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By the time I reached my seventh month in pregnancy, I was over being pregnant.
I was over trying to find things to fit my growing bump, I was over the extra weight I was carrying, and I was over not liking what I saw in the mirror– suffice it to say, I was ready to start a postpartum workout routine and get my pre-baby body back.
So two days after I got home from the hospital, I decided it would be a good idea to try zipping up my pre-pregnancy jeans.
It was not a good idea; in fact, it drove me to tears.
I don’t know what I expected, attempting to fit into my jeans less than a week after giving birth, but I thought I could at least get them around my waist.
Maybe I heard one too many people telling me they were back to their pre baby weight in two weeks, and maybe I thought that would be the case for me, too.
At two months postpartum when I still wasn’t even close to fitting into my old jeans I knew I’d need to get serious about doing postpartum exercise the right way. After reading a ton, talking to my doctor, and friends in the fitness industry, I knew I needed to focus on strengthening my core and pelvic floor muscles to see some serious results.
It took some hard work, but around 8 months postpartum I finally felt like my postpartum body was starting to resemble my pre-baby body.
Now I’d like to help other moms focus on rebuilding their core strength and muscles post baby, and so I’ve partnered with Sarah Petty, a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and nutritionist expert to bring you the best tips for getting your body back!
1. When should you start working out postpartum?
Just like no two pregnancies are alike, no two postpartum recoveries are alike either. Just because your best friend bounced back to her normal self a mere two weeks after giving birth doesn’t mean that will be the case for you.
Typical guidelines for a vaginal birth state that most women can return to a moderate-intensity workout within 6-8 weeks postpartum. However, It’s always best to delay exercise until after your 6 (sometimes 8) week postpartum visit with your doctor.
During your postpartum checkup let your doctor know you’d like to begin working out again. Let your doctor guide you as to what’s best for your individual situation.
2. Working out before six weeks postpartum
Just because normal workouts are off-limits during the recovery period doesn’t mean you can’t spend time doing things to help strengthen your core and pelvic muscles while you wait to be cleared for normal exercise activity. Here are some gentle activities that are typically permitted during your six weeks postpartum recovery period.
Pelvic floor exercises
Your doctor most likely encouraged you to do some pelvic floor exercises while you were pregnant, but if you’re not familiar with them they work to strengthen the muscles of your pelvic floor.
During pregnancy and birth, the muscles of your pelvic floor stretch. This is why women who’ve given birth sometimes experience bladder leakage while coughing, sneezing, laughing or even exercising.
Unfortunately, pelvic floor muscles won’t just get stronger without any help from you, but the good news is it’s actually relatively easy to strengthen these muscles again!
How to perform pelvic floor exercises
“Your pelvic floor muscles are like the foam that holds up flowers in an arrangement. Without the foam, the flowers sag to the side, says Sarah. After childbirth, pelvic floor muscles tend to be weak, like flower foam that’s been overused. These exercises will help strengthen your muscles to keep everything in the right place.”
Below Sarah details the correct way to perform pelvic floor exercises:
- Sit cross-legged on the floor or a mat. Lengthen your spine by imagining there is a string suspended along your spine that leads up through the top of your head.
- Now check in with your hip bones. You should be able to feel them pressing into the floor. Squeeze one side, then the other, then both. When you squeeze both sizes, notice how the muscles around your vagina are squeezing as well.
“If you can’t feel them yet, imagine that you really need to use the bathroom but you are miles from one. Squeeze the areas that come to mind, and notice what that feels like. Finally, take a deep breath, allowing your low belly to expand, says Sarah. Hold the breath at the top, then strongly exhale until all the air is gone. Hold the low belly tight towards your hips, then resume breathing normally.”
“In order to hold your low belly tight, it is likely that you engaged your pelvic floor muscles. If they feel weak, that’s ok! It takes time to build back strength,” says Sarah.
Kegels are so easy to do and you can perform them anywhere. Now that you’ve identified your pelvic floor muscles, to perform kegels, you’re simply going to contract the muscles and hold. At first you may just hold the contraction for about 2-3 seconds, but you’ll find if you perform these exercises enough you can work your way up to a 20 second hold. Perform these exercises several times per day.
Pelvic tilts are excellent to regain core strength. Below, Sarah details the correct way to perform pelvic tilts:
- Lie down on a mat with your heels close to your butt and toe pointing away from you. Relax your neck, hands and arms.
- As you lay there in a neutral position, notice how your low back naturally curves away from the floor. It might be touching the floor, but all the pressure is on your hips and middle/upper back.
- Take a deep breath in and allow the belly to expand up towards the ceiling. Hold the breath at the top, tilt your hips up toward the ceiling, and press your low back into the floor.
- Exhale and maintain the position as you squeeze your butt for 5 seconds and pull your low belly down toward your spine. Return to your neutral position and repeat at least 5 times.
Breathing techniques to tighten abs
Did you know proper breathing techniques can help to strengthen your core?
Everything gets stretched out when you have a baby– especially your core muscles. And your deepest core muscles, the transverse abdominis, need to be strengthened and activated post-baby.
Take five minutes each day and use some simple breathing techniques to tighten your abs. This is an especially great step for any mamas who are experiencing diastasis recti (more on this below). Here’s the best video I found to show you exactly how to breathe correctly to strengthen your abs.
How to do diaphragm breaths
Sarah details out the proper way to do diaphragm breaths below:
- Lay flat on a mat and exhale completely, allowing your belly to drop in toward your spine. Then inhale slowly through your nose, noticing how your belly rises.
- Hold the breath at the top, then exhale with short spurts of air through your mouth. Take a normal reset breath, then repeat this exercise 5 more times.
- The rise and fall of your belly is caused by the diaphragm pushing and pulling to make way for the lungs. Each time your force air out in short spurts, you are pulsing your diaphragm.
3. When can you start going on walks after giving birth?
Unfortunately, there’s no right answer to this question as every recovery is different– sorry, mama! During birth I tore, so my doctor told me to not walk up stairs more than once a day for the first seven days. After the first week I went out a few times but felt very tired, very quickly. If you’d like to begin walking and after you’ve gotten an okay from your doc, here’s some tips to ease back into it:
“Walking is a fabulous way to improve your energy and stamina post-birth. Once you get the all-clear from your doctor, you can start. This is one of the safest exercises, and I recommend only doing walking and pelvic floor exercises for several weeks until you feel strong enough to try something more intense,” says Sarah.
- Wear supportive shoes, even when going out to run errands.
- Don’t stand on your feet too long.
- Listen to your body, if you start to feel pain/week/tired, stop. This is not the time to “push” yourself.
- Start slowly– you may just want to walk up and down your driveway for a couple days. From there, build to 10 minutes, and then 20.
- Try to only walk on a flat surface until you feel comfortable enough to walk on a slight incline.
- Remember to practice kegels while walking!
4. Check for diastasis recti
If you’ve lost all your baby weight but still have a pooch that looks like you’re still pregnant, you might have a condition called diastasis recti.
During pregnancy, your uterus stretches to accommodate your growing baby, which causes your rectus muscles to separate, leaving a gap between your ab muscles that causes a belly pooch.
Diastasis recti is actually pretty common, and it turns out about two-thirds of women have this condition, myself included.
How to check for diastasis recti
It’s pretty easy to check to see if you have diastasis recti and you can perform this simple test from your home. Here’s how Sarah recommends you do it:
- Lie on your back on a flat surface with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor
- Gently lift your head and shoulders up (don’t crane your neck!) and press your ribs toward your hips.
- Put two fingers horizontally across your belly button and apply moderate pressure. Keep squeezing your abs as much as you can so they will be more noticable. Repeat this process just above and below your belly button.
- If you don’t have diastasis recti you will feel the walls of your abdominal muscles squeezing your two fingers. If you are able to fit three or more fingers within the gap, you have diastasis recti.
- The more fingers you can fit into the gap, the more severe of a case you have.
What exercises you should avoid if you have diastasis?
“Any exercise that makes your belly poof out because it’s not quite strong enough to hold steady, like weighted squats, all kinds of sit-ups, all ab machines, double leg raises or leg raises with an exercise ball, and bicycles,” says Sarah.
5. Start back slowly
After you’ve received the green light from your doc it’s best to start out slow. Walking, moderately-intense yoga and pilates are all great first activities post-baby. To get the best results, you’ll want to focus on activating the pelvic floor and learning how to breathe correctly during your workout.
Listen to your body during your first several workouts– if you experience any pain, dizziness, or bleeding stop immediately and see your doctor. Exercising in your postpartum period is not the time to push yourself. Focus on slowly rebuilding core strength instead.
6. Breastfeeding burns calories, but won’t leave you looking toned
I breastfeed exclusively until my daughter was six months, and during that time I dropped to about 5 pounds below my pre-pregnancy weight. And while I was thrilled with the number that the scale was reflecting, I wasn’t so excited about the way I looked in the mirror.
It’s true, breastfeeding, burns a lot of calories, but if your goal is to tone up, you’ll need to add in some strength training to the mix.
I know a lot of mamas– myself included– worry about the link between exercise and decreased milk supply. Luckily, there have been several studies that pointed to the fact that moderate exercise has absolutely no impact on a mother’s milk supply.
With very intense (exhaustive) exercise, there are studies showing that lactic acid is increased in breast milk for up to 90 minutes after an intense workout is performed. Lactic acid is simply a substance your muscles make during exercise and is completely harmless to babies. Some women report this makes their milk sour and therefore not desirable to their nursing baby, but there aren’t studies to back that up.
If you are at all worried about it, simply exercise right after you breastfeed and any traces of lactic acid should be completely out of your system by the time your baby needs to nurse again.
Ready to take the postpartum exercise plunge? I’ve partnered with Sarah, a NASM Certified Personal Trainer to bring you a free postpartum workout. Sign up below!