Solidarity CrossFit makes classes safe and approachable for mothers-to-be

Five women at Solidarity CrossFit, including Melissa Sacco, were all pregnant at the same time last year. Owner Michael Towne helped them with exercise modifications so they could safely work out while pregnant. Photo: Courtney Coker Five women at Solidarity CrossFit, including Melissa Sacco, were all pregnant at the same time last year. Owner Michael Towne helped them with exercise modifications so they could safely work out while pregnant. Photo: Courtney Coker

When Melissa Sacco was a few months pregnant with her second son, she posted a photo on Facebook of herself standing next to a loaded barbell that she had just deadlifted.

“You’re not lifting that while pregnant. Correct?” commented one of her friends.

Turns out she was. Sacco, a UVA grad, pediatrician and assistant professor, is one of those “crazy CrossFitters.” She and her husband joined Solidarity CrossFit a few months after their first son was born in 2013, and when she got pregnant again last year, she was determined to continue working out.

“My ob/gyns really helped me manage my fitness program,” Sacco says. “At that first visit I told them that ‘I do CrossFit now and I don’t want to stop.’”

And Sacco wasn’t alone. Around the time she found out her son was on the way, four other members at Solidarity also announced they were expecting. Owner Michael Towne had just installed a new water fountain and led the group through a squat cycle before the pregnancy episode, so take that for what it’s worth.

“It was such a great environment, everyone was so supportive,” Sacco says. “All of us were pregnant together and there was sort of a nice little bond there.”

Despite the old wives’ tale that mothers-to-be shouldn’t lift anything heavier than 20 pounds (which Sacco scoffs at—her 2-year-old was already 35 pounds by then), Sacco says her doctors were on board. She took it upon herself to read up and ask questions, and with the help of her doctors she created a fitness plan that made her feel both strong and safe.

Early on it was clear there were some exercises she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do during those nine months. Continue to work on unassisted pull-ups? Pass. Climb the ropes hanging from the ceiling and risk falling to the floor? Nope. But there were plenty of things she could do, such as set a personal record in her deadlift at 28 weeks and continue doing box jumps two months later. And on her birthday, about a month before her due date, she arrived at class to find that everyone had strapped weighted medicine balls to their bellies in an act of solidarity.

Much of the fitness community has a love-hate relationship with burpees—a move that involves dropping to a plank position, doing a push-up, jumping back up and repeating an ungodly number of times. Obviously Sacco and her fellow mama bears couldn’t lower themselves down for a full push-up once their bellies had grown to a certain size, so they worked with Towne on incorporating safe adaptations. By the time the third trimester rolled around, their burpees were a push-up against a wall followed by a squat jump. In fact, Sacco says her friend’s water broke while they were doing their adapted burpees. (Let’s all keep that in mind the next time we’re feeling too lazy to leave the couch, shall we?)

For Towne, who opened Solidarity CrossFit in late 2012, there was no question that he and his team of coaches would do everything they could to make the classes safe and approachable for everyone and not make any members feel isolated—pregnant or otherwise.

“We hold everybody to the same high standards from a safety perspective. If you come in with a bad knee or you’re pregnant, there’s certain things that we’ve got to look at,” Towne says. “But it’s really not that different in my book, as in there are just certain things we’ve got to take into account. With any adult population you’re not going to meet anybody that doesn’t have something they need to work around.”

Hanging on the wall in the gym is a poster entitled “CrossFit During Pregnancy,” with safety tips such as “No GHD [glute hammer developer] sit-ups” during the first trimester and “Decrease weight as necessary, dependent on form and comfort” during the third trimester. It also lists substitute exercises, like elevated push-ups and dumbbells instead of barbells.

As the brigade of pregnant members progressed through their pregnancy and their workouts, Towne and the other coaches learned alongside them, gradually putting in place more resources. The coach-to-athlete ratio is already eight-to-one during classes, Towne says, which means members get individualized attention when they need it. And to make the gym accessible postpartum, Towne also provides free childcare during some classes.

Sacco says her second pregnancy and second time giving birth were far easier than the first, which she attributes to CrossFit and the overall belief that carrying a baby shouldn’t stop her from being an athlete.

“This isn’t a place where they come and they’re a pregnant person,” Towne says. “They’re just an athlete who happens to be pregnant.”