Pregnancy and Weightlifting Belts

Pregnancy and Weightlifting Belts
Written by: Coach Slater

A DCCF-er, who’s requested she remain nameless for now, recently asked me about pregnancy and the safety of wearing weightlifting belts. I have read a decent amount on fitness and pregnancy, but I’ve never seen anyone specifically discuss pregnancy, weightlifting belts, and the intraabdominal pressure they generate. So, I began a mission to find out more… long story short… I didn’t find much in terms of conclusive evidence, but I’ll share with you what I learned!

1. The Valsalva Maneuver and Wearing a Belt
The Valsalva maneuver is a forced exhalation against a closed airway and is used to create additional intraabdominal pressure during maximum effort lifts. It also causes a quick spike in blood pressure and can result in that narrowing of vision or blacking out that you’ve surely experienced after standing up with a really heavy clean. During pregnancy, it’s recommended that you limit this maneuver to keep a continuous breathing pattern, exhaling during the resistance phase and inhaling during the negative/lowering phase, thus keeping an even amount of pressure throughout the movement. This lessening of pressure likely means that you’ll need to lower your weights at some point to accommodate the inability to create additional intraabdominal pressure. And, while no one seems to make the leap from this discussion to that of using a weightlifting belt for similar purposes, I can see that the two would be linked. If it’s recommended that you don’t perform the Valsalva maneuver because of the adverse effects of intraabdominal pressure on blood flow to the fetus, then it would make sense that you shouldn’t utilize a weightlifting belt because of its usage for creating greater intraabdominal pressure. Not totally scientific, but I’m not wearing a lab coat.

2. Lying On Your Back and Lower Back Issues
Somewhere around 12-16 weeks, the uterus becomes big enough that when you lie flat on your back, it can exert pressure on the vein that returns blood from your lower body to your heart, which reduces blood flood and may lower blood pressure. Obviously, interfering with blood flow to the placenta can be harmful to a developing fetus. So, situps tend to be out of the question.

Obviously I don’t need to tell you about lying on your belly. You’re smart enough to know about that.

But, keeping the lower back strong thru the pregnancy is important due to the additional weight being added to the anterior/front. With that in mind, I believe you should continue to deadlift thru your pregnancy, because they help strengthen your back & hips. Done properly, they do not cause back strain. Bending over improperly and picking up your groceries might hurt you if you’re not being careful, but a proper deadlift is safe. That said, as your belly grows, you might need to switch to a wider stance or use dumbbells/kettlebells to accommodate the growing belly.

If you’re experiencing pregnancy-related lower back pain, that could be due to vertical push movements (shoulder press, push press, push/split jerk) or cleans, especially if you tend to lean backwards while letting your hips shift forward. So, try reducing the weight and focus on keeping your hips under you with your spine in a neutral position.

3. Hormones
During your pregnancy, your body will increase the production of a hormone called “relaxin” which works to relax supportive tissues in your body. It allows your body to stretch to accommodate the growing fetus and relax the pelvis in anticipation of labor. That’s a necessary effect obviously, but it’s not great for training purposes because a softening of ligaments means you need to be careful when performing dynamic movements that tap the full range of motion of a joint. So, for instance, you may find that it’s easier to stretch your chest and shoulders at the bottom of a kipping pullup, but you’re doing so at the expense of extra stress on your joints because your ligaments are softer and not as able to help protect them. You may also find that heavy squats, cleans, jerks or snatches no longer feel as strong because your knee, hip, shoulder and elbow joints are not as stable as they were pre-pregnancy due to relaxin reducing the amount of elastic energy available to you. So, beware of this phenomenon and don’t be ashamed at backing off the weight a little or reducing your range of motion.

4. Intensity
Apparently, there used to be a general rule of thumb that pregnant women shouldn’t exceed a 140 beats-per-minute heart rate while exercising, but that’s been debunked now. Instead, you’re warned to keep your intensity in check so as to not subject the baby to oxygen deprivation. That’s why “perceived exertion” is a better way to determine your intensity, because you can easily go over 140 bpm but still be breathing easily (you’re a fit mom after all!). But, don’t get into a state where you’re gasping for breath and unable to carry a conversation while working out. If you’re breathing extra hard, there’s a good chance there’s insufficient oxygen in the blood, meaning the fetus is getting less oxygen. Use the “talk test” to help gauge your perceived exertion and keep your intensity at a safe level.

There you have it. Those are the important bits of knowledge that I’ve learned while researching fitness and pregnancy. I wish I’d learned more specifically about weightlifting belts and pregnancy, but no one’s testing that out on pregnancy women as it turns out. Shocker. Anyway, as a guy who’s widely recognized as not necessarily being “kid-friendly”, I’m pretty happy with what I found out. So, I hope you found this info helpful, too. Feel free to shoot me a message or grab me in the gym if you’d like me to expand on any of these ideas.