How to start exercising after having a baby, according to a trainer
Get back into it—safely—with these tips.
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Working out when you’re pregnant can be a challenge. You’re dealing with a growing body, changing hormones, and a lot of planning—but most people know this. What we don’t talk about as much is what it’s like to work out the first couple months after you give birth. Your body feels different, you’re probably really, really, tired, and, oh yeah, you’ve got a whole new person in your life to take care of.
But exercising as a new parent—as soon as you’re ready for it—is also one of the best things you can do for yourself and your child. I’m a certified pre and postnatal coach (CPPC) and a NASM certified strength coach and I specialize in training women who want to get stronger and feel empowered through strength training, which is more important than ever during the postpartum period. With exercise, you may feel more comfortable and capable doing the day to day new mom tasks like rocking, swaying, bouncing, holding, feeding, and picking up a new infant. Here’s what I suggest to prepare yourself for that first postnatal workout.
Get cleared by your doctor
The most important thing to do before you get started is to get your doctor’s OK for exercise, which typically happens at your six-week checkup. However, the timeline can vary. People can often return to most regular activities about six weeks after giving birth, depending on whether you had a vaginal delivery or C-section (C-section recoveries tend to take longer), but complete healing can take up to six months or even a full year.
There are many factors that play into your recovery. Some of these include how active you were before pregnancy, the ease or difficulty during the prenatal period and birth itself, the duration of the delivery, any injuries you sustained during the birth, and the total number of births you have had.
Set goals that align with your new body
There are a lot of benefits to postpartum exercise. Working out reduces stress and anxiety, promotes better sleep, and may aid in preventing postpartum depression, according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG). It also helps to strengthen the core muscles and the pelvic floor, which experiences a lot of added stress during the pregnancy and birth. Strength training will also improve your overall posture and alignment, which is especially important because your body shifted to make room for the baby during pregnancy. Realignment is essential in allowing your body to function as optimally as possible.
However, you’ll need to figure out a workout schedule that works for you (and your baby). You can begin with a 30-minute session twice a week or two separate 15-minute sessions spread throughout the day two or three times a week—some find success with shorter workouts throughout the day when they find time to spare.
You should also aim to be in tune with your body and its needs. In the postnatal phase, hormone levels continue to change, your sleep schedule is affected by your baby’s feeding schedule, your breasts may be heavy from lactation, and you may find yourself with less energy overall. Check in with yourself before each workout and adjust the intensity as you go along. If something doesn't feel good or causes pain, don’t do it, especially if you feel pain in your pelvic floor or, if you had a C-section, near your scar.
If you didn’t get much sleep the night before, consider doing some gentle yoga or stretching, going on a walk, or simply making it a rest day. And if you constantly feel exhausted after your workouts instead of rejuvenated and energized, then you’re probably doing too much too soon. Perhaps most importantly, don’t put too much pressure on losing weight quickly or feel like you need to “get your body back.” Your body didn’t go anywhere! Your body created life and took care of you and your baby during your pregnancy, so you should feel proud of what you were able to do.
Consider your workout wardrobe
Depending on how your body changed during your pregnancy, you may or may not have to get a whole new set of workout apparel. You can wear whatever athleisure you were comfortable in during pregnancy until you return to your old exercise gear or decide to get some new pieces.
One thing most people will benefit from, though, is investing in a nursing sports bra. You’ll definitely want something with enough support for the increased volume of your breasts, especially if you are breastfeeding. The nursing sports bras will make feeding or pumping easier and more efficient if you need to do so during your workouts. Some good options include the Go with the Flow Bra from Senita Athletics, which has a large shelf for ample support and a quick-release clasp for easy access, or this Touch Loom Nursing Bra, which has no padding or wires for ultimate comfort, but still feels supportive.
High-waisted leggings will also be your best friend—look for a pair with a stretchy but not too loose band, so your belly stays supported without a digging-in feeling from the waistband. Some great options include the postpartum line from Blanqi, like its high-waist postpartum leggings or shorts, both of which have a waistband intended to support loose skin. Any high waisted leggings you wore during your pregnancy will also do the trick. Blanqi’s postpartum tank tops are also convenient for your workouts because the stretchy fabric hugs your abdomen to support weakened muscles and allows the neckline to pull down for nursing.
You’ll also want comfortable, stable workout shoes—which may require getting a different size shoe, if your feet grew during pregnancy. You can simply go for a larger (or wider) version of your favorite athletic shoe; however, some people like going for an option that offers a little more support. In that case, you might like a “maximal” running or cross-training shoe, such as the Hoka One One Clifton or Nike Air Zooms or ZoomX, which provide extra cushioning to make your feet feel protected without being weighed down.
Recognize how your body feels different
You may have already noticed that your pelvic floor—the group of muscles in the base of your pelvis—has undergone some changes. This area withstands a lot of strain during the third trimester and the birthing process, so pelvic dysfunction, which could mean urinary or fecal incontinence, is common after pregnancy whether you have a vaginal delivery or C-section. You’re probably also experiencing diastasis recti, a separation of the outermost layer of your abdomen or the “six-pack” muscles, that almost all people experience during and after pregnancy.
However, there are many exercises you can do to mitigate incontinence, strengthen the support of your internal organs, and assist in core stabilization. Kegels, glute bridges, and dead bugs will all benefit you. When you’re doing these exercises, it can be useful to perform a breathing exercise called the connection breath, which can help activate and relax your pelvic floor. Begin by inhaling, letting both your abdomen and rib cage rise. Then, imagine that your pelvic floor is an elevator. As you inhale, your “elevator” rises to the top floor. As you exhale let your abdomen and rib cage fall, and let your pelvic floor settle back down to the “bottom floor.” You can do this while exercising or on its own. If you find you’re still struggling with incontinence or discomfort in your stomach or pelvic area after a few weeks, you may want to work with a physical therapist who specializes in prenatal and postpartum.
Start with walking
When you feel comfortable, you can begin taking daily walks. Don’t worry about your steps or speed; instead, focus on getting moving and how being in motion makes you feel. Build up to a 10- to 15-minute daily walk, solo or pushing your baby in a stroller on flat ground and at a leisurely pace. (If you have a treadmill, you can do it there, too—but without the stroller.) If you’re looking for a stroller, we love the Baby Jogger City Mini GT2—it’s lightweight but keeps kids secure, is easy to fold up and transport, and makes a great companion for walking and jogging in the city or suburbs.
Ease muscle tension whenever you can
Relaxin, the hormone that increases during pregnancy to provide room for the baby to grow and ease delivery, can stay present in the body for up to a year after giving birth. This means that flexibility isn’t likely to be a big issue postpartum. However, building strength will provide the support needed to control the flexibility through the entire range of motion and help to combat the increased instability brought on from the changing hormone levels. This includes working on your mobility and stretching—so, at first, you should focus on exercises that will assist in good posture and proper movement patterns. Plus, your body has shifted to make more room for the baby to grow and your breasts have gotten heavier for lactation, so it’s important to account for your new center of gravity. You may also notice hip pain from holding your baby on one hip for long periods of time, so focus on stretching the hips, neck, and back.
Because of this, it can be useful to implement some gentle mobility and stretching exercises such as windshield wipers to restore the range of motion in your hips, hip tucks to offset low back pain, and cat-cows to increase spinal mobility and help you stand taller.
Effective stretching often involves getting down on the floor, which means an exercise mat is vital to protect your joints. We’re big fans of Lululemon’s 5mm reversible mat, which provides a cushioned yet stable foundation for casual stretching and yoga exercises alike.
Increase your cardio mindfully
A high-impact workout like HIIT or running may not be the best option for your first postpartum workout. Even after you’re cleared to exercise, your body is still healing, so heart-thumping movements like burpees and tuck jumps probably won’t feel great. Doing high-impact exercise can also result in bearing down (increased pressure within the abdomen by contracting the abdominal muscles and holding the breath) which could have a negative effect on the pelvic floor and even cause urinary incontinence. It's important to strengthen your deep core stabilizing muscles before you add these back into your routine.
Still, you have options to raise your heart rate. Walking is a great way to get some cardio, and if you’re feeling up to it, you can add on some jogging intervals to ease your way back into running. You can also look into low-impact cardio options, such as riding a stationary bike at a moderate pace or taking a water aerobics class.
As you’re moving, follow the guidelines of the “talk test.” You should be able to carry on a conversation while you are walking. If you can’t, slow down the pace or cut the distance. With all these exercises, you should also stop if you experience urinary leakage or feel significant discomfort in your pelvic floor.
Don’t forget about strength training
Lifting and carrying a baby around is a workout in itself—and that baby’s only going to get heavier. So, when you’re ready to start strength training, it’s important to pick exercises that will carry over into everyday movements, such as squatting down to pick something off the floor, lifting a baby carrier off the ground, twisting with a baby in your arms, reaching into a high cabinet, or pushing a stroller. You can practice efficient pick-ups and put-downs with some classic bodyweight squats, a functional movement that strengthens the lower body, core, and pelvic floor. You can also try kneeling lat pulldowns, either with a cable machine or a resistance band looped around a fixed object over your head. This exercise helps strengthen your back muscles, which will help to pull your shoulders back keeping your posture aligned. Having a strong back is especially important with the added weight to your breasts during this period.
In general, seated, kneeling, or side lying exercises are better options than standing for long periods of time (if standing gives you discomfort) or any belly to floor exercises like planks, pushups, and supermans. It is unlikely that your abdomen has the strength to engage properly in the prone position, especially if you’re experiencing a diastasis that is wider than 3 centimeters. It can also add pressure to the lower back.
If you’re able, a postnatal yoga or Pilates class may also be in order. These postpartum specific workouts seem gentle and easy but can help strengthen the areas of the body that need it after pregnancy, such as the core and lower body, in a safe way. And if an in-person class isn’t an option, you can find many, many classes from trained instructors on YouTube. Make sure that the classes are specifically for postpartum so that the exercises and intensity levels are appropriate for you and your core.
Avoid exercises that can make recovery worse
Each pregnancy is unique, so there are very few hard no-nos when returning to exercise. However, a general rule is to stay away from exercises like crunches that work on the “superficial” abs, which can cause the belly to bulge out and up and put more downward pressure on the pelvic organs. If you were working out during your pregnancy, you were likely told to avoid these exercises for the same reasons. Similarly, you will want to avoid belly to floor movements until your deep stabilizing core muscles are stronger. Just like the crunches these exercises may also cause you to bear down as a means to engage your core, which could worsen diastasis. If you notice this, scale back the intensity so that you don’t leak urine or aggravate your pelvic floor. Continue at a lower weight or resistance until you are able to brace and breathe properly.
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