10 Rules for Safer Postnatal Workouts
Keen to start working out after having a baby in order to shed the baby weight? If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you are.
After having trained lots of expecting and new mothers over the last several years, I have yet to meet a mother that doesn’t want to slip back into her pre pregnancy clothing and feel great, inside and out at the earliest possible opportunity.
However, while childbirth is an empowering experience, it (sometimes) leaves behind long-term effects you will need to take care of, like pelvic floor issues (prolapse and incontinence), the “mummy tummy” (diastasis recti), back pain and poor posture.
These need to be addressed before you resume your workouts. Read on to find out how!
How to Return to your Workouts After Pregnancy
Safely Restore your Pelvic Floor & Abdominal Tone
How you feel postpartum (or anytime) is often tied to how you look. As much as “the belly” is interfering with your self-confidence, resist the pressure to jump into intense workouts before you lay a strong foundation.
Whether you’re a brand new mother or a seasoned mum of four whose body needs a reset to help with lingering problems, follow the tips below to ensure your workouts are as safe and effective as possible:
1. Always Have a Check Up First
Childbirth is a dramatic event for your body, you will have lost a lot of blood, you may have required interventions such as an episiotomy, you may have received medications throughout labour and your baby may have needed a cesarean birth to be born safely.
You may also have had maternal diabetes during pregnancy, had high/low blood pressure and anaemia which will still need to be monitored. Plus you will need to self-monitor your lochia (postnatal bleeding and discharge) and emotions (regarding postnatal depression) as your body becomes balanced again.
A visit to your doctor is required before you embark on restoring your fitness to find out how you are progressing in all aspects of your health, physical, mental and emotional.
Follow any instructions you are given, especially regarding self-care of any stitches and wound care to prevent infection.
2. Be patient.
Childbirth is a transforming event. No matter if it is fast, long or surgical, the body undergoes a huge 40-week transformation to create a baby. During pregnancy organs and skin have moved and stretched to accommodate the baby.
Postpartum, the uterus has to “involute” or shrink back to its small non-pregnant size, organs need to find their place in a now uninhabited torso, your hormones are shifting to accommodate breastfeeding and you’re sweating out extra fluids from pregnancy and fluids given during labour. This can take about 4-8 weeks or more. “Working out” vigorously won’t speed this process up.
Alongside this natural process, how you gave birth will also have a role in determining how quickly you recover. Give yourself the time to heal and rejuvenate from the inside before working on the outside. Don’t rush things and listen to what your body tells you.
The post linked below is all about selfcare in the postparum period:
3. Gift Yourself with Time for Recovery
Taking the time in the first 3-6 months for complete healing, dramatically decreases your chances of suffering from any negative lasting effects of pregnancy. Time to maximize that postpartum window!
A strong and fully functional core is key to pretty much every movement we do day to day and especially when we work out. Focusing on building your inner core (which includes your pelvic floor, transversus abdominus and diaphragm) will allow you to workout harder than you ever did pre-baby, as well as prevent athletic incontinence, low back strains and other postpartum aches and pains.
Plus this is such a wonderful time in your life to soak up all those great baby snuggles and smells. Caring for your body and caring for your baby, are not mutually exclusive.
4. Don’t Run (or Jump) before you Have Walked
Relaxin, the hormone that is responsible for softening the ligaments and joints during pregnancy and childbirth, can stay in the body for up to six months postpartum, longer when you breastfeed. This ligament laxity leaves you more vulnerable to injury.
During this more vulnerable time period, you are more at risk for pelvic organ prolapse (internal organs start to descend into the vagina). Prolapse feels like a heaviness or downward pressure on your pelvic floor. At the end of the day or after exercising, pay close attention to any sensation of pressure in the pelvis. Your doctor or gynecologist can confirm.
Mild prolapse often has no symptoms and women do not know they are suffering from it until it gets worse. It’s best to play it safe. The risk of prolapse does not outweigh the benefit of high impact exercise such as running, sprinting and jumping. You also want to avoid abdominal exercises which increase intra-abdominal pressure such as crunches, sit ups and planks.
There are so many other great exercises that you should be doing during this time to make sure your body is healing correctly, running should be the last thing on your list if you want to maximize postpartum fitness in a safe and effective way.
Don’t discount walking as a gentle cardiovascular exercise! Go find a nice hill to push that pram up. Focus on pushing up the hill with your glute (bum) muscles and keeping your head up and neck long. This will help with hip and core activation and posture in a safe way.
Get in touch with those who were in your antenatal classes to see if they would be interested in buddying up for a walk. This not only earns you a new group of friends but motivates everyone to keep going together.
Swimming is gentle on the joints and pelvic floor and is great for strengthening the core and back muscles. Just be sure you don’t flare your rib cage when reaching overhead during strokes.
See my Body After Baby Core Restore Programme to help you get your body where you want it to be. This programme is designed specifically for those with Diastasis Recti. The exercises are safe, low impact and designed to target your deep core muscles and pelvic floor.
5. Start with Your Core, but no crunches!
While Diastasis Recti is something a lot of women can experience in the postnatal period, it is unfortunately not common knowledge that it can happen. Which means fewer women have a chance of addressing it before returning to exercise.
All the exercises that are great for building abdominal tone. Front planks, crunches, sit ups, roll ups, v sits, Pilates 100s, pushups, etc. can not only keep a diastasis from healing, they can make it worse by reinforcing incorrect muscle recruitment patterns.
Get checked for abdominal separation by a trained professional (you can learn how to check yourself for DRA) and seek out a pre/postnatal fitness specialist who knows core restorative protocols. If it is severe you will need to work with a physiotherapist first.
While Diastasis Recti Abdominus effects the abdominals, it is a whole body issue related to how you carry yourself, move your body and recruit your core. With the right exercises, your abdominals will draw together again.
When your diastasis is closed, you are free to perform all the abdominal exercises you desire. Until then, be mindful and choose safe, low impact exercises that build a deep foundation properly. 50 sit-ups at the crack of dawn and again just before bed simply won’t cut it.
6. Practice Good Posture
Women’s posture adapts to carrying a tiny 6lb+ human in their bellies by increasing your spinal curves. This means a deeper curve of the lower back, a more rounded upper back and the head being carried more in front (think Mr Burns from The Simpsons). The latter two can continue into the postpartum period if you are hunching forward while cradling and breastfeeding.
Coupled with less abdominal strength and the baby pushing up on your diaphragm (causing your ribs to flare), your core strength will reduce and you can develop a tight lower back and glutes and an overworked upper back.
Correcting these postural adaptations is key to healing your core after having children, especially if you plan on getting back to top notch fitness, restore abdominal strength with a healthy pelvic floor!
Excellent posture will not automatically return. Luckily, posture is something you can be aware of and work on all the time. Spend less time in heeled shoes and spend as little time as possible sitting throughout your day. Which won’t happen straight away when you are exhausted looking after a newborn or healing after a Cesarean. Practice standing and walking with good posture.
When you do sit, practice sitting completely upright. Feel your body weight on your sitz bones, head over your shoulders. It may feel unnatural at first, it may tire you (which means you really need it) but it will be worth it when you are rewarded with fewer aches and pains and a faster recovery.
My guide to Exercising in the Postnatal period has more information on correct posture and breathing deeply.
7. Breathe Deeply
Your diaphragm is a huge central muscle in your body that is key for healthy, deep breathing. It moves in synergy with your pelvic floor, creating a strong reactive pelvic floor. If it is not moving (shallow breathing), it’s not stimulating your pelvic floor.
Dysfunctional breathing is shown to be present in 11% of the normal population, in 30% of asthma sufferers and 83% in people suffering from anxiety (Courtney 2009)
Aim to feel the lower half of your rib cage expanding when you are taking an inhale. Feel like your ribs are expanding out to the sides toward the inside of your arms. Try not to forcefully inhale, it should be soft, quiet and effortless for the diaphragm to take part. Great to practice in bed to help you drift off to sleep.
Even though many new moms hear the old saying, sleep when your baby sleeps, very few (I believe) adhere to these wise words. Many women experience feelings of guilt about resting instead of looking after others, but by doing this now, we are betraying ourselves.
Resting, specifically napping during the day and early to bed at night is key for healing any damaged tissue. Deep sleep is when your body repairs itself. Therefore going without sleep will slow your recovery. When you are feeling rested and restored, you will have so much more to offer to those that need you.
9. Don’t Rush Shedding the Baby Weight
Generally speaking, this is not a time for weight loss dieting, but eating well, often and staying hydrated (especially when you are breastfeeding). Plus putting excess stress on yourself to lose weight, while you are striving to keep a small human happy is just too much. Wait until you are no longer sleep deprived before you aim to lose the baby weight.
Instead try to improve your diet by getting rid of all the comfort food in the house and stock up on convenient nutritious foods such as fresh fruit (pre-chopped for one handed eating), nuts, frozen vegetables that can be thrown straight into the pot, frozen unbreaded fish that can be cooked straight from the freezer and pre-made soups that can simply be heated up. You can pre-cook baked potatoes, chicken breasts and brown rice to go with any meals and keep them stored in the fridge to be heated up.
When you are exhausted your body will crave sweet and carb rich foods for quick energy. It’s best to have something more nutritious and more convenient in the house instead. Keep things simple until you have more energy and your baby demands less of your time.
There are many factors that contribute to weight loss: pre-pregnancy weight, pregnancy weight gain, activity levels, genetics, the amount of breastfeeding, ease of birth, temperament of newborn, quanlity of sleep, amount of support, how your body/brain responds to stress and whether you had a cesarean birth.
Keep these in mind when considering how you are progressing in losing your baby weight. Focus on putting good food in your body and staying active throughout your day, you will be surprised at how much you will lose anyway over those first few months.
10. Watch Out for Comparisonitis
Mainstream magazines and social media often publish photos of new mothers who “bounced back” showing off their flat postpartum abs within weeks of giving birth. Or you may have a friend who “bounced back” or you yourself may have bounced back the first time around.
I have two problems with this:
One: This notion of “bouncing back” creates the expectation that everyone is supposed to somehow regain their figure effortlessly in just weeks. That postnatal recovery is out of your hands and all down to genetics or luck.
Two: The other articles all about a celebs postnatal workout and diet regime that helped them shed the baby weight piles on the pressure for new mums to jump into intense workout regimes too soon! You now know there is some groundwork to do first.
Comparing yourself to a wealthy celeb (who makes money off their appearance) with a team of hired professionals to make them look fabulous postpartum, is a fool’s errand. Be careful of who you choose to inspire/motivate you into action.
Everyone is different! The difference isn’t just genetics or how you gave birth; a lot of it depends on what your body is already used to. Those superhumans back in the gym within two weeks were lifting weights for years. Those super-mums who are running 5ks soon after they give birth? They’re dedicated runners who considered 5k races easy pre pregnancy and kept up their running for as long as they could.
Bear in mind that you will feel some of this pressure, then truly take stock of how your body is feeling. Then decide what is best for you, whether that is a trip to a physiotherapist, more rest and nutritious food, restorative exercises or that you are ready to get back to an exercise regime, for you.
Take your time and don’t get caught up in the ‘get back to your pre-baby body as quickly as possible’ race. It’s madness.
When you do begin to exercise with more intensity again. Watch out for signs from your body that it’s not ready. These are leaking urine (while common postpartum, it’s not ok to pee yourself), pelvic pain and downward pressure, a bulging abdomen during abdominal training and feeling exhausted afterwards rather than invigorated (with some sore muscles).
Stepping away and focusing solely on rebuilding strength in your core and pelvic floor is needed so you can return to the exercise that you love in the future. With smart rather than aggressive workouts, it’ll be a matter of time before you start noticing some impressive results.
I hope you found this post to be informative as you are returning to fitness in the postpartum period. My hope is that the information I provide will help new mums avoid diastasis recti, long term pelvic floor issues and the anxiety that goes with them.
If you found it helpful I’d love for you to share it with a friend in need or pin it on Pinterest so that this information spreads. It’s important for women to know.
Any questions about returning to exercise postpartum? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
I am Emma McAtasney, founder of a boutique Pilates studio in Dundalk, Ireland. BASI trained Pilates instructor, BarreConcept instructor and prenatal and postnatal exercise specialist.
I developed the Body After Baby Core Restore Programme with the aim of helping women with diastasis recti and pelvic floor issues get back into shape after pregnancy!
I love working with successful, courageous women from all over the world – like yourself – to give you clear, applicable information, support you in truly creating core strength, fall in love with your strong and healthy body and focus on living your best life!
Together, let’s create a lifestyle that gives us health and happiness for a lifetime!