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The Pregnancy Challenge: CrossFit

Google “CrossFit pregnancy” and prepare to sift through nearly 700,000 results featuring moms-to-be lifting, kettlebell swinging and wall-balling their way through not only their WOD (workout of the day), but their entire pregnancy, too. And while the sight of a woman with a bump doing handstand push-ups or squats with a barbell has become increasingly common, it still stirs up its share of controversy and commentary.

Despite the uproar, pregnant devotees continue to work their way through CrossFit’s signature exercises. We chatted with Joshua Newman, CEO of Northstar CrossFit—which operates two popular boxes in New York City and has plans to open three more in Manhattan this year, as well as locations in other cities in the near future—about what to try, what to avoid and how the community supports its expecting members.

Q: What are a few CrossFit moves that are modifiable for pregnancy?

A: Actually, the vast majority of CrossFit movements and workouts are perfectly safe for pregnant women, without any modification, so long as you approach them with common sense. Mostly that's about remembering your priorities: Workouts during pregnancy are a great way to maintain a healthy pregnancy weight, improve sleep, reduce back pain, prevent constipation and increase energy. They’re probably not the best time to hit a new back-squat PR or a new record 5K time. So the most important modifications are about scaling back the intensity and listening to your body. Use less weight. Reduce your pace. And follow the cardinal rule of safe workouts: If it feels sketchy, it is sketchy, so don't do it.

Q: A mom-to-be has never done CrossFit, but has the itch to try it: Go for it or wait till after the baby arrives?

A: It’s definitely possible to start CrossFit mid-pregnancy, though it’s all the more important for newbies to exercise common sense. For example, in the CrossFit world people traditionally learn barbell movements first using light PVC pipes before moving on to empty barbells and then to barbells with weights. For lifts you’re just learning during pregnancy, it probably makes sense to stick with the PVC weights and perhaps the empty barbell, moving up to heavier weights only after the baby. PVC-pipe workouts will still be plenty challenging and you’ll actually learn more faster by practicing with those lighter weights, without risking injury to you or your baby.

Q: Are there any moves that should be avoided during pregnancy?

A: Skip movements where there’s a risk of falling, like box jumps or rope climbs. You can easily sub in less potentially dangerous moves using the same muscle groups instead.

After the first trimester, avoid exercises done lying flat on your back, which can put pressure on your vena cava, a major vein connected to your heart.

Don’t hold your breath while lifting. People are especially prone to doing so during squats and strict presses, so be careful during those movements in particular.

The hormone relaxin, which relaxes the ligaments in the pelvis for childbirth, also relaxes the rest of your ligaments throughout pregnancy. Be careful while stretching and avoid stretches that hit joints more than muscles, such as the hurdler stretch or a rounded-back toe-touch.

Q: What have you witnessed when it comes to pregnant CrossFitters?

A: We’ve watched a slew of our members kick serious butt throughout their pregnancies, looking and feeling great. And we’ve had a couple of coaches who continued leading classes until literally days before their due dates. I’ll always remember one extremely pregnant coach lining up two folded-up gymnastics mats, a foot or so apart, so that she could demonstrate proper push-up form: She put her hands and feet on the mats and then demo-ed push-ups with her belly in the gap between the mats! The CrossFit community has always been hugely supportive of pregnant members, sharing tips, cheering them on and generally trying to make them feel right at home.

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