Guidelines surrounding postpartum exercise are vague, but there are certain elements of exercise every new mom should work into her routine.

By Cassie Shortsleeve
January 11, 2020
Credit: yulkapopkova/Getty

Having a baby is a major physical feat. Pregnancy is nine months of building a baby, labor in and of itself can last hours or days (believe it), and postpartum recovery has to be balanced with a new 24-hour job of caring for an infant. Read: It's exhausting. So, it goes without saying that rest is a necessity.

But if you love being active or have a particular workout that was a part of your pre-baby routine that you miss, it's also easy to be itching to get back to feeling like your old self with your old workouts.

But when a new mom can get back to the studio is a tough question for experts to answer. Traditionally, women have been "cleared" by their doctor to return to exercise between six and 10 weeks postpartum depending on the method of delivery (vaginally or via C-section). But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recently came out with recommendations that said some women are capable of resuming "physical activity" within days of delivery. (Read more on these updated guidelines here: How Soon Can You Start Exercising After Giving Birth?) FWIW, you can also begin pelvic floor exercises pretty much right after giving birth, accordingly to the ACOG, but even that messaging is a little vague.

Also, "physical activity" might mean something a lot different (and less intense) than you think—and your specific return to exercise will depend on everything from how you gave birth to what your fitness levels were pre- and during pregnancy.

Still confused? Ultimately, you "must listen and tune into your body to know what your individual timeline is," explains Brooke Cates, a pre- and postnatal exercise specialist and founder of pre- and postnatal fitness company The Bloom Method. After all, only you know if a certain movement is too much, too soon.

When you're ready to start moving again these pointers—mental health tips, postpartum exercises, and common mistakes—can guide the way. (And in case you need the reminder, always touch base with your doctor—who knows details about your pertinent health history—about any postpartum exercise questions or concerns.)

What to Consider When Building a Postpartum Exercise Routine

First things first: "As simple as it may sound, spending time in bed with your new baby, resting, and breathing are the fastest ways to get back to a fitness routine, regardless of whether you were active during pregnancy or not," explains Sarah Bradford, a personal trainer, pre- and post-natal specialist, and founder of The LUNA Method, a new online program offering pre- and postnatal fitness.

In part, that's because diaphragmatic breathing (a kind of deep breathing that connects you to your core) is one of the fundamental movements postpartum women should master.

Keeping an eye on your posture and how you move during the day also plays a huge role in the postpartum healing process and restoration of function post-baby, she says. This is especially true if you're breastfeeding (and therefore, a bit hunched over for hours a day).

If you're breastfeeding it's also important to know that levels of a hormone called relaxin levels (which loosens joints, ligaments, and connective tissue throughout the body to prepare for childbirth) remain elevated for in the postpartum months, says Bradford. Relaxin can trick you into thinking you're bendier than usual in yoga, which can contribute to injuries if you don't take the time to regain your balance and stability postpartum. An increase in this hormone can also slow the healing of issues such as Diastasis Recti, which happens when your rectus abdominis muscles separate.

Remember to take things slowly, too. "The lack of patience in the first few months postpartum can set you back much further than if you can move through a recovery protocol," says Cates. Scaling your workout routine—from rehab to gentle walking to yoga to light strength work, for example—is key. "I often tell women that simply because your body isn't showing signs of a pregnancy-related injury (Diastasis Recti, incontinence, or prolapse) doesn't mean these injuries cannot show up through returning to exercise too fast and without the proper care to your body." Jumping into certain exercises such as running or heavy lifting can place too much pressure on the pelvic floor too soon, potentially worsening pelvic floor dysfunction or contributing to injury, notes Bradford.

3 Things That Should Be In Every Postpartum Exercise Workout

Keeping all of this in mind, experts often encourage the below as a part of every postpartum exercise routine:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing. While traditional core exercises (crunches, planks, bicycles, and leg lifts) can actually increase intra-abdominal pressure, inhibiting the healing of Diastasis Recti or pelvic floor dysfunction, other core work can help you rehab. Diaphragmatic breathing, for one, gets your inner core muscles (including the deep transverse abdominal muscle) to work together and can be started immediately after giving birth, says Bradford. Lying down or sitting up, deepen your breath, drawing it into the small of your back. You should feel your ribcage expand out 360 degrees. Exhale and let everything contract back in. "Your breath has the ability to bring that connection between the core and the pelvic floor [the muscles that support your pelvic organs] back 'online' and is always the first step all postpartum women should take in returning to exercise and movement," says Cates. Note: It may take moms who gave birth via c-section a little longer to regain their core strength or even feel ready to begin restorative pelvic floor and core exercises. (Related: Abs Exercises That Can Help Heal Diastasis Recti)

  • Gentle pelvic floor work. The muscles of the pelvic floor can be stretched or even injured during childbirth and connecting to these muscles post-birth can be tricky, notes Cates. To try to connect, attempt a simple kegel exercise. Engage the muscles of your pelvic floor and try to hold that for three to eight seconds then release, suggests Cates. It might not happen the first time you try, but in a few weeks of practice, your connection will deepen, she notes. Other pelvic floor work to try: On the exhale of a diaphragmatic breath, try to apply some resistance as if you're blowing up a balloon or blowing out several candles, suggests Bradford. At the same time, draw your pelvic floor in as if you're closing your pelvis around a marble and lift the pelvic floor upward as if picking the marble up off of the floor, she says. Inhale and release the pelvic floor and core as you fill up your ribcage with the breath. As you progress your pelvic floor work, try gentle restorative exercises such as heel marches, side-lying core activation, pelvic tilts, and glute bridges, suggests Bradford.

  • Functional movements with functional breathing. Try to bring awareness to your core and pelvic floor throughout your day by working diaphragmatic breathing into activities like getting out of bed or picking up your baby. "When you begin to implement our core awareness in your daily movements, you provide better support and stability to your pelvis and spine thus continuing to heal and rehab your body," says Cates.

Changing the Way You Think About Exercise

If the above doesn't *sound* like much of a workout, it's important to know that it is. "These exercises are doing so much for your body and the function of your core and pelvic floor and will ultimately help you get back in shape faster," notes Bradford.

That's part of a larger postpartum message that goes something like this: You're likely going to need to re-think the way you think about fitness during this period (looking at you, HIIT enthusiast or high-achiever). After all, when you do start working out again, you're going to be facing new obstacles: sleep deprivation, childcare needs, exhaustion, a different body, a time crunch. (Related: Everything You Should Know About Postpartum Weight Loss)

Also, "those first several workouts after baby can sometimes feel frustrating, especially if you are used to being active," notes Bradford. "You may feel weak, lose steam faster, and get sore easily."

It's easy to feel defeated—as if you are starting all over again, says Bradford. If you do get into a funk, try to take away any ego and, instead, honor your experience (of growing a baby, becoming a mom, and reflecting on everything you went through) and take the time to heal and restrengthen your body. "When moms take the rehab route, they always tell us that they felt stronger than ever getting back into the gym," says Cates. (Related: Emily Skye Admits She Doesn't Feel Like Working Out Most of the Time)

Of course, the other side of that coin is that just because you're going to start slow, focus on the basics, and navigate new waters, your return to exercise and rehab work doesn't have to be easy per se. "When you're properly using the core in recovery-based exercises, you can obtain that instant gratification, 'muscle-burning' sensation that some women crave in exercise," says Cates. "Core recovery exercises can be challenging and safe at the same time." See these post-pregnancy core strengthening exercises with Emily Skye as proof.

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