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Sports Last Updated: Oct 23, 2013 - 9:12:11 AM

Muscle mama! A steady, sweaty journey from barbell to baby
By Jennifer Johnston
Oct 23, 2013 - 9:08:36 AM

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Becky Howard gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
Becky Howard lifted weights several days a week throughout her entire pregnancy, up to the day before she delivered.

Don’t travel by airplane. Don’t eat salmon or sushi. Don’t bathe, color your hair, or pet your cat. Don’t raise your arms over your head. Gah! Don’t touch your toes, either! Walk slowly, upright, sipping glass-bottled water and nibbling organic unsalted saltines. On second thought, just lie down. It’s only 40 weeks.
Clearly, as pregnant moms go, Becky Howard is a rule-breaker, a rebel, a rascal. She cruised at 30,000 feet. She ate fatty fish. She took a few tubs, treated her tresses, and fraternized with felines.
The lampooning here is not lost on most of us. In the year 2013, we know that pregnancy is neither an illness nor a disability, and that the most ridiculous of old “medical” myths were debunked years ago. No longer do we expect women to serve a nine-month sentence in a virtual bubble, void of activity they enjoyed in their pre-pregnancy state, right?
What if I told you that not only did mom-to-be Howard raise her arms above her head, she did it with a 60-pound barbell in her hands? In fact, she would bear weight like this several days a week throughout her entire pregnancy, up to the day before she delivered. Would you still be on board?
Howard grew up a gymnast. She first took to the mat when she was a toddler, and trained through the age of 16. The movements still come naturally to her, and she understands the importance of strength training in overall fitness. But somewhere in the “distractions” of college, a career in business development and PR, and moves from New York to D.C. to Charleston, the emphasis of athleticism in Howard’s life fell to the periphery for a time.
Then, as summer 2012 approached, a friend of Howard’s asked if she and husband Mike would be interested in trying CrossFit. Intimidated by what they’d heard of the program – grueling, weight-laden workouts packed into 20 or so dizzying minutes inside a garage or warehouse – the couple declined. But perhaps subconsciously inspired by the notion of such an experience, and tired of what Howard termed “crappy workouts,” the Shell Ring residents changed their minds and walked into CrossFit Discovery in Daniel Island for the first time that June.
After an initial consultation with owner/trainer Robert VanNewkirk and a few weeks of guided workouts, Howard was “totally hooked.” Over the next several months, she would ramp up her regimen to five days a week, and progress in remarkably short order, putting up faster times, more reps, and heavier loads. And then, in December 2012, Howard discovered she was pregnant. Where others might be sidelined by this news, however, it was actually right inside her plan all along. “A big part of the reason I started (CrossFit) in the first place was that I knew I wanted to get in shape before getting pregnant,” relates Howard. “There was no doubt I would continue.”
With a changing body and a growing baby, Howard would reduce her gym schedule to three days a week, primarily because she felt signals that she needed more sleep. She lightened up on weights in her first trimester, then gradually increased again as she felt she better understood her pregnancy and her physical changes. She also stopped turning upside down, climbing ropes, and doing situps and burpees in the second trimester. A favorite point of reference became, which is administered by a Pre/Post Natal Exercise Specialist, and lists specific modifications and substitutions for workouts during pregnancy.
Howard’s doctor of obstetrics, Dr. Phyllis Rogerson of Mount Pleasant OBGYN, had initially advised her patient to not lift more than 30 pounds. Howard admits she was disagreeable to this, simply because she had been hoisting much more than that for months. “She would say, ‘exercise is good,’” Howard remembers. “But I think in her mind CrossFit was just throwing my body into absolute war, maxing-out at everything. I knew she wasn’t cautioning me about harming the baby, she was telling me to be careful for my own safety.”
So Becky tried to keep her doctor apprised of her training, bringing in photos and journals of her work, with the faith that Rogerson would tell her where an activity might pose a problem. For instance, Howard would learn from her physician that during pregnancy, ligaments are stretched, creating a higher risk for tearing or pulling during this time. “Becky did very well, though it is important to note that she had a normal pregnancy, free of complications,” Rogerson points out. “I’m very supportive of exercise – you’ll be in better shape for delivery – but you’ve got to be careful.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Dr. Joelle Drader Wilcox of Petoskey, Michigan, who directed us to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which she says is considered the "gold standard" for recommendations surrounding questions like these. In its opinion publication, “Exercise During Pregnancy and the Postpartum Period,” dated January 2002, the Committee on Obstetric Practice ultimately draws conclusions for women falling into one of three categories. Those considered “recreational or competitive athletes” can remain active during pregnancy under medically-indicated modifications where other complications are not present. Women considered “previously inactive,” as well as those with obstetric complications, should undergo a thorough evaluation prior to commencing exercise. And, lastly, “physically active women with a history of or risk for preterm labor” are advised to restrict activity in the second and third trimesters.
The ACOG cites epidemiologic data pointing to the benefit of exercise as a primary prevention of gestational diabetes. And, ultimately, the opinion recommends that “In the absence of either medical or obstetric complications, 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise a day on most, if not all, days of the week is recommended for pregnant women.” But the publication also issues specific warnings against activities with a high potential for contact (hockey, soccer, basketball) and risk of falling (gymnastics, horseback riding, downhill skiing, and vigorous racquet sports), as well as scuba diving.
Most interesting, perhaps, is the ACOG’s section addressing competitive athletes. The paper acknowledges that women in this subset tend to maintain a more strenuous training program throughout pregnancy, and goes on to state that “The concerns of the pregnant, competitive athlete fall into two general categories: 1) the effects of pregnancy on competitive ability, and 2) the effects of strenuous training and competition on pregnancy and the fetus. Such athletes may require close obstetric supervision.”
With patients in her own care, Wilcox takes an individual approach aimed at uncovering each woman’s goal or intent in doing a specific activity during pregnancy. “Maintaining health is important,” Wilcox concedes, but is loathe to see any new mom wondering if a complication was caused by an activity that should have been avoided. “As with everything, I believe moderation is always the safe route.”
For his part, Mike was initially astounded that his wife wanted to CrossFit through the pregnancy, but he soon got on board under the assurance that she would be smart about it. And being in the gym with her, he was able to maintain a watchful eye. Howard’s last pregnant workout was on Tuesday, September 10, and she went into labor at 40 weeks that very next day. And when she gave birth to a healthy baby girl on Thursday, September 12, her attending doctor remarked at how well she came through 18 hours of labor and three and a half hours of delivery. When she was offered the “relief” of a C-section, Howard refused, the likely benefit of her exceptional physical condition not lost on anyone.
Ironically, however, that same week saw a bit of a firestorm sparked by another pregnant CrossFitter. Photos of an athlete in California, posing very late-term pregnancy squatting under a relatively heavy barbell, circled first around social media, and was then picked up by news outlets. Comment boards were lighting up with people weighing in, many very negatively, about the woman’s level of responsibility, intelligence, and vanity. Howard was incensed, and when a local radio station contacted VanNewkirk to chime in on the matter with his past-pregnant athletes, the new mom sprang to action. They participated in a segment on station 94.3 WSC, with host Kelly Golden conspicuously in support of a higher level of pregnant exercise, hypothesizing that any opposition is borne in large part out of jealousy.
Though Howard is reluctant to make that blanket judgment, she does surmise that much of the negative banter arises from those who simply did not have the foresight to begin a healthy fitness regimen prior to getting pregnant. Others may simply not have the courage to buck what Howard terms the “old school mentality” of giving your body wall-to-wall rest and eating for two. To her, however, it never felt weird to be in the gym, despite her growing belly. “You see the same people every day,” she explains, “so everyone went through it with me from day one.”
Now many days later, Howard and her husband are doting on their daughter, Savannah. The beaming mommy states that her energy level is remarkable high, that she has the stamina to get up at three hour intervals in the night and make it to the 7:15 a.m. CrossFit, where she (and Mike… and Savannah) returned a few weeks ago. But most emphatically and openly, she is grateful that the training she’s received has aided in her being there for the baby whenever she is needed. “I’m not too tired to enjoy her moments when she’s awake,” Howard remarks. “I don’t wish her back to sleep.”
And will Savannah workout alongside her mom someday? It was something Howard wistfully considered that first day back in the gym, with her baby tucked snug in her carrier. “I was thinking how she won’t remember today,” she shares, “but I hope someday she will feel passionate about being healthy and naturally see this as a positive thing. And I hope she can lift 100 pounds more than me.”
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