1. When it comes to postpartum fitness, stop being mislead by mainstream society telling women to jump right back into intense exercise after giving birth. Yes losing baby fat as quickly as possible is important, but managing your systemic and orthopedic health is MORE important.
2. There are serious risks of complications in the postpartum window, including vaginal prolapse, urinary incontinence, and diastasis recti, not to mention a host of orthopedic issues women may also be susceptible to during this 3-6 month period. These risks should be respected, period.
3. When it comes to safely training in the postpartum fitness window, prioritizing time of healing, core and postural strengthening along with nutrition are pivotal parts of long term success.
4. What you do in the postpartum fitness time period is an indicator of long term form and function, so stay the course, know your contraindications, and more than anything respect the process of healing. Remember, you just had a baby!
Congratulations on your new little one! We all know what it means for your sleep, but what does it mean for your postpartum fitness? During this time period your body is more vulnerable to certain risks, like pelvic floor issues (prolapse and sneeze pee) and diastasis (abdominal gaping and pooch belly), because of the changes that happen during pregnancy. With the right preventative measures these risks can be significantly decreased or even prevented altogether! These four important tips will seamlessly guide you back from having a baby to working out without worry. Time to maximize that postpartum fitness window!
Postpartum Fitness Problems
Society tells us that we should be able to have a baby and then dive back into exercise just like before, or even harder. Look at the popularity of baby boot camps. Stars show off their six week flat postpartum bellies like they were never pregnant. All this media bombardment makes you think, “I’ve got to hit the gym” – but what should you do?
This “bounce back” mentality gives the deception that pregnancy is not something that needs a recovery process, but that’s simply not true. Pregnancy is a dramatic change for the body – lots of moving, shifting and stretching. That moving and shifting needs a time period to readjust and it also needs specific exercises.
Rushing back into a general exercise routine can cause lasting damage on your body. Here are four specific guidelines to help you safely through this postpartum fitness period.
#1 Give Yourself a Specific Amount of Time for Recovery
A time period to focus on postnatal exercise should last between 3-6 months. Use this time to help your body heal and get all your muscles back in working order, which includes your pelvic floor and inner core. Focusing on building this internal system will allow you to lift heavier and workout harder than you ever did pre-baby, as well as prevent pelvic floor issues, low back strains and other common postpartum fitness aches and pains.
There is still a crazy surge of hormones going on post baby that continue to cause ligament laxity. This ligament laxity leaves you more vulnerable to injury. Especially your pelvic floor!
Running and jumping are in your future, but don’t run in the first four months, period. If you are breastfeeding, wait six months for any strenuous jumping and sprinting. Due to the hormones, breastfeeding slows down the healing process for the pelvic floor and the risk of prolapse does not outweigh the benefit of high impact exercise.
During this vulnerable time period, you are more at risk for pelvic organ prolapse (internal organs start to descend into the vagina) and pelvic floor leaks. Women are often “cleared” at their six week check up and then suffer prolapse well after because they start back into the wrong kind of exercise too aggressively and too soon.
Prolapse feels like a heaviness or pressure down on your pelvic floor. Some women describe it as feeling something in their vagina, like a golf ball or the sensation of a tampon wanting to fall out. Mild prolapse often has no symptoms and women do not know they are suffering from it until it gets worse. When you are dealing with something where the early warning signs are often hidden, it’s best to play it safe. I do not want to scare you, but simply make sure you are well informed of the risks for high impact exercise too soon post baby.
Pay close attention after exercise or at the end of the day to any sensation of pressure in your vagina. Don’t run or do jumping exercises until you no longer feel this pressure. That’s a sign you could be suffering from prolapse and not realize it.
Running and jumping too soon is simply not worth the risk. Your pelvic floor just took a beating. It was carrying around a lot of extra weight and needs time to recover. If you want to increase your risk of prolapse post baby, then by all means, run too soon. I know you are anxious to get back out there and have the stress relief of running. I get that. But, 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.
What To Do During This Time Instead:
Be patient and give your body time to heal. Take a deep breath, literally, and go find a nice hill to push that baby stroller up instead of running and jumping. Focus on pushing up the hill with your butt muscles and keeping your chin tucked. This will help with both hip and core activation in a safe way for you to build lasting strength but give your body time to heal.
Here’s why walking uphill helps your pelvic floor recover:
And also a quick way to check if you may have diastasis:
#2 Start Working Your Core for Postpartum Fitness but Don’t Front Load
It’s smart to learn how to check yourself for diastasis (separation of the front of the abdominal wall). Pregnancy causes your belly to stretch. There are preventative measures you can take but fast stretching to allow for a growing baby is definitely a risk factor for diastasis. Front loading (front planks, crunches, sit ups, roll ups, v sits, 100s, pushups, etc.) can not only keep a diastasis from healing, they can make it worse. Keep in mind, a diastasis is a whole body issue. How you carry and move your body. When your diastasis is closed you are free to start all the front loading exercises you want. With the right exercises your abs will be strong again!
What To Do During This Time Instead:
First, determine if you have a diastasis. This will be your starting point to monitor your abs. Here’s exactly how to check yourself for a diastasis:
Second, work on deep breathing to activate your core along with other non-front loading ab exercises. One of my favorite exercises is done on all fours, and aids in abdominal activation and closure of diastasis. Check it out below:
Use the diastasis check every couple of weeks to monitor your progress. When it’s closed, you are free to do any and every abdominal exercise you desire. For more on that, feel free to check out my program for the Core, Hips and Pelvis Floor.
#3 Strengthen Your Posture Over Time
Women adapt to the weight of pregnancy in different ways. Because of the extra weight in the front, it’s hard not to let your head come forward. Due to the abdominal stretching and lack of core strength, your glutes will clench to try and stabilize. The baby pushes up on your diaphragm, shutting down proper diaphragm motion and causing your ribs to flare. All of these posture compensations during pregnancy decrease core, glute, and pelvic floor strength. These are key muscles that you desperately need for exercising without injury. These postural compensations basically change how your body coordinates itself. You need this coordination to run, jump, and lift heavy, or you will suffer injuries down the road.
What To Do During This Time Instead:
Of course posture and strength are not things that bounce back overnight, but targeting specific areas of the body to start the reeducation process is pivotal to long term success, especially if you plan on getting back to top notch postpartum fitness! Here are some key areas to start focusing on right away:
Head, Neck and Shoulders
This is especially true if you are breast feeding, which requires lots of hunching forward posture that can cause aches and pains.
Try these three exercises to completely reverse the forward posture from pregnancy and breastfeeding:
Chin Tuck and Head Lift
Your diaphragm is a huge central muscle in your body that controls how your body coordinates through the middle. Specifically, it turns on your abs and plays off the pelvic floor, creating a strong reactive pelvic floor. It also helps close your diastasis and relieves neck and shoulder pain from a shallow breathing pattern.
Check out this simple ‘how to’ for the diaphragm to learn how deep breathing turns on your core:
The Hips and Pelvis
Now is such a great time to focus on making sure your glutes are firing properly so that when you do hit that squat rack in a few weeks, you will be advancing in weight in no time like my friend Lindsay Bloom of JRx featured in the video below who was six months postpartum when this video was shot:
#4 Eat Healthy & Desire But Don’t Rush Getting Back To Pre-Baby Weight
This is a really hard time in your life, and putting excess stress on yourself while you are having to keep a small human happy is just too much. Great nutrition is the key for surviving. Sleep deprivation makes you want simple carbs because it’s your body’s pick-me-up, but in the long run, this will leave you feeling worse.
What To Do During This Time Instead:
Fight the urge to grab that simple carb-loaded snack and grab an apple and some nuts instead. Same great boost but without the aftereffects. Focus on putting good food in your body and get moving, then wait until the sleep deprivation has subsided a bit before you put too much pressure on yourself to lose the baby weight. This will be a process and feeling guilty or feeling like a failure only makes it worse and often leads to poor decisions like running or working out too hard before your body is ready. Patience and being in it for those long term results is worth it.
This is such a wonderful time in your life to soak up all those great baby snuggles and smells and take care of your body. Taking the time for complete healing now leads to a full recovery and dramatically decreases your chances of suffering from any negative lasting effects of pregnancy. By following these 4 simple tips: give yourself a specific amount of time to recover, work on your core, focus on rebuilding your posture, and eat healthy options, along with the exercises provided your body will heal faster and more completely. This is especially important for the long term health of your abs and pelvic floor for accomplishing hard workouts and making huge strength gains down the road!
About The Author
Dr. Sarah E. Duvall, PT, DPT, CPT, CNC
Sarah Ellis Duvall, Physical Therapist and Personal Trainer, has spent the last 15 years utilizing her unique approach to create strength and cure injuries. She is passionate about women’s health and helps women in their quest to become strong and feel great.