Is Bouldering While Pregnant OK? (Now Includes Scientific Studies)


Most women seem to believe that once they become pregnant they will have to stop bouldering or rock climbing in general until they’ve had their baby and recovered from the labour. This isn’t entirely true. Although there are a few things you should watch out for, bouldering while pregnant is possible. Some women boulder throughout their whole pregnancy, and understand the risks they take. Most of these women have done prior research, however, which enables them to have the safest possible climb for them and their unborn child.

So, is bouldering while pregnant ok? You need to understand that bouldering and top rope climbing are different – if you fall when you’re bouldering then you’re going to slam down on the mat which is much more likely to cause problems for your unborn foetus  than dangling from a rope. The general scientific consensus is that any high impact exercise for the first 12 weeks increases the chance of miscarriage, so if you’re going to boulder make sure you climb with low intensity while focusing on technique. If you think you might fall, climb down and don’t risk anything.

Bouldering in the first trimester is usually ok; however falling can still cause a miscarriage. Therefore it is advised that you climb easier routes and lower grades because there’s less risk of falling. After around 10-12 weeks, some women decide to stop bouldering completely due to the increased risk that falling has on their unborn baby. There are also many women that continue bouldering throughout most of their pregnancy; however this goes against scientific advice, so it really depends on how comfortable you feel about being on a bouldering wall as you advance further in your pregnancy.

It is not only important that we think about the safety of the foetus, but also mention that pregnancy may cause shortness of breath, nausea, loose joints and other physical symptoms to a woman’s body which could affect her ability to climb and therefore cause her to fall more often than normal.

Keep on reading for more information regarding bouldering and rock climbing when pregnant.

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The Risk of Falling when You’re Pregnant

Falling when pregnant can cause miscarriage, so it’s really important that you take all necessary precautions before you climb. The risk of miscarriage from falling depends on the stage of pregnancy you’re actually in. It also depends how much trauma you have inflicted onto your unborn baby. Falling from a small height of 2 meters onto a spongy mat may not even affect your baby at all.

Believe it or not, a woman’s body is actually made to withstand a certain amount of impact to the uterus when pregnant. Unfortunately, there are certain incidences that can cause a miscarriage or a still birth.

The First Trimester

In the first trimester you have less chance of having a miscarriage due to falling. This is why pregnant women tend to climb for the first 10-12 weeks without worrying too much. The first trimester is when the uterus is quite low and the pelvic bones are protecting it. Because of this, the uterus and embryo is unlikely to be damaged if a fall occurs during this time unless the trauma is quite large. For example, if your uterus were to collide with a large climbing hold at high velocity, a miscarriage may occur.

The Second and Third Trimester

The risk of miscarriage due to falling is increased within the second and third trimester. As the weeks go by when you’re pregnant, the risk of losing your baby increases if you were to fall off the bouldering wall. After the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, the uterus grows noticeably larger over time which causes the likelihood of trauma to the foetus or placenta from falling to rise significantly. If the placenta is damaged, that means the baby may not be able to get valuable nutrients which may cause a miscarriage.

Although there is more risk of damage due to falling when bouldering after the first trimester, you have to realise that the foetus is still well protected by the amniotic sac and other parts of the mother’s body. The amniotic sac is there to protect the baby from shock, such as a fall. Not only does the amniotic fluid help protect the baby; there are also different parts of the mother’s body such as muscles, fat and certain bones that are involved in its safety.

The problem that you have to realise with climbing during pregnancy is that you actually release a hormone known as relaxin during pregnancy which can make you a bit wobbly and unstable. This obviously can affect your climbing ability and therefore increase your risk of falling. Although relaxin has its negative effects as mentioned above, it’s actually there to loosen your pelvic muscles and joints to prepare your body to grow the baby and help you deliver it when the time comes.

If you do fall off the climbing wall and feel like you may have fallen quite hard or affected your baby, it is advised you see a doctor or midwife as soon as possible so they can assess if there has been any damage caused.

What does Science Say about Climbing and Exercise When Pregnant?

We’re going to have a look at some scientific studies about climbing and other types of exercise to give you an idea of how/if you should boulder while you’re pregnant. I’ll write the overview of each study and conclude at the end what it all means as a whole.

Contact sports as well as sports associated with a risk of falling should be avoided when pregnant

A study published in 2012 says that aerobic and strength-conditioning exercise in pregnancy and the postpartum period has demonstrated many health benefits. However it goes on to say “it is prudent to adjust exercise regimes where necessary to avoid potential harm. Contact sports as well as sports associated with a risk of falling should be avoided”. This obviously puts bouldering in a bad light through pregnancy.

Although many women are practising bouldering, this study suggests they shouldn’t be. There is less chance of falling properly when top rope or lead climbing due to the chance you’ll be kept up by ropes. Beth Rodden, a professional climber who climbed throughout her pregnancy, recommends the Petzl 8003 full body harness after 18 weeks of pregnancy.

The study suggests different types of aerobic exercise that are recommended through pregnancy. These are brisk walking, stationary cycling, and swimming. Swimming is a great full body workout that relates to climbing because of the similar muscles worked. However, if you want to return to bouldering after pregnancy then you’ll need to keep up your finger strength throughout.

Climbing doesn’t seem to affect fetal growth

A study published in 1997 examined how standing, lifting, climbing, and long hours of work affected fetal growth. It found that climbing doesn’t affect fetal growth, which is obviously a plus for anyone who wants to continue bouldering while pregnant.

As a side note, the study does go on to say that long hours of work reduced fetal growth. So if you’re trying to keep your baby healthy, think about reduce your hours at work from full time to part time – especially if it’s a physically demanding job.

High‐impact exercise in early pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of miscarriage

A study published in 2007 was done to “examine the association between leisure time physical exercise during pregnancy and the risk of miscarriage” on over 92000 pregnant women in Denmark over the course of 6 years.

This study showed that high‐impact exercise, 7 hours+ per week in early pregnancy was associated with an increased risk of miscarriage. Early pregnancy is considered to be up to 18 weeks. After 18 weeks of gestation there did not seem to be any association with general exercise and miscarriage.

If you are going to boulder in early pregnancy, make sure you’re only using low intensity or you increase the risk of having a miscarriage.

Regular physical activity during early pregnancy can reduce the chance of preeclampsia

A study published in 2003 concluded that “Women who engaged in any regular physical activity during early pregnancy, compared with inactive women, experienced a 35% reduced risk of preeclampsia”. Pre-eclampsia is a condition during pregnancy and after the baby is born that causes high blood pressure and can be very serious if it isn’t treated.

Bouldering can be a great way to raise your heart rate and get a full body workout, and judging by this study it will also help you reduce your chance of developing preeclampsia.

Physical activity in early pregnancy is associated with lower risk of developing Gestational Diabetes Mellitus

A study published in 2011 examined how physical activity practised before and after pregnancy related to Gestational Diabetes Mellitus (GDM). GDM is a condition where a mother develops diabetes-like symptoms during pregnancy which, if left untreated, can cause serious problems for both the mother and child.

It was concluded that higher levels of physical activity before pregnancy or in early pregnancy are associated with a significantly lower risk of developing GDM.

Therefore, this suggests that bouldering would be a good thing to do if you wanted to reduce your risk of developing GDM.

Exercise effort increase is especially evident when climbing in late pregnancy

A study published in 1985 was done to examine maternal and fetal responses when exercising during pregnancy. It pretty much states the obvious that during late pregnancy when the foetus is quite large, it is a lot more effort for a woman to exercise when climbing, walking or jogging due to the weight.

Scientific Studies Conclusion

It is wise to exercise during early pregnancy for your own health and your unborn baby’s health. However, you need to take precautions – there should be no high impact exercise practised during early pregnancy, and you may want to think about lead/top rope climbing or taking up some other sort of exercise other than bouldering.

The risk of falling when bouldering can lead to miscarriage, and if you’re anything like me, there isn’t one bouldering gym session where I don’t fall.

Setting Limits and Boundaries on Yourself when You Climb Pregnant

If you decide you want to climb when you’re pregnant, then you should set yourself some limits for each trimester. This, of course, depends on if you want to climb in all three trimesters. As I’ve said, the first trimester is the safest time for you and your baby and as time goes on, the risks will increase.

First Trimester

If you decide to climb through the first trimester, you should start on lower grades and see how you feel. You may find that you are unaffected by your pregnancy and can climb your normal grades without falling too much or without feeling like you’re going to affect your baby. If not you can, obviously, lower your grades and climb easier climbs. At 10-12 weeks some women choose to stop climbing to avoid falling and therefore damaging their unborn baby.

Second and Third Trimester

Around the second trimester is the time when some women decide to limit their climbing. If you have considered your options and still want to climb then there are many boundaries you can set yourself to reduce the risk of damage to your baby. These are:

  • Climb lower grades. Climbing lower grades decreases the chance of falling due to the fact these climbs will be easier for you to handle. The upside is that you can keep your form and actually improve it if you climb technically. Many advanced climbers climb lower grades with perfect technique to improve without worrying about finishing the climb for the feeling of accomplishment. This will also decrease the risk of injury due to your joints being looser because of pregnancy.
  • Climb with more technique and less strength. If you find yourself on a climb that you seem to be using more strength than technique, this can put stress on your baby. This rule should be followed especially for climbs that seem to use your core strength more due to the abdominal muscles having a higher chance of tearing during pregnancy.
  • Consider lead climbing instead. Although you may not find it as fun and there are still risks involved, lead climbing is safer because there is less risk of falling to the ground. However, the normal harness used is not usually suitable for pregnant women. There are lead climbing harnesses you can buy especially for women who are pregnant. These are full body harnesses which give you more support than a normal lead harness. There are still risks involved in lead climbing when you are pregnant.
  • Listen to your body. If you body doesn’t feel right or you don’t feel like you should be climbing on a certain day due to fatigue, then you should listen. Don’t go climbing just because you feel like you should. That could be the worst thing for you and your baby.

Physical Symptoms Caused by Pregnancy which can Affect Your Climbing Session

Loose Joints

As mentioned in a sub-heading above, a hormone called relaxin (and others involved in pregnancy) causes the joints to loosen. This means that the harder the route you climb, the more stress you put on your joints.

Nausea

Nausea can get worse as you climb higher, but it can also happen at any point throughout the day. This can affect your motivation and how you feel about training. When you feel nausea you may just want to stay at home and rest – and that’s OK! Don’t push yourself if you don’t feel well.

Shortness of Breath

Believe it or not, climbing works the cardiovascular system and pregnancy affects your breathing. Therefore, you may find it hard to breathe when you’re up on the wall. You may also start to get dizzy which is a definite sign you should climb down from your attempt. You should consider coming off the wall before you feel light-headed in most cases.

Swollen Feet

In warmer weather, you’ve probably experienced swollen feet in climbing shoes, and let’s be honest here – it’s painful. Now imagine this for many months in pregnancy. Your feet will swell up and you may feel a lot of pain with your current climbing shoes. You can either ignore it and climb through the pain, or there’s another option: you can buy a pair of comfy climbing shoes specifically to be used during your pregnancy. They don’t have to be anything expensive, and I they should probably have a neutral sole, such as the La Sportiva Mythos – known throughout the climbing world specifically because of their exceptional comfort.

Fatigue

Fatigue can hit you at any point through pregnancy. You just want to lie down and shut the world away while you either have a sleep or watch endless amounts of TV to get through the day. You may feel unmotivated to climb, and that’s fine. There’s obviously a reason why a pregnant woman would feel tired through pregnancy: the energy expenditure of having a child inside her. Therefore, it isn’t really advisable to climb while you’re feeling like this. But of course, it’s your call.

Increase in Weight

Your weight will increase as time passes throughout your pregnancy and you probably won’t be used to it when you’re on the climbing wall. When you climb usually you’re used to your own body weight, you know how to use it and you know where your center of gravity is. Once you become pregnant this all changes and you probably won’t be used to the new weight you’re carrying. Therefore you’re more susceptible to falling.

Hormone Release

As discussed earlier, the hormone called relaxin loosens your joints and makes you unsteady on your feet. Other hormones released may make you feel less motivated, happier or more upset etc. Your hormones will affect your mood in general and you may not want to climb due to them anyway.

Size Increase

Now that you’ve got a baby in your uterus, you may find it’s a lot harder to slide up the wall to certain holds because your belly keeps on hitting holds of a different grade. It’s annoying when this happens anyway with other body parts, but you may find it’s more annoying now you’re pregnant. Size increase is similar to increase in weight – although not the same. You aren’t used to your new size, so your climbing ability may be affected.

Climbing Activities and Exercises for Pregnant Women

If you decide you don’t want to keep climbing after a certain time, there are ways to keep up your grip strength and technical ability on the climbing wall without actually climbing. They’re very low risk and if you’re planning on bouldering after you’ve had your baby then they’ll help you out for your return. All methods mentioned below may not be suitable for some women who are experiencing exceptionally loose joints.

Hanging on a fingerboard

Hanging on a fingerboard may be a little more difficult when you’re pregnant than it was previously because you may be a lot heavier. But it’s a great way to keep your finger strength and your shoulder/back muscles ready for your return to climbing. For more information on fingerboards/hangboards you can click this link.

Circuit board training

Use the lowest part of the circuit board to make up fun climbs for yourself without actually being that far off the ground, therefore minimizing the risk of harming your baby if you do fall off the wall. Remember to not climb too high if you think it’s unsafe.

Pull-ups

Be careful doing these as you don’t want to injure yourself. Pull ups can help you when you return because they’re good for increasing muscle mass in your back and shoulders. Both of these are used in climbing. You may find these hard when you aren’t pregnant, so doing pull-ups when you’re pregnant may seem impossible, and that’s fine – it may not be the exercise for you. You can buy pull up bars that fit over your door mantle and are easily removed. Check out this one on Amazon. I use my pull up bar often to keep myself climb-fit, especially when I can’t climb for a while due to something like an injury.

Returning to Climbing After You’ve Had a Baby

According to a survey produced by Beth Rodden of RockAndIce.com in which 339 women participated in, most women return to climbing at around 3.5 months after they’ve had a baby.

Depending on your situation after you’ve given birth, you may find it easy or hard to get back into climbing. This could be due to problems such as post-natal depression, breastfeeding infections also known as mastitis, lack of motivation etc.

If your body or mind isn’t ready to climb after giving birth due to a particular problem, then don’t rush yourself. You don’t want to hurt yourself by returning to climbing or any other kind of exercise too quickly. Your joints may remain loose for months or even over a year after pregnancy, so this is another reason why you shouldn’t rush back into climbing too fast.

Hanging on a fingerboard is a great way to get yourself ready for a climbing return, while also feeling how ready your joints and muscles are. This will strengthen your fingers and forearms, and activate your shoulders and back muscles.

When do most women usually stop climbing while pregnant? Most pregnant women stop climbing at around 31 weeks of pregnancy. This may be different specifically for bouldering, however.

Can climbing cause a miscarriage? Climbing can cause a miscarriage if you fall at a height to reach a velocity that causes enough trauma on the foetus once you hit the mat below. Miscarriage due to climbing is usually more of a risk in the second and third trimesters.

Paul

I'm the owner of Rock Climbing Central and I fell in love with climbing about 5 years ago as soon as my feet touched the wall. Since then all I've pretty much done is research about climbing and climb whenever possible.

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