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How Heavy Can I Lift During Pregnancy?

November 28, 2021 by

Pregnant athletes, especially pregnant CrossFit athletes want to keep lifting during pregnancy. If their medical provider tells them to not lift over 20lbs, the response is typically met with an eye roll and an obvious disregard for that advice. On the other end of the spectrum, their coach likely encourages her to “listen to her body,” or “keep doing what she has always done.” It’s not bad advice, it simply lacks context. 

There’s also a natural comparison that happens during pregnancy; where it’s easy to compare one's pregnancy to someone else’s in the gym, or social media with what they’re doing or what they did. Examples are not sound advice, yet that’s the main source of relatable information for many pregnant athletes.

There is an internal desire to maintain loads, and keep lifting through pregnancy. But how much is too much? We know lifting is safe, healthy and recommended, but there is some nuance to consider during pregnancy that is often unknown or disregarded in both the medical and fitness communities. 

Many athletes are told to lift at 75% of their one rep max, but we know that number is relative. 75% of a 1RM could be 300lbs for one person or 150lbs for another. 75% of the 1RM is unfounded advice, yet it’s given frequently, at least in the fitness community. Similarly, the don’t lift over 20lbs is unfounded advice, unless medically indicated.

A sentiment I hear often, “it’s not heavy for me,” is TRUE from a muscular perspective. You ARE strong. It’s not about questioning athletic ability. The question is, how is that load impacting the pressure on the midline and pelvic floor as pregnancy continues. Here’s an example: 200lbs may not be heavy for you, but it is for your abs and vagina, especially when there’s added abdominal pressure and changing structures from the growing baby. 

Pregnant athletes are not fragile, and they are also not invincible. There’s nothing to prove for performance during pregnancy, but this can feel like a fine line to walk (or lift?!) for many pregnant athletes.

A sentiment I hear often, "it's not heavy for me," is true from a muscular perspective. [...] The question is, how is that load impacting the pressure on the midline and pelvic floor as pregnancy continues.

Brianna Battles

How much to lift during pregnancy is not about a specific load or the percent, it’s about how that weight influences form, tension and pressure on a changing body, and the additional force and demand to the core and pelvic floor. These variables (form, structure, pressure, tension) naturally change during pregnancy, therefore, loads and how it’s performed should also be adapted to support the current body.

While we may initially think, “Good, we want a stronger core or pelvic floor!,” when it comes to lifting during pregnancy, I am quick to remind my pregnant athletes that the goal isn’t strength, it’s the coordination of that system. The goal isn’t a “strong pelvic floor,” it’s about having a core system that coordinates and responds to the task at hand: sneezing, a squat, being able to expand and relax for birth, etc.

Many strength athletes already have a “strong” pelvic floor, and hold a lot of tension in the abs and pelvic floor. Bracing and breath-holding influence the pelvic floor and midline with added pressure and tension (bearing down, big breath hold, etc). Incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse and diastasis recti are common experiences during pregnancy and postpartum, so we adjust training to mitigate symptoms in the ways we can control. Exercise, as well as exercise variables like load, volume, intensity, etc, is something we can control and adapt to fit current needs and abilities.

Here are some things to consider when determining how heavy is too heavy.

If the lift or set requires:

  • A big breath hold
  • A need to brace
  • Grinding out and/or straining through the reps
  • Generating a lot of tension to support that weight or position

Then it’s likely too much load for *right now.* Your lifts should feel easy to moderate as pregnancy continues, not challenging. It’s STILL a good workout, even if it feels like it’s not enough. This is a hard mental and training shift to make.

The goal isn't a 'strong pelvic floor,' it's about having a core system that coordinates and responds to the task at hand: sneezing, a squat, being able to expand and relax for birth.

Brianna Battles

The abs and pelvic floor are changing each week, this naturally shifts pressures in the core system.

Pregnancy is a time we can be proactive with core and pelvic health symptoms (prehab). The best prehab is achieved by the willingness to adapt training variables. 

Some suggestions:

  • Try to exhale through the full movement, or partially through it (on the concentric).  Yes, this is likely different than what you’re used to. 
  • Inhale into your lats- this cue helps distribute where that force is going vs straight out into the midline (like how you would brace into a weight belt) or down into the pelvic floor (bearing down).
  • Adjust the range of motion as pregnancy continues. This does not make the exercise or your workout less effective.
  • Renegotiate your definition of strength and what “lifting enough” means. Even if you can lift that weight, is it appropriate for your body and what it needs right now, or long term when considering potential symptoms?
    • A question I have asked myself many times, and encourage all athletes to consider is this: “Is this serving my ego or serving my current body and needs?” Tough, I know. 
  • After the workout, “down train” the pelvic floor by getting on all fours and letting the belly hang and pelvic floor open. This helps release tension.
    • You can also lay on your back and elevate your feet on a wall or bench.
    • Inhaling into your hip bones, exhaling and thinking about gently (2/10 effort) bring the belly button up toward the heart. This brings awareness to the coordination of the core system.

Pregnant athletes are not fragile, and they are also not invincible. Learning to adapt to the current season and needs is what helps create lifelong athleticism and wellness. Pregnant athletes are encouraged to keep lifting with intuition, intention and an informed understanding of their core system and how it influences performance now and long term. 

For more info on training during pregnancy download these free resources.

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