Returning to exercise post-childbirth can be daunting after what your body’s been through. But you could end up stronger and fitter than before.
In almost all sessions, women often ask, ‘will I ever get my pre-baby body back?’ . First of all it’s important to remember that they never actually lost their body. It’s the exact same body they had, it just took on a whole new role and form.
And secondly it’s important to tell them never to ‘punish’ their body because it’s capable of incredible things.
For example, during pregnancy your heart size increases by a third, your blood volume goes up by 30%, your lung capacity increases by 40%, cardiac output increases by 30% (i.e. your heart works at a higher capacity), and the hormones you produce (relaxin and progesterone) relax all your ligaments and fibrous and muscle tissue to accommodate the growing baby.
However, they do go through so much change and of course it ends in, well there’s no other word for childbirth; trauma.
The postpartum phase is a sad time for your bodies because not only have they lost all of these former super powers, but it feels as though they’ve been replaced by completely and utterly ravaged shells of their former selves – pelvic muscles obliterated, an internal divide in your abdominals (diastasis recti), and veiny mega breasts ready to burst at any second!
Benefits of exercise postpartum
- Strengthens and tones the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles, which were stretched and loosened during pregnancy and childbirth
- Boosts energy levels
- Improves quality of sleep (baby allowing)
- Reduces stress levels, anxiety and depression
- Helps lose any extra weight that may have been gained
How to restart exercise postpartum
Getting back in shape postpartum will of course require a certain amount of consistency and commitment, but the good news is that muscles have memories. You can even end up stronger and fitter than you were before children.
So, where do you begin? Well, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you working on building back strength when you feel mentally and physically ready, following the advice of medical professionals and ideally under the guidance and support of postnatal-trained professionals.
The general guideline to begin light to moderate exercise following a vaginal birth is six-eight weeks. If you had a caesarean delivery or if you have diastasis recti or pelvic issues such as prolapse, it’s important to work with a doctor or women’s physio to determine a timeline for when it’s safe to begin exercise again.
But there are still things you can and ideally should do straight away following childbirth to build back your strength.
It’s very important to focus on tightening the pelvic floor and ab muscles first and foremost post-birth as these have been affected the most.
Once you’re strong enough, we’d recommend a daily dose of 3 x 10 pelvic squeezes – pull in your back and front passage at the same time, imagine holding a marble and lifting it internally. Include a series of short squeezes as well as long holds and short releases to recruit both the fast and slow twitch muscles in the pelvic floor.
In addition, include 3 x 10 ab contractions a day – pull your navel back to your spine and release and exhale on this contraction, engaging your internal corset muscles like you’re trying to squeeze into a tight pair of jeans.
You can do these when you’re taking your baby for walks in the buggy, when they’re having a nap, folding clothes, etc etc…it’ll really help to draw your ab muscles back together and avoid a diastasis occurring in the long-term.
Here are some more great exercises to introduce when ready. Do 10 reps for each, up to three times a day.
Feet flat and placed slightly wider than hip-width apart, slowly sink into position, lowering your bum, sink your hips back and down and sit into the heels; return to stand.
Pelvic tilts and glute bridge lifts
Back placed on the floor, knees bent, feet and knees positioned hip-width apart, rock your pelvis forwards, raise your bottom and hips off the ground, then slowly lower back down to the ground.
Include some pulses in raised position and pelvic squeezes on every 10th rep.
Superman/bird dog hold
Lying or on all fours in box position, extend your opposing arm and leg, engage the core for 10secs and then swap. You can progress by raising and lowering the extended arm and leg, including pulses, or drawing the knee and elbow in at the same time to meet before extending out.
Stand with your back against a wall, place your feet about two feet out in front of you. Feet should be hip-distance apart. Bending your knees, slide your back down the wall until your knees are at 90°. Hold for up to 10-15secs at a time (and repeat depending on strength).
Once you start to feel stronger you can start introducing some light cardio such as jogging on the spot, more brisk and uphill walks with the buggy, cycling, swimming.
Also try some arm-strength exercises – supported press-ups with knees placed hip-width apart and hands placed slightly wider than shoulder-width apart; tricep dips on the floor with knees bent at 90° and hands facing inward, slowly lower and raise using your arms, or lower yourself from a chair or bench bending at the elbows.
Introduce a few more gentle ab sequences such as a supported plank – with your knees on the ground or hands positioned against a wall at shoulder height and shoulder-width apart, positioning your feet directly behind you so you have one nice long straight line from shoulders to heels holding in your core for 10sec hold-and-release reps.
And tabletop toe taps – lying with your back flat on the floor, position your legs in tabletop position, keeping knees bent at 90°, lower one leg at a time, tapping your toes to the ground and raising back for knees to meet.
When you feel ready to take on more, try some low-impact aerobic activity for 20-30mins at a time. Keep going with the postpartum exercises to help strengthen your abdominal muscles as well as other major muscle groups such as legs, glutes and back.
If anything becomes too much, scale back the duration or intensity to suit. How you feel is the most accurate way to gauge whether you’re ready or not to take things up a notch. You can always build up again once your body feels more capable.
We know that exercise is so important at any stage in our life for improving mood, strengthening and toning muscles, and increasing our overall health. However, it’s more important than ever during the postpartum period to help us feel stronger both physically and mentally.
Top 10 tips for exercising postpartum
- Start slowly
- Be patient and listen to your body
- Focus on the core and pelvic floor first
- Find a workout buddy or local group class (this is a great way to make new friends and get out and about)
- Get plenty of rest when you need it (sleep deprivation takes its toll on energy levels)
- Incorporate strength training (try body weight to begin with and then introduce weights)
- Try yoga and Pilates (great for flexibility, building the core, and relieving stress)
- Mix it up (try different types of activities or exercises to stay motivated)
- Stay hydrated (particularly if breast feeding)
- Remember to stretch (important for flexibility, preventing injuries and stretching tight muscles)