Body-weight exercises such as pullups are particularly challenging during pregnancy due to those extra pounds and constant changes in body shape. But, if done safely, pullups and pullup variations can be an effective exercise to help maintain or build upper body strength during pregnancy. Pullups work the major muscles of the arms, back, and core which will help prepare you for all the carrying and lifting of your new baby. Not to mention that pullups are a great exercise to help you get some great looking arms! But, there are special precautions and modifications for pregnant women to consider.
Speaking mostly to all you CrossFitters on this one. I’ve seen several videos of some very pregnant women performing kipping or “butterfly” pullups and, while impressive, might not be the best/safest option even for experienced CrossFitters. Like I mentioned in one of my previous articles on deep squats , I find it interesting that a lot of pregnancy fitness sites caution against squatting below parallel but encourage (or at the very least don’t discourage) performing kipping pullups.
In my article, I argued that squats are performed in a very controlled manner; they are not ballistic nor do they require quick momentum/direction changes. It is those type of movements that the ACOG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) recommends against because of the increased potential for injury due to the hormone relaxin’s loosening effect of the joints and joint-supporting tissues. On the other hand, kipping pullups DO require those quick momentum changes….Hmmmm. In other words, I am much more comfortable as a trainer having my pregnant clients perform squats below parallel (with a reasonable weight, good form, etc.) than I am having them do kipping pullups even if they were doing them before they got pregnant. Now I know that plenty of women have done kipping pullups during their pregnancies and they were fine, so don’t get all defensive just yet.
Are They Worth The Risk?
First of all, a risk isn’t a guarantee of any specific outcome. It just means that there is at least a small likelihood that something negative could happen. Are kipping pullups risky? Yes, of course there is a risk for injury, there is a risk of injury in everything but I don’t even let my non-pregnant clients do kipping pullups unless they can perform a handful of strict pull-ups unassisted because of the risk of shoulder injury so it would seem irresponsible to not follow the same rule with my pregnant clients. Shoulder injuries are way too common and having an athlete without sufficient shoulder strength, with poor shoulder mobility, or with overly loose joints (thanks relaxin! NOT) perform kipping pullups just doesn’t seem like the best idea to me.
Second, using a kipping motion for pullups, toes-to-bar, or knees-to elbows could exacerbate or contribute to diastasis recti which is a separation of the abdominal muscles. In pregnant or postpartum women, diastasis recti is caused by a stretching of the linea alba, the tissue that connects the left and rights halves of the rectus abdominis. This is a pretty common condition in pregnant women caused by the the growing uterus expanding against the abdominal muscles. If you have a weak core or are not properly engaging the core during a kipping pullup (or any other movement for that matter) you might be making the condition worse. And that goes for post-partum women too. I’ll be sure to post some core reconditioning exercises to do after you return to exercise post-pregnancy to get your core back into shape before you jump right back into doing hundreds of kipping pullups.
Scale to Your Level
Third, you have to realize that not all women are at the same fitness or ability level. Those women you see busting out those kipping or butterfly pullups in youtube videos could have been CrossFit competitors or former athletes. In other words, people who could do pullups in their sleep. I am much more inclined to let an advanced athlete continue performing kipping or any style pullup they want throughout their pregnancy because they have the strength and experience necessary to be able to continue with advanced movements. Even still, some of these highly skilled women choose not to take on that extra risk and instead opt for strict pullups
From an article on CrossFit athlete Heather Bergeron on training during her first pregnancy:
Hormone levels will change drastically during a pregnancy, especially the hormone relaxin, which increases up to ten times the normal levels as you approach the big day. Relaxin makes your joints a bit more loosey goosey to help you pop out that bundle of joy, but it also means you need to be extremely conscious of the stress and strain you are placing on joints. This often means you need to reduce momentum-based movements like kipping pull-ups and muscle ups which rely on stretch reflex loading to transfer energy. That energy going into loose joints is a recipe for injury.
So, what does this mean for those of us, dare I say, more “average” athletes? Well, you can take my advice or leave it but I would highly recommend that you reduce or even eliminate kipping pullups from you workouts and instead opt for strict pullups or ring rows.
Before I started CrossFit, I thought that strict pullups were just for those in the military…I never imagined that I would ever be able to do them. But now they are a major part of my training regime as I think they should be for everyone’s workout routine, men and women alike. Strict pullups are great for developing upper body strength as I mentioned before and will help you get strong and sexy back and arms. But, I can’t do a strict pullup, you say? Well, I realize that pullups are a very challenging exercise and with 20 or so extra pounds of pregnancy weight they may seem damn near impossible. BUT, there are a couple of modifications that can help you achieve the same benefits of this exercise.
- If you go to a typical corporate gym i.e. LA Fitness, Equinox, 24Hour etc. you will probably be able to find a pullup machine that has a weight and pulley mechanism that allows you to effectively reduce the amount of your bodyweight that you need to pull to bring your body up to where your chin is level with your hands.
- In a CrossFit gym, or in your home if you have an in-the-door pullup bar or other type of set-up, we can do the same sort of thing but using resistance bands instead of counterbalancing weights to help reduce the load that you are having to move to perform the pullup. Simply loop the resistance band around the pullup bar and put one foot in the band.
- Finally you can do ring rows, a type of horizontal pullup, using either a fixed horizontal bar or gymnastics rings set at about waist height. Grasp the bar or rings with both hands. Extend your arms and your legs so that your body forms a straight line from your feet to your head. Then use your arms to pull your chest to the rings/bar. You can adjust the angle of your body to make the exercise easier (get more vertical) or harder (body should be closer to perfectly horizontal).
In summary, pullups or any pullup variation are a great upper body exercise to incorporate into your workout routine pregnant or not! Please contact me if you need help with your pullups or have another questions!