Fit for the body and bump: what’s the deal with high-intensity training and weightlifting during pregnancy?

A dearth of research and plenty of questions about high-intensity training during pregnancy has us turning to experts to work out good from bad.
During her second trimester, Derryn Brown Pereira, a fitness coach in Dubai, gave up exercises that required her to be on her back. Antonie Robertson / The National
During her second trimester, Derryn Brown Pereira, a fitness coach in Dubai, gave up exercises that required her to be on her back. Antonie Robertson / The National

When Leanne Gerrish completes a vigorous CrossFit group workout before time and still looks like she can throw in a few more reps, it always raises a few eyebrows. Mostly in amazement, but some in concern. That’s because the 34-year-old Dubai resident is 34 weeks pregnant, but that hasn’t stopped her from deadlifting, squatting or rowing indoors.

Most doctors are in agreement that women should stay fit with mild to moderate exercise and good nutrition during their pregnancy, but only recently has the debate on high-intensity training and weightlifting when expecting come to the forefront. While research has been rather slim about the benefits or disadvantages of lifting heavy weights during pregnancy – due to the limited possibilities of studying women during this phase – several fitness professionals in the UAE found themselves fielding questions when Instagram videos of Dubai-based fitness coach Inger Houghton training throughout her pregnancy went viral earlier this year.

“Some gynaecologists and doctors don’t understand exercising during pregnancy and it is often frowned upon,” says Gerrish, who is a personal trainer and an aerial-silk artist.

“Deciding to continue exercising isn’t just for me, it’s also for the health of my baby.”

Gerrish says she did not consult with her doctor about continuing her normal training routine. “I’ve been a personal trainer for eight years and have a background in nutrition and functional training, so I am aware and completely understand my body.”

A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology in June, which combined studies done on 2,059 pregnant woman, made a case for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every week during this time. The study showed a lower risk of gestational diabetes, hypertension and a more likely chance of having a natural birth.

Dr Ghanwa Al Saigh, a consultant obstetrics and gynaecologist at Al Noor Hospital, says she always advises her patients to manage a healthy weight throughout their pregnancy, adding that it’s very important for pregnant woman to consult a doctor before starting any exercise programme.

“Exercise controls gestational weight gain,” she says. “It also reduces lower back pain, which is very common at this time, and reduces the risk of gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia, a condition of high blood pressure and appearance of protein in the urine. And being active is proven to limit such complications.”

Experts also say that exercising reduces leg cramps, swelling and constipation, which are common during pregnancy.

Saigh recommends walking, moderate aerobics, swimming and stationary cycling for about 30 minutes daily, without skipping the warming-up and cooling-down stretches.

She says women who have been weightlifting can continue with caution. “We do not want to deprive them of their daily physical activity, but we recommend that they make it a low-profile workout. There are certain warning signs – like feeling that their heart is racing and they are struggling to catch a breath and that they are unable to make conversation.”

She says back pain, headaches, dizziness, bleeding and a gush of fluid are also red flags and the exercise must be stopped immediately.

During her first pregnancy, Derryn Brown Pereira was hesitant about exerting in the gym. But this time around, the 32-year-old South African, who gave birth to a healthy baby girl this month, says she continued her routine of strength training.

“I made a few changes as the pregnancy progressed and my doctor knew,” she says. “As my belly grew bigger, I needed to adjust. Also, depending on how I felt on the day, I stuck with the intensity or drop the weights,” says Pereira, who is also a fitness coach in Dubai.

In her second trimester, she stopped doing exercises lying on her back. “I also suggest not going too heavy in overhead lifts because you don’t have too much activation in the core to stabilise you. So unless you are an experienced weightlifter, I would avoid those movements.”

Gerrish suggests avoiding a lot of jumping moves, which could risk overstretching the pelvic floor muscles. “So I generally swap the box jumps with step-ups, double-unders with rowing.”

She advises seeing a pre- and post-natal specialist to devise an appropriate training programme if in doubt.

Kate Mahoney, a pre- and post-natal health coach for Vogue Fitness in Abu Dhabi, says exercising when pregnant is great for physical health and mental well-being, too. “Exercise boosts energy levels and can help avoid prenatal depression,” she says. “It also helps you sleep better. Your pregnancy might also be easier and shorter since your body is adapted and ready to go, and afterwards your body can bounce back and get back to being fit faster.”

Studies point to advantages for the baby, as well. Babies born to fit mothers have a reduced incidence of diabetes, a boost to brain health and a fitter heart.

For serious lifters, Mahoney says, it comes down to scaling. “This isn’t a time to experiment and try new moves, so stick to what you do and listen to your body.”

Fitness experts say another misconception is that pregnant women should eat for two.

Saigh warns against too much weight gain. “A reasonable increase is between 0.75 to 1kg each month. Putting on more than that can lead to illnesses during pregnancy and the foetus is not going to benefit from a lot of weight gain. Also, if a woman exceeds 11kg in total, it will remain in her body and she will face difficulties getting rid of it.”

Gerrish says women shouldn’t blame their pregnancy for unhealthy eating habits. “You can’t have a ton of ice cream and say it’s a craving and for the baby,” she says. “You need to supply your baby with the right nutrients for it to develop. You are in an anabolic stage because you are building a child, so you have to eat clean and have lots of protein.”

Published: September 14, 2016 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one