isn’t good for you or your unborn child.”
As always, the critics offered no evidence to back up their concern for Oldroyd and her baby. Instead, their only argument was that Oldroyd just looked a little too fit for a woman carrying a baby.
I’m not a mother, nor have I experienced pregnancy, but I have trained a dozen or so pregnant women in eight years of coaching CrossFit. With great success, all of them worked out at various levels during their pregnancies before giving birth to healthy babies.
From my experience, training while pregnant is more about variables than similarities. The only all-encompassing rule is that pregnant women need to scale and modify their workouts—just as athletes of any age or condition should adjust their workouts to their needs.
When it comes to Oldroyd, the critics fail to realize she dramatically scaled her effort in 17.2. Though a bar muscle-up isn’t a feasible feat for most women, a pregnant Oldroyd worked at a fraction of her full capacity in performing one bar muscle-up every 20 seconds. In the comments thread below the post, she explained that her intensity level was low and she has enough strength and control to ensure the bar never touched her body below her rib cage at any point in the movement.
All this is to say Oldroyd’s scaled-down effort in 17.2 was likely equivalent to a 30-minute walk by a less-fit pregnant woman.
In the February 2017 CrossFit Journal article “Pregnancy: A Practical Guide for Scaling,”Nicole Christensen addressed modifications for pregnant women. A properly scaled workout maximizes relative intensity, she explained.
This concept isn’t specific to pregnant women; it’s one of the main principles CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman laid out in the 2002 CrossFit Journal article “What Is Fitness?” It’s a principle affiliates all around the world continue to embrace today.
When deciding how to scale for pregnancy, Christensen suggested trainers consider the following with each individual:
• The overall health and safety of the mother and child.
• Physiological changes that impede some CrossFit movement patterns.
• Hormonal changes that affect muscles, tendons and joints.
• Changes by trimester.
• Careful application of relative intensity.
• Preserving the intended stimulus of movement patterns but not necessarily the metabolic output (intensity).
That approach has helped me guide my clients as they train through pregnancy.
Earlier this year, I worked with 35-year-old Caitlin Beaupre during her pregnancy. The modifications I made for Beaupre were more dramatic than those for most of the other women I have worked with. Much of this had to do with psychology. Beaupre had a hard time getting pregnant and suffered multiple miscarriages in the past, so her approach was understandably cautious.
“I have probably been more cautious than most, and I’m a pretty cautious person anyway,” she said in May.
Further, Beaupre scaled workouts significantly even before she was pregnant, so additional modifications were necessary.
“I have never been Speedy McSpeederson, so being pregnant has definitely slowed me down even more,” she said.
Beaupre became pregnant via in vitro fertilization, and the hormones and drugs associated with the process can tax a woman’s body more than a traditional pregnancy. Though none of her traditional pregnancies were viable, Beaupre noticed a difference in energy levels this time.
“In my first trimester, I was physically tired before I even started working out,” Beaupre said with a laugh. “I was definitely more tired this time than during my other pregnancies.”
She also dealt with rib and back pain, which was aggravated by sitting and often affected her at the end of the day.
“I have been really sore all around my rib cage. Walking helps, or lying down with my legs overhead, but not much else,” she said. “So sometimes I can’t even get myself to go to the gym.”
Despite her physical and emotional limitations, Beaupre continued to work out with me once or twice a week, and she also took frequent walks.
Shortly after she became pregnant, Beaupre abandoned Olympic weightlifting because her body told her to avoid anything explosive.
Early in the first trimester, Beaupre noticed her lung capacity felt severely diminished to the point that conditioning was overwhelming. To make it more manageable, I set specific intensities to control her exertion. For example, when she biked or rowed, I prescribed a specific target pace I knew she could hold without feeling like she was working too hard. I also used rate of perceived exertion (RPE) to control her intensity. I would tell her to keep her RPE at no more than a 5 out of 10 during a workout with farmer carries and kettlebell swings, for example. Finally, I prescribed every-minute-on-the-minute workouts, which allowed me to control how much work she did and prevented her from going out too hard.
“I just feel like I’m working twice as hard during conditioning right now, so it just feels better to keep things a bit less intense,” Beaupre explained.
She also continued to squat, but we switched to box squats. Beaupre was working to correct a forward lean in her squat before pregnancy, and the problem was solved with box squats.
“And it just feels better on my back to squat to a box right now,” she said.
On top of powerlifting movements—squats, deadlifts and presses—and light conditioning, we also focused on maintaining her upper-body strength with strict pulling and pushing movements—ring rows and push-ups with her hands on a box, as well as various banded pulling drills, such as banded rows and lat pull-downs.
“Before I was pregnant, I could do some full push-ups to the floor, but now box push-ups have even become really hard,” she said.
Finally, posterior-chain accessory movements worked for Beaupre: glute-bridge variations, single-leg box step-ups, and banded work such as clamshells and good mornings.
As Christensen pointed out in her article, diastasis recti—a separation between the left and right side of the abdominals—is a concern during and after pregnancy. In the CrossFit community it has been suggested that kipping movements, as well as crunching movements such as sit-ups and toes-to-bars, might contribute to a greater chance for diastasis recti after childbirth because the movements can stretch muscle fibers beyond their normal lengths.
Christensen recommended substituting isometric work such as planks to guard against abdominal separation while building or maintaining midline stability. This approach worked for Beaupre, who used planks and other isometric core work—such as Paloff holds—throughout her pregnancy.
Though Beaupre was motivated to maintain her physical fitness, she said the workouts helped her emotionally, too.
“I’m not someone who’s addicted to exercise. I mean, I used to come to the gym four or five days a week, but it didn’t come naturally for me. That’s too much for me right now, but still the act of moving, even if it’s just getting outside for a walk, doing something physical, really helps mentally,” she said.
“And I’m actually getting my energy back again as I head into the third trimester,” she said in spring. “A lot of women I have spoken to have told me it’s actually when they were able to be their most active, so we’ll see. I’ll just keep listening to my body.”
Beaupre continued with CrossFit until a month before delivery, then stayed active with walking right until the end of her pregnancy. She gave birth to a healthy baby boy on Aug. 15.
Kyla McCaig’s journey looked nothing like Beaupre’s. The 27-year-old admitted she had an easy, seamless pregnancy before giving birth to a baby girl named Addia in May 2016.
McCaig was able to work out until the day before she gave birth. The 5-foot-5, 114-lb. McCaig only gained 30 lb. during pregnancy and lost it almost immediately after giving birth. Her labor was as smooth as it gets, she said, and she returned to the gym shortly after delivery looking exactly as she had pre-pregnancy.
During her first trimester, McCaig didn’t need to scale anything, she said.
“I did have some nausea and fatigue, but for the most part the gym wasn’t any different. I even remember beating (my husband) at a workout with running and rope climbs,” said McCaig, a registered massage therapist in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“Nobody would have even known I was pregnant.”
McCaig felt the need to modify at the beginning of her second trimester, she said. She started lifting slightly less weight and stayed away from heavy singles because they no longer felt right, she explained.
As her coach, I remember the first day she felt she needed to back off. The class was doing a 1-rep-max jerk. McCaig opted for 5 sets of 5 at a light weight, and she focused on performing the reps perfectly.
In general, McCaig said she was able to comfortably lift around 70 percent of her normal numbers throughout pregnancy. The figure is also found in Christensen’s recommendations for squats and deadlifts.
“We use a guide of no more than 70 percent of a 1-rep max for all loading past 3-5 months of pregnancy,” Christensen explained in the scaling guide that accompanied her article.
“I scaled the weight similarly during conditioning workouts, too,” McCaig said.
Like Beaupre, McCaig started to feel her lungs by the second trimester, so she deliberately rested a little more than she normally would during metabolic-conditioning workouts.
“I just didn’t go that hard, especially later in the pregnancy. I would consciously slow down my pace and build in some rest whenever I conditioned.”
While some of the women I’ve worked with have reduced their squat depth early in their pregnancies, such was not the case for McCaig. She was able to squat to full depth until the third trimester, when she squatted to parallel. In the final couple of weeks of her pregnancy, she abandoned loaded squats, but she continued to do air squats until the last days before giving birth.
“At that point—the last couple weeks—it was more just about getting into the gym and getting moving,” she admitted. “I remember doing a lot of KB swings and glute bridges and burpees, but just to the plank position, not all the way down to my stomach.”
Though McCaig was able to train more than many pregnant women, she had to make dramatic adjustments with abdominal movements. Unlike Beaupre, even planks and Paloff presses and holds felt too aggressive on her midline, McCaig explained.
“My core just felt really weak and vulnerable. Even heavy cleans or front squats, or anything that involved engaging my core for a long time, made my abs feel like they were in spasm, like they were cramping,” McCaig said. “I couldn’t even do planks—nothing that involved a sustained contraction.”
Once she reached the fourth month of her pregnancy, she stayed away from anything that made her core feel “funny,” she said.
McCaig said she thinks her training contributed to a relatively easy birth and a quick return to action.
“Because I kept working out, it made the recovery easier afterward.”
Lauren Jones of Maryborough, Australia, is a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer and a former Pacific Regional individual athlete. She gained experience in recent years by coaching a handful of pregnant women and applied what she learned to her own pregnancy earlier this year.
In the early weeks of her pregnancy, Jones continued to train pretty much as normal. She even competed in a local fitness throwdown at six weeks pregnant, and she completed the Open.
Like McCaig and Beaupre, she noticed decreased cardiovascular capacity early on.
“This reduced my ability to work out at any kind of speed. I didn’t substitute exercises (in the first trimester), but I managed by reducing intensity to accommodate my breathing, and (I) added more strength-based training,” Jones said.
Like many women, Jones experienced bad morning sickness in the first trimester but felt a lot better when the second trimester rolled around, which was why she decided to compete in the Open even if only at a fraction of her former fitness.
“Just for fun. I couldn’t resist the challenge,” she said.
At 26 weeks pregnant in early May, Jones was training five days a week and had started aggressively reducing the amount of weight on the bar during strength sessions. She was still able to squat to full depth but said she would be prepared to decrease depth or use a box if necessary later. She had also just started substituting running with Assault biking or rowing, and she had dropped muscle-ups and handstand push-ups from her training.
“I still Olympic lift, (but) at a decreased weight,” she said. “I do lower box-jump heights or step-ups, and I am now including more strict movements (over kipping) to maintain strength. I have a personal goal to maintain my pull-up strength—even if it’s only 1 rep.”
Like McCaig and Beaupre, Jones was cautious with abdominal movements.
“I stopped core exercises that required lying on my back at the end of the first trimester. I program weekly midline work for myself and for pregnant clients—(substituting) front or side planking to maintain core strength,” she said in May.
Jones admitted training at a reduced capacity wasn’t easy on her mind. She said she often reminded herself to hold back more than she wanted to and continually reassured herself the scaling wasn’t permanent. Even though it was frustrating to train at half capacity, working out kept her healthy, she explained.
For someone unfamiliar with Jones’ high pre-pregnancy fitness level, it would have been easy to label her training as “too intense”—just the way people did with Oldroyd and countless other high-level CrossFit athletes who trained through pregnancy. Jones knew that even if it looked like she was training hard, she was actually working at a fraction of her capacity.
“While I appreciate I’m not going to hit any PBs any time soon, maintaining my fitness is imperative to my mental and physical well-being,” she said while pregnant.
For a first-time mother, pregnancy is a journey into the unknown. It becomes more manageable if you surround yourself with supportive people, Beaupre, McCaig and Jones said.
Finding a coach you trust is a great place to start, Beaupre said.
“It has helped guide me in the right direction,” she explained.
This is especially true if you’re like Jones—a woman who was tempted to push the envelope even while pregnant. She advised pregnant women to ask a coach for advice and come up with a training plan. Leaning on other mothers who have been through the process is also helpful, she added.
“I’m very fortunate to be part of a group of mothers who train regularly. They are always ready to assist (and) advise on all matters and are very reassuring.”
Jones’ number-one piece of advice for mothers-to-be is to listen to the body.
“Every pregnancy is unique, and what other mothers experience will be totally different,” she said.
McCaig agreed: “Just listen to your body. Everyone is so different. Don’t push yourself too hard—whatever hard is for you—but get in the gym and continue to move.”
For the trainer, it can be intimidating to work with a pregnant woman for the first time, but you’ll learn it’s really no different than working with the rest of the population. Training pregnant women involves taking physical capabilities into consideration and then modifying workouts accordingly.
Above all, it involves communicating with an athlete to discover exactly what’s going on in her body and mind—because mother knows best.
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and does not constitute medical or other professional advice.
About the Author: Emily Beers is a CrossFit Journal contributor and coach at CrossFit Vancouver. She finished 37th at the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games.
Cover image: Shannon Colwell