Postnatal exercises can be confusing to wrap your head around. While we know having a baby is a wonderful thing, and in the early weeks, the focus is mostly on feeding and sleeping, once you’re in the swing of things, you may feel ready to get out and exercise, especially if it was a big part of your life before the birth. The key is not to do too much too soon, but how do you know what’s safe and what should be avoided?
We called on Pip Black, and Joan Murphy, founders of studio Move Your Frame and Mumhood, an online workout platform for new moms and moms-to-be, and Anna Victoria, the creator of the Fit Body App and certified trainer, to share and answer all the postnatal exercise questions that go through many new moms' minds. Keep scrolling for this expert guide to postnatal exercises and the 7 most important move you can start doing right away.
Meet the Expert
Wait For Your Six Week Check
You must leave your six-week check understanding how your body is recovering from your pregnancy and birth. Ask your GP to check for your ab separation so that you know what you’re working with, and ask them to check any stitches, etc. If anything isn’t recovering entirely as it should be, you need to understand how you can help with this, but also, this will affect what type of exercises you can start to do.
Reaching Out For More Help
Book to see a women’s health physiotherapist if you are still at all unsure. To put things into perspective, every woman in France gets 10 free physio sessions post-birth to help with rehab. If this isn’t offered to you, but you have significant ab separation, or you want to ensure that your recovery means the chance of issues such as incontinence are less likely in the future, we would suggest visiting an expert who can help you understand the current state of your body and help you with your rehabilitation.
Start With Baby Steps
Little and often is the best way to start your postnatal exercise journey. Don’t put yourself under any pressure to lose your baby weight quickly, especially if you are breastfeeding. You will see significantly better results long-term from creating excellent foundations, with a strong pelvic floor and deep core connection. The key to these exercises is little and often, so think about doing 10 to 15 minutes a day at least four times a week. This will be much more beneficial than a 60-minute blowout once a week.
Be Careful of Ab Separation
This is so important! Make sure you’re not doing any exercises that will aggravate any ab separation. Any exercise that causes “doming” (where you see a ridge down the center of your tummy if you come into a crunch position) should be avoided. If you can see this happening, you need to make modifications to the exercise. As a rule of thumb, no movements that work your “six-pack muscles,” e.g., crunches, should be performed if you still have any ab separation. These exercises will cause the muscles to stretch further apart and make it much harder to get rid of your baby pouch in the long term. We have lots of information on this on our Instagram, @mum_hood.
Start Working Your Pelvic Floor
Start your pelvic floor exercises straight after birth, and never stop! There’s no reason you can’t start your pelvic floor exercises straight after birth. You should really aim to do these daily, so pop some Post-It notes around your house, so every time you see them, you are reminded to do them. If you find it hard to know if you’re doing these exercises correctly, you can invest in a device such as the Kegelbell ($99), which is like a gym for your vagina!
Join A Class
We can’t stress enough how important it is to find a class near you so you can socialize with other new moms, meet like-minded moms, and know that you’re working out in the presence of an expert who can ensure you’re performing exercises correctly. If you’re not able to get to a class physically, online classes are a great alternative.
Keep It Low Impact For Now
Keep exercise low-impact for the first six months. Whilst you’re still in your rehab process, it’s a good idea to keep your exercise low-impact. This doesn’t need to mean low intensity: You can still get a sweat on and get your heart-rate pumping; it’s more about reducing pressure on the pelvic floor before you’ve found your connection post-birth. You can still attend HIIT-style classes, but take the low-impact option, which any good instructor will be able to provide. Another reason to keep exercise low-impact is that the hormone relaxin (which helps the ligaments relax during pregnancy and birth) is still present in the body for six months post-birth, or until you finish breast-feeding.
Pick It Up After Six Months
Once you’re back to feeling like your old self and the pelvic floor is feeling strong, invest in a running stroller. It’s such a great way of multitasking and fitting in exercise when you don’t have childcare to hand. A run around the park while baby sleeps is one of the best ways to start the day, and once you’ve invested, it’s FREE!
Postpartum Exercises From Anna Victoria
Proper breathing is the foundation for all exercise. Diaphragmatic breathing can help to rebuild the mind-muscle connection for coordinated breath that may be lost during pregnancy. This exercise will teach you how to use your deep core stability muscles (called your transverse abdominis or TVA for short) with your pelvic floor to allow for full breaths in and out. The transverse abdominis is an important muscle because it acts like a corset for our abdomen. It can help with postpartum symptoms such as diastasis recti and support our low back to lift our ever-growing babies safely. Now, let us chat briefly on the pelvic floor. This group of muscles line the bottom of the pelvis and act to hold up our internal organs and support our entire body in weight-bearing.
With pregnancy, these muscles (like our core muscles) may take different shapes and lose some of that coordination they once had. This can lead to leaking, painful sex, pressure, constipation, and other pelvic floor dysfunction.
The diaphragm, TVA, and pelvic floor all work together for proper breathing. You can think about a piston system if that is helpful.
- As you breathe in, the diaphragm contracts to descend, the TVA relaxes so you can fill the abdomen with air, and the pelvic floor will both relax and descend.
- When you breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes to elevate, the TVA contracts to help force air out, and the pelvic floor will contract with an up and in motion. So how do you know if you are contracting your TVA? It is hard to feel (especially postpartum and even more so for post-c-section), so do not be discouraged if you do not feel it right away - this takes practice!
- Place your hands midway between your belly button and your pubis. Now, think about bringing your two hip bones closer together. Did you feel the movement below your hands (you may also feel the pelvic floor contract - this is supposed to happen)?
- Some other helpful cues will be to mimic “blowing out a candle” from this area under the hands and even to laugh - yes, laughing! Both these will help “automatically” engage this area.
- Once you feel the muscle contract, try to engage the muscle on its own with just your breath. You can try this move in multiple positions.
- Since this move is the foundation of all other exercises, make sure to master it in lying, sitting, standing, and moving!
Incorporating lower body movement with diaphragmatic breathing. Since we will have to use diaphragmatic breathing throughout life —lifting, working out, walking, moving—it is important to practice coordinating the breath with lower body movement. This will be challenging at first, so only perform as many as possible with proper form on each leg. Listen to your body during your postpartum journey - it usually knows best.
- Lay down with your back flat on the ground. The setup is essential with this exercise, so you want to make sure you take time to relax your upper body and achieve a neutral spine with your feet flat on the ground.
- Start with practicing a few diaphragm breaths to warm up. When you are ready, inhale and slide one heel out, straightening your leg. Let the ground hold the weight of the leg.
- Pause at the extension for a split second. Now, exhale, sliding the heel back towards your bottom. You will want to initiate the movement of the leg with the deep core muscles (TVA).
- Feel how the core, pelvic floor, and leg muscles all work together to perform this movement.
Bridges With Baby
With pregnancy, the front of our hips may become tight, and the booty might not want to activate. This can lead to that “mom butt.” Bridging is a great exercise to combat this! It helps to stretch the front of our hips actively while getting the glutes working again. This move is also a great foundational exercise to perform before more complex movements, such as squatting.
- Lay down on the ground on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, roughly hip-width apart. As with all other exercises - try a few diaphragmatic breaths before performing in this position.
- When you are ready, take a deep inhale, then on the exhale, contract your core/pelvic floor/glutes to lift your bottom off the ground. Only go as high as you can while keeping a neutral spine - no arching allowed. You will really want to feel the lift coming from your glute muscles, so you may need to squeeze your butt cheeks before lifting and/or place your hands on your bum for some “tactile” feedback.
- Once you reach the top of the bridge, pause for a split second, and then inhale on the way down. Repeat as many as your body will allow you to in this moment of your postpartum journey up to 10 total.
- Once this move gets easy, you can even include your little one as added weight. Prop you baby up on your hips to provide added resistance to your bridge, plus your baby will love some more mom and me time!
Squats With Baby
Although more complex, this move will be hugely important for safely performing lifting tasks throughout the day - including your ever-growing baby! This move is super functional to train how to lift properly to protect your back and strengthen your legs. This move also will help open the front of the hips and activate the “posterior chain,” aka your glutes, back, and core that can be affected with pregnancy and postpartum.
- Practice diaphragmatic breathing in standing for a few seconds. When you are ready, inhale and begin the squat down.
- You will want to first hinge at your hips and then start bending your knees as if you are sitting back into a chair. It is important to see your toes throughout the squat and make sure your knees are tracking over the second toes (straight ahead).
- Once you drop to the bottom of the squat, engage the glutes, thinking about pushing the ground away from you as you exhale back up to standing.
- Perform as many repetitions as you can with proper form, up to 10 total. Once this move gets easy, you can even include your little one as added weight.
- Hold your baby out in front of you for a counterbalance weight, or include the baby as a press-up at the top of the squat! Let your creativity guide you!
Postpartum Exercises From Mumhood
Back Extension with Lat Pull Down and Swimming
These are both fantastic postnatally as they target the mid and upper back, which helps to counteract all the forward-leaning movements you do when looking after a newborn (feeding, carrying, pushing a stroller, changing diapers, etc.)
- Both exercises start in the same position, lying face down with arms and legs outstretched.
- Keep shoulders down away from your ears and a long neck (continue to look down towards the floor), engage through your core by pulling your belly button up into your spine and then use your back muscles to lift your upper body off the floor.
- From here, pull your elbows down towards your waist, keeping your body nice and still (lat pulldown) repeat five times, and then return to the start position. Aim for four to six sets.
- Or keeping your upper body nice and still alternate the arms in a swimming motion (Swimming). Try for 15 seconds before returning to the start position. Aim for four to six sets.
Thread the Needle
A great exercise to stretch around the shoulders, perfect for when you've been carrying a baby around all day.
- Starting on all fours, hands directly under your shoulders, knees and your hips.
- Start with your right arm, reaching it long and taking it up to the sky. Hold it here, to feel a great stretch across the chest, then thread this arm under the left arm, back of the hand to the floor, reaching the arm as far away as you can. Again hold this stretch with your shoulder resting on the floor.
- Then flow freely from each movement to the other in time with your breath, breathing in as you reach up, and out as you thread the needle.
Shoulders and Chest Stretches
Another stretch great for new moms who are likely to get tight chests and shoulders.
- Start with a shoulder stretch, clasping hands in front of the body (you can do this sitting or standing)
- Take your elbows out as if you were hugging a ball and let your neck relax down. Keeping the elbows wide, imagine that someone is pulling your hands away, and you'll feel a great stretch across the shoulders and back.
- For the chest stretch, take the hands behind your body and clasp them. Think about your shoulders moving down away from your ears without letting your back arch (tuck your tailbone) reach the hands back and down. You can take this stretch a little further by standing up with your legs wide and folding forward, letting your head come towards the floor, and pulling the clasped hands away from your back to create an even deeper stretch.