Subscribe to receive exclusive news, workouts, giveaways and more!

Fit Follow-Up: Julia Sharpe

  • Name: Julia Sharpe
  • Children: Twins Zyler and Kadyn, born December 28, 2014
  • Claim to Fame: It would have been impressive enough for Julia Sharpe to walk on her hands while very pregnant with her twins. But leave it to the mechanical engineer, a two-time Division III national all-around women’s gymnastics champion while at MIT, to upend norms from several angles. First, Sharpe competes in men’s gymnastics (yes, you read that right) as an alumni member of her alma mater’s club team. Second, despite a stretch of bed rest during her pregnancy, she trained throughout as much of it as possible and went on to compete just eight weeks after giving birth. Third, she tackled American Ninja Warrior in Pittsburg this past May—just in case anyone doubted her fitness or her fortitude. She filled us in on her surprising pregnancy abs revelation, the challenges of carrying twins and her goal of doing an iron cross (a girl can dream).
Q: Describe your pregnancy fitness strategy.

A: I wanted to keep doing gymnastics as far into my pregnancy as I could. I was able to do most gymnastics up until about 12 weeks, although at around ten weeks I started scaling back a bit because my abs were sore. At that point, I was doing gymnastics about six days a week, but battling exhaustion, nausea and some really bad headaches. At 12 weeks I stopped tumbling and vaulting, but continued to do pommel horse, rings, parallel bars and swings on high bar that didn't involve contact with my stomach. At about 14 weeks the Braxton Hicks contractions started and I was advised to stop doing exercises that used my abs, as this made the contractions occur.

Q: How did you modify your training?

A: My husband and I developed a strength plan that correlated to gymnastics strength, but used dumbbells in a way that didn’t use my abs. I started alternating strength training days with swimming. At about 26 weeks, my contractions were getting more regular and the doctors started being concerned about preterm labor. So I cut back on exercise except for prenatal yoga until 28 weeks, when I was put on modified bed rest. I was allowed to get up to eat and go to the bathroom, but I wasn’t supposed to leave the house. At this point, I couldn’t exercise at all. At 34 weeks, when the doctors deemed it okay for the babies to come, I was taken off bed rest and I started walking a mile each way to work every day. I also did some dips and handstand work at gymnastics, but it was very minimal because I was still having contractions and was pretty exhausted. At 37 weeks I was confined to my side because of high blood pressure (160/105!), so that was the end of exercise during my pregnancy until I delivered at 38 weeks, six days.

Q: What drew you to men’s gymnastics?

A: I first got the idea when I was reading through the rules for collegiate club gymnastics and saw a clause stating that members could compete for either gender at nationals, they just had to pick one. At the time, the MIT men’s gymnastics team was down to only two members. The women’s team was also small, but we had just won two consecutive national titles and I was starting to crave a new challenge. By joining the men’s team, I hoped to add some organization and boost their numbers so that the program didn’t disappear like so many other collegiate men’s gymnastics programs around the country. And I have two older brothers who did gymnastics, so I watched them compete for years and always had a desire to try their events, too!

Q: Makes perfect sense. What is your favorite event?

A: Parallel bars because I feel like it’s the one where I have the most potential to improve.

Q: What surprised you the most about training during your pregnancy?

A: I was very surprised to find out just how many skills use your abs! For example, doing pull-ups or muscle-ups really uses them. I thought that eventually I just wouldn’t be strong enough to lift the extra weight—I gained 50 pounds by the end—but the limiting factor was really that I needed my abs and they weren’t functioning properly. I was also amazed at how little having a belly affected my balance. I think gymnasts are just so used to balancing in all sorts of positions that you instinctively know where your center of mass is.

Q: What did the members of your support team think?

A: My doctor was quite amused by my need to remain active. I was constantly asking very specific questions to know exactly what was and wasn’t safe at all times. By the end, my doctor was anticipating the questions I would ask. Friends and family were all very supportive. Everyone knew that I was being extremely cautious and they were just amazed that I was able to keep doing things when people usually feel so tired and weak by the end of pregnancy.

Q: Made all the more impressive by the fact that you had twins.

A: Completely different ballgame. You are classified immediately as a high-risk pregnancy, no matter how healthy you are. There just aren’t many studies out there on what is best for a twin pregnancy. It’s clear that the research shows that exercise during a single pregnancy is beneficial, but the research just isn’t there for multiples. I think the amount of time I ended up spending on bed rest is pretty typical for a twin pregnancy, even though with a single pregnancy I probably could have been on my feet and working up until the birth.

Q: How was the actual birth?

A: When it finally came time to deliver the babies—over a week after they recommended an induction because they think you’re too uncomfortable to continue—there were tons of added complications. The wireless monitors only work for a single baby so I had to stay attached to wired monitors at all times once there was meconium in my water. And the twins somehow got jammed in there in a way that even though they were head down, I had to deliver via C-section after 38 hours of labor.

Q: Sounds a little rough.

A: In the end, my birth experience was pretty much out of my control. We had to induce because of my high blood pressure and I ended in a C-section for numerous reasons: stuck at six centimeters for six hours, started to get a fever, Baby A’s heart rate was high, swelling in the cervix. I think if my labor had been more typical, my level of fitness would have been helpful. But I definitely didn't train with that in mind. I just wanted to stay active. All the nurses were quite impressed that with the epidural in I was still able to turn myself from side to side without assistance. I guess that isn’t typical.

Q: How long afterward were you back in the gym?

A: I started gymnastics again six weeks postpartum, competed for the first time eight weeks postpartum and competed at nationals three and a half months postpartum, placing fourth on floor, eighth on high bar and tenth all-around. Regaining my core strength has definitely been the most difficult part. When I first came back, I couldn’t even do a front tuck because my abs were so week. Running down the vault runway was extremely difficult. I also struggled with, and am still struggling with, stress urinary incontinence [SUI]. A large number of gymnasts struggle with it even without having given birth, but my SUI got way worse after the pregnancy. I ended up seeing a women’s health physical therapist to work on my pelvic floor and core strength and that was extremely helpful. I was able to reduce my diastasis [ab separation]. I saw great improvements in my gymnastics and would recommend that all women see a physical therapist postpartum.

Q: Give us your post-baby fitness philosophy in three words?

A: Just keep training!

Q: What are your current goals in the sport?

A: I’m pretty much back to the skill level I was before pregnancy so my goals are just to continue learning new skills. Eventually I want to be able to do an iron cross on rings, but that’s my five-year goal!

Q: What advice do you give pregnant women and new moms when it comes to fitness and continuing to do the activities they love?

A: Talk to your doctor, but, in general, if you were doing it before keep doing it! It feels so great both physically and emotionally to stay active during pregnancy and after. I know having a kid or kids takes a lot of time, but I find it’s really important to set aside the time to keep my body feeling fit. Know that your strength will come back very fast. At six weeks postpartum I just couldn’t imagine feeling like myself again, but just three short months later I was feeling great!

Add your comments