ASK A SWOLE WOMAN
This is the paid Sunday Ask A Swole Woman edition of She’s a Beast, a newsletter about being strong mentally/emotionally/physically.
When I first ran across a Lucie Martinsdóttir post on Instagram, I didn’t even clock that she was a world-class powerlifter squatting 400 pounds. I was more focused on the fact that she was competing in a powerlifting meet at seven months pregnant. She rubbed her belly in the mirror, and then went and completed her squats, benches, and deadlifts with ease, to the rage of many a bro-dude in her comments.
I feel I still don’t see tons of visibly pregnant people visibly lifting weights. This is probably for good reason, as even one person you don’t know rudely “helping” you by telling you how ignorant or reckless you are is too many. But as soon as I saw Lucie, I realized how starved I personally feel for women clearing this lane.
Now, you certainly would not catch me dead saying that pregnant women shouldn’t lift weights. But I’m still surprised by it, even as I do not want to be, and wish it were as normal as sneezing or walking down the street. The evidence, now that we have it, strongly suggests that it should be normal. It’s good for pregnant women to exercise moderately to vigorously. Doctors and researchers, who have long been so fond of saying “mm best to not” to pregnant women about anything and everything that exists, are beginning to grudgingly accept it. Per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, not only is it not specifically dangerous to lift heavy weights as a pregnant person, but it may be categorically bad to be warning pregnant people away from an activity that helps cultivate the strength they will need to carry a pregnant belly, and eventually another person, around without injuring themselves.
Still, not all is resolved. Even among the “heavy lifting while pregnant” advocates I follow, I see dissent about key topics. Is it okay to brace? Many have long said no; newer comers seeming to be saying, increasingly, yes. Can you lie on your back to bench? It depends. Can you use a belt? It depends. When should you stop, if ever? It also depends, but maybe “not at all”; Lucie is obviously a very gifted outlier in terms of her strength capacity, but she deadlifted her way right into her 41st week.
While Lucie is an experienced (and self-coached!) powerlifter, she herself professes to not have all the answers. I figured we are all responsible enough to handle the information below accordingly[^1], and take it for what it is: An informed perspective that helps to round out the picture of what pregnant people can do happily and safely. So today, I'm the one asking the questions. We talked about the Valsalva maneuver, both (!) of Lucie's pregnant powerlifting meets, how things changed for her between her first and second pregnancy as a powerlifter, and more. (Lucie has since given birth, but we spoke when she was at about 38 weeks.)
I've obviously been watching your progress, and I'm coming in right under the wire to the end of your pregnancy here. When is your due date?
Ninth of May. So less than two weeks away. My experience has been that my pregnancies take longer than my two days, you know? So I'm a little bit hoping that it would be shorter this time. But I don't really know. I could give birth today and a month from now.
How did you first learn it was okay to lift heavy weights while you were pregnant? Were you are a strength athlete first, and then came pregnancy?
I actually became a strength athlete after my first baby. I had my first child when I was 23. And when you're pregnant, the algorithm knows that you're pregnant, and it's giving you these posts. I started following one pregnant girl who was lifting quite heavy weights back then, even for a woman even not pregnant. I had always just gone to the gym to fool around, lifting dumbbells and stuff like that. I did squat, but like, 30kg [66lbs]. But nothing like deadlifts. I didn’t gain a lot of weight, but of course I gained some fat. I had lots of stretch marks. There was definitely some uncertainty and struggle with my own body after the first baby. That's when I decided, Oh, I just want to get strong after I give birth, rather than trying to focus on some aesthetic goal.
And then I really got into it, and found out that it's very easy for me to get actually strong. I decided to go into powerlifting, a year after giving birth to my first child. I was going to start competing, but COVID came, and we decided to have another baby. I was I already starting to train like a powerlifter even though I didn't compete, and I wanted to keep training, you know, like at least training barbells, and heavy.
I definitely see a difference, how much more information there is today compared to just three years ago, it's just getting more common. At least here in Iceland, there's lots of women, and more women are joining powerlifting competitions than men. And yeah, most of them will get pregnant at some point, or were pregnant. One of them, she won the World's last year, Megan Scanlon. [Megan Scanlon took first in the 63kg class at the 2022 IPF Worlds after giving birth to twins]. She was pregnant with twins and I saw her squatting, like, over 250 pounds.
And I was like, oh, it's cool, you can do that. And she's feeling fine, and I felt fine, the whole pregnancy. So I was just like, I'm just going to try doing it too. And and nothing happened. When something doesn't feel well, you know. You can tell something is uncomfortable, or it’s like, My body's telling me it's too much. Of course, I was trying to do some research, and loads of information came after the year I gave birth, regarding pregnancy and training.
For instance, there are definitely studies from like 2001 about the Valsalva maneuver and how it affects if it affects oxygen flow to the fetus or placenta. But they’re studying women performing one-rep-max bench presses. It’s also different if someone with my experience is bench pressing, versus a woman going for the first time to the gym.
So you are pregnant for a second time, and want to keep strength training, and you're reading that it’s okay to do it, you're seeing other people doing it. But were there any moments of hesitation? I guess the worst case scenarios are like, you get really hurt, or you lose lose the pregnancy. Maybe you weren't actually literally afraid of those things. But do you remember any any sort of moment that you confronted those aspects?