Climbing while Pregnant: 1st Trimester

Treat your body like an old lady.
Don't lift more than 15lb.
Do moderate exercise for 30min like walking.

If you're an avid rock climber, you probably don't fit the demographic of most information about pregnancy you'll find (or be given, or be judged about).

The lack of information about pregnancy health and fitness that was pertinent to me was very frustrating. And, in a testosterone-filled climbing gym, where few can fathom taking even a week off from climbing, it's rare to find someone who can truly relate to you. If you're contemplating or going through pregnancy yourself, I offer my experience as another data point from someone who likely fits your demographic more closely. The more data points you have, the better informed you can be to make the right decisions for yourself!

climbing pregnant

Climbing pregnant at 2 months!

The current state of health information

As I delved into research on pregnancy, I was appalled by the state of information available in the US. I quickly ended up shoving my head in a hole, knowing that humanity has procreated through harsher conditions than mine, until I found a reasonable resource (which I'll get to). Problems:

  • There's no controlled experiments done with pregnant women. At best you have studies that look at correlation, not causation effects. The problem is confounding factors. Ex: The hormone hCG, which causes morning sickness, is (weakly) linked to "healthier" pregnancies. There's also a correlation between drinking caffeine and miscarriages. Is the caffeine-miscarriage correlation direct causation? Or is it just that women who have high hCG levels have more morning sickness and thus choose to not drink coffee? It's entirely possible that caffeine has no effect on pregnancy outcome.
  • There's still a large sex gap in FDA drug trials. It wasn't until 1993 that the FDA required women to be included in drug trials, but it doesn't require equal sex participation, or age or pregnancy factors. The FDA was still publishing action plans for inclusiveness in 2014. Can you take that drug, even if it's just Tylenol, to alleive that headache? Does it cross the placental barrier?
  • FDA-approved drugs must prove that benefits outweigh risks. You need to demonstrate that the benefits (e.g. reduce morning sickness) outweigh the risks (which are unclear, since feeling queasy is just a minor symptom). Ever wonder why there's no male contraceptives? There's no benefits directly to men.
  • The US has an aversion to non-US studies. There exist studies about drinking wine while pregnant from Europe and Australia. And others, yet they're hard to find.
  • The medically-recommended pregnancy guidelines assume an average health American. I guarantee you that just by virtue of reading this, you're in better health and fitness than average America. Is it the best recommendation for me to reduce my physical output by 95%?

Conception Ain't Easy

...and it's not widely talked about. Even when I told a family member we were pregnant, her response was "why'd it take so long?" It took Jeremy and I 9 months to get pregnant--we swore that it might have gone faster if I had been overweight, alcoholic, and/or didn't want kids. Data varies, but if you're over 30, your chance of a sperm fertilizing an egg in any given month is 15%, and up to 75% of those miscarry before week 4 (you wouldn't even know you conceived).

I was 33 when we conceived, had been on birth control for 6 years, and stopped 3 months before we started trying to conceive. I had normal periods the first month after I stopped birth control, which supposedly means you're back to fertile.

"Take it easy when you're trying to conceive"

The question that comes up [read: what you may be judged on] is how much exercise is too much when trying to conceive. There's an old wive's tale that you should take it easy, there's doctor-recommended BMI, there's your friends' suggestions.

I personally didn't change any of my exercise habits; I was healthy fit, ate well, and was climbing 3x/week and doing strength & interval workouts 2x/week. I was 118lb, 5'4". The biggest factor I swear by (in most of life) is to minimize stress. Cortisol does wonders in wreaking havoc on your body. Climbing and fitness are a part of me, made me balanced and happy, and I didn't change my lifestyle.

I did switch to taking prenatal vitamins when we started trying to conceive. They're basically the same as a daily multi-vitamin with the addition of folic acid, so just swap them out. A fetus's neural tube closes at week 6, just after you find out you're pregnant, and folic acid is proven to prevent neural tube defects--yes, it actually made it on the list of helpful, good FDA drugs recommended to take, a minor miracle!

The First Trimester: Symptoms

You take your first home pregnancy test. Bam! You're 4 weeks pregnant! Gestational age is measured by time from your last menstrual period, so you're a month along before you know it! Then bring on the symptoms!



Restlessness, sharp pinching pains in my abdomen, trouble sleeping, bloating, unmotivation . . . and here's some of the more interesting ones:

  • Sore boobs. Yep, they already start to grow mass in the first 3 months!
  • Peeing 4-5 times a night. I had thought you only start peeing more in the 3rd trimester when your bladder is physically squished, but progesterone is a diuretic and starts increasing immediately when you're pregnant.
  • Feeling out of breath & heart racing from easy tasks like walking up and down stairs. Your blood volume increases by 30-50% starting the first trimester, which contributes to tiredness and odd blood pressure patterns as your blood vessel elasticity compensates.
  • Queasiness. Thank the spike in hCG. I never felt like puking nor did puke, but felt like I was carsick from weeks 5-11. Morning sickness is a misnomer--I had it worse at dinnertime. I made large pots of Jook (chicken congee, triple the ginger).
  • Cravings for fried potatoes. Tater tots, french fries, potato chips. And not just any potato chips. Regular Lay's or Ruffles. The cravings went away overnight after a month.
  • Constipation. Progesterone slows down muscle, meaning food moves through your gut slower. Theoretically your body is absorbing more nutrients, becoming more efficient, to support baby. Experiment with fiber cereal, Docusate, milk of magnesia...
  • Headaches in places I've never had before. Don't be scared to pop a Tylenol--it doesn't cross the placental barrier.

That all sounds terrible, but the symptoms aren't all at once, and you end up dealing with what you need to.

The First Trimester: Working Out

Exercise during pregnancy, especially the 1st trimester, is relative to your own personal norm. Appalling story: in my first "you're pregnant" class (to ask all the stupid questions before you meet the Dr), the nurse went over guidelines to "do moderate exercise for 30min, 3 times a week, like walking." The other 3 women in the class started furiously writing this down. I was definitely not in their same health state. In short: don't start new exercise programs, and if your body feels comfortable doing what you did, you're probably fine in the 1st trimester.

kettlebell swing

Putting together a series of kettlebell exercise videos at 2 months pregnant.

climbing pregnant working

Same exercise, same chores while pregnant. Installing hardwood floors at 2 months.

Weeks 4-8 (as a baseline):

  • No change to my workouts. I didn't notice any difference physically except for the aforementioned racing heartbeat. I really think keeping to my same exercise schedule helped me with reduced queasiness and tiredness, though sometimes it took all my strength to motivate off the couch to get into the gym.
  • Continued to boulder at my limit, around V7-V8, though I didn't go higher than my feet at 6ft high.
  • PR'ed on squats at 7 weeks, squatting 130lb, or 10lb above bodyweight.
  • Made a series of kettlebell exercise videos.
  • Sport climbed 1/week up to mid-5.12's.

Weeks 8-12: The 3" below my bellybutton started to feel hard and it got more difficult to high step. I took the growing fetus as a sign to start pulling back intensity.

  • Still pulled on V7-V8 but preferred roofs.
  • Still pulled 5.12- sport climbing, taking safe, overhung lead falls.
  • Stopped trying to PR in weightlifting and did sets of at least 6 reps. I continued to squat, deadlift, bench press, do pullups, pushups, kettlebells, as long as I felt good and safe.
  • Didn't let my heartrate get into anaerobic territory, or >170bpm for me. I was told not to let my heartrate get above 160bpm for >30min. The most I did was a single sport route, with elevated aerobic HR for 5min max.

Weight Gain

I gained 2-3lb the 1st trimester, starting 5'4" 118lb. I didn't pay much attention to it; some women lose weight because of nausea, some women gain way more. It's also hard to pinpoint due to bloatedness and constipation.

climbing pregnant pre-pregnancy climbing pregnant 1 month climbing pregnant 2 months climbing pregnant 3 months

Redemption from the world of don'ts

The moment you're pregnant, you're handed a full 8.5x11" sheet of paper printed out with the don'ts of pregnancy. I highly urge you to ask why and do your own in-depth research on the actual risks and make your own informed decisions. Top Google search results, common pregnancy websites, and pregnancy apps all spurt the same "dangers"--you'll have to dig really, really deep. Ask why three levels deep beyond already-summarized articles. Find raw data and draw your own conclusions.

The book Expecting Better: Why Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong is life-changing. It's written by a female statistician who was frustrated by the same lack of information about pregnancy, gathered worldwide studies about pregnancy, threw out the ones that are confounded by poor demographics, and gives you a better source by which you can make your own decisions. The sites and are great too.

Don't eat soft cheeses. The danger is raw milk which can carry listeria, but since 1949, any cheese that crosses a state boundary must be pasteurized. So the risk is virtually nil from your local grocery store. Don't eat raw meat. But not all raw meat is created equal. Fish doesn't carry listeria or toxoplasmosis, which are directly harmful to a fetus. Don't clean kitty litter, don't garden, don't squat, don't get your heartrate above 140, don't lift more than 15lb, don't let a single drop of alcohol pass your lips, don't have caffeine. I swear pregnant women are prime targets for efforts to control society--be pure, all else be damned. There are some concerns you should heed, but do your research, read Expecting Better, listen to your body, and make decisions that will make your life manageable.

This series's articles: