Yes, it is safe to continue lifting while you’re pregnant.
For years, the medical community has told pregnant women they cannot lift more than 30 pounds. Fortunately for us, new research is demonstrating that there is no harm to the baby or the mother when she continues to exercise during pregnancy - this includes resistance training. More recently strength athletes like Meghan Scanlon, Christina Previt and Meg Gallagher have shared their pregnancy journeys through social media. Slowly but surely, we are coming around to the idea that lifting while pregnant is safe.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology
The ACOG’s most recent guidelines encourage exercise during pregnancy. For those currently active, they recommend continuing their same physical activities. And for those non-exercisers, they recommend starting an exercise program. Specifically ACOG recommends that during pregnancy, women perform at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week - including at least 2 days of strength training. Those of us in the powerlifting community use the RPE scale; moderate intensity activity falls in the 6-7 RPE range.
These recommendations are for uncomplicated pregnancies, so keep in mind there are some pregnancies where exercise may not be the safest option. Always check with your OB/GYN to be sure that you are cleared to continue with exercise. However, for the majority of pregnancies, exercise comes with countless benefits: Reduced maternal weight gain, reduced lower back pain, reduced risk of gestational diabetes, and reduced risk of postpartum depression just to name a few. No research has shown negative impact to the baby’s development in utero or significant birthing complications when the mother exercises during pregnancy.
Recommendations by Trimester
First Trimester - Between morning sickness and increased fatigue, most women struggle to remain consistent in the gym during the first trimester. Modify the intensity, duration and frequency of your training based on how you’re feeling. One week you might feel okay and be able to hit the gym for a 30min lifting session, and then the next week you feel like junk and can hardly make it through washing the dishes before needing to lay down. Listen to your body and fit in what training feels helpful.
Second Trimester - Around week 14 or 15, many women experience a boost of energy and a reduction in their morning sickness. If this is you, it’s okay to ramp things up in the gym a bit. Just keep your training to a moderate intensity (RPE 6-7) and keep listening to your body. The second trimester may be a time where you start to feel uncomfortable while bench pressing. If this is true for you, we recommend you switch to incline press to avoid the supine position.
Third Trimester - During the third trimester, regular life activities can feel like moderate intensity exercise. Give yourself grace and listen to your body. Some women may feel okay to continue training at moderate intensities and other women may not have the margin to do so. Professionally, I have all of my pregnant clients work on squats (body weight or weighted) in the third trimester as this is a great position for labor and delivery.
What about using a belt?
Compressing the abdomen with a belt will become rather difficult as your body changes and the baby grows. Belts are optional during the first trimester, and usually by weeks 7-9 most women find it uncomfortable to use a belt.
Also, keep in mind that your PRE training range should change during pregnancy. Some women may be okay to continue training at a 7-8 RPE range - this post is not to discourage you from doing so - however, most pregnancies will benefit from moderate intensity training at a RPE 6-7 range. Typically, at these lower loads, most lifters should not need to wear a belt anyways.
When in doubt, seek help
More often than not, your gynecologist is not going to have a clue what we do in the gym as powerlifters. Provided they can confirm that your pregnancy is uncomplicated and there are no activity restrictions for the health of your baby, then continue training like you normally would - modifying intensity, frequency and duration as needed. If you’re needing more guidance, reach out to a coach or a Doctor of Physical Therapy who has experience working with pregnant lifters. There are several of us who specialize in the complexities of the female athlete - utilize the experts who understand your sport and your needs while pregnant.