CrossFit for Pregnant Women—Safe or Reckless?

The rise in expectant mothers performing the intense workouts has sparked debate.

The number of expectant mothers doing CrossFit while pregnant is on the rise, drawing both support and criticism. Photographs courtesy of Andrea Fitz.

Nicole Christensen knows people have probably called people like her insane. Irresponsible. Reckless.

Why? Because she finished a CrossFit workout the morning she was supposed to give birth to her first baby.

“I worked out this morning at 9:30,” the CrossFit coach said last week from her home in Boulder, Colorado. “I back-squatted at 155 pounds, then did a workout called Nicole, which coincidentally has my name but is not named after me. It was a 20-minute-long workout of 400-meter runs and pullups.”

Christensen, who grew up in Alexandria, has defied the common belief that exercise during pregnancy is dangerous and harmful toward the baby. And she’s not alone.

In recent years, there have been countless stories of women continuing to exercise to the extreme while pregnant, from the runner who gave birth to her baby just hours after finishing the 2011 Chicago marathon to beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh, who was five weeks pregnant when she won her third Olympic gold in 2012.

Recent research suggests that exercise is safe, even encouraged, throughout pregnancy. A 2010 study found that women who cycled regularly gave birth to healthier babies, and the National Academy of Sports Medicine states that women who ran regularly prior to pregnancy can continue running while pregnant.

But doing CrossFit—the workout that’s described as “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement”—while nine months pregnant? That’s a whole other ballgame, and one that critics are up in arms about after CrossFit posted photos of Lea-Ann Ellison doing overhead squats with just weeks left in her pregnancy.

“Eight months pregnant with baby number three and CrossFit has been my sanity,” the caption read. “I have been CrossFitting for 2½ years and strongly believe that pregnancy is not an illness, but a time to relish your body’s capabilities to kick ass.”

Hate messages immediately flooded the page. One commenter called Ellison a disgrace. “Stupid female,” another said.

Christensen, who also received criticism when she posted similar photos, said, “There’s so much backlash about how women work out while they’re pregnant, even outside of CrossFit, but there’s never any backlash about what we eat. So a pregnant woman can say, ‘I’m too tired to exercise, it’s so exhausting,’ yet it’s fine for them to go to McDonald’s and eat two bacon cheeseburgers?”

Andrea Nitz, who in 2007 developed CrossFit Mom—which scales the Workout of the Day to be safe for pregnant women—says she’s been met with responses ranging from curiosity to support to full-on outrage. “The reaction of people in general seems to depend on their fitness level, age, and knowledge of exercise during pregnancy,” she says.

CrossFit Mom workouts are tailored to beginner, intermediate, and advanced athletes. A beginner workout this week, for example, called for three rounds of a 200-meter run and ten burpees. 

To develop the program, Nitz became certified as a pre/post-natal exercise specialist and consulted with obstetrician/gynecologists who did CrossFit and pregnant CrossFit athletes. “I also continue to read the literature on exercise and pregnancy and receive feedback from CrossFitting doctors, nurses, and midwives to ensure that I am aware of the latest information available,” she says, adding that pregnant women should consult with their doctor first before starting a CrossFit Mom workout.

Christensen, who designs her own CrossFit workouts while pregnant and has coached seven to eight pregnant women before, says her own doctor was her go-to guide when she became pregnant. Her doctor encouraged her to continue with CrossFit, as long as she felt comfortable and didn’t experience any signs of pain. “I’m a strong believer in doing what feels right for you,” says Christensen, who promised herself she would limit herself to lifting no more than 70 percent of her max for any exercise.

Local runner and blogger Melody Parry Jones had a different experience when trying CrossFit while pregnant. “I did it four to five times earlier in the pregnancy when I still felt comfortable doing it,” she says. “As I’ve gotten bigger, I feel less comfortable doing it.”

Instead, Parry Jones has stuck to running, and acknowledges that controversy over exercising while pregnant existed even before CrossFit. “The biggest thing I was told is that as long as it was something you did before, it’s safe to continue doing,” she says.

Whether it’s running or CrossFit, Christensen says finding her exercise niche during pregnancy has been an eye-opening experience. “One of the most fascinating things I’ve realized over the past nine months is the idea that I could maintain this much fitness,” she said. “I almost feel like I’m in the best shape of my life.”