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Having a baby brings about a great deal of changes, especially to a mother's body. Some changes are temporary and revert back on their own. Others are permanent and become a new normal. Weight gain and reduced fitness are two common side effects that may not automatically revert after pregnancy. However, they certainly don't have to be on the list of permanent changes either.
Thinking about your body before pregnancy and wanting to get healthier for your child are great motivators for ditching the extra weight after childbirth. Whether you're a fitness professional creating a postpartum fitness plan or a new mom setting up her own workout routine, we have the top tips to help you get that postpartum body feeling more fit.
There are many benefits of doing postpartum or postnatal exercise. One is that exercise after giving birth aids in postpartum recovery. Pregnant women who’ve been on bed rest, for instance, benefit from regular exercise as it helps them rebuild their strength and endurance. Research indicates that postpartum exercise is especially important for women who wish to return to sports after giving birth. (1)
There are also mental health benefits of engaging in physical activity after having a baby. One is that it can help ease postpartum depression. You don’t have to wait until after childbirth to get this benefit either. According to one study, exercise during pregnancy also helps provide this effect. (2)
First things first: Be sure to check with your healthcare provider before starting any postpartum exercise plan. Not all women recover from childbirth at the same rate, and some may require additional precautions.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists shares that while exercise can normally resume within a few days after a normal vaginal birth, certain circumstances can delay a return to working out. Examples include if there were any complications during birth or if the baby was born via cesarean section (C-section). It may get frustrating to wait a few weeks, but allowing adequate time for the body to recover reduces the risk of setbacks and supports a safe road to fitness. (3)
Trimming down the baby belly is a common goal for new moms. This area went through a lot during pregnancy and childbirth, so it’s important to confirm with your or your client’s physician that it is safe to begin working the abdominal muscles.
This is even more critical for women who develop a condition called diastasis recti after giving birth. This condition involves abdominal separation or a gap between the stomach muscles. In cases such as this, the new mom may need more time to heal before trying to build her core strength or do deep core muscle work.
Once cleared by a physician to begin working out, start slow. During pregnancy, the body cycles through a host of changes. Respect those changes and give the body time to adjust accordingly.
You can even begin with something simple like Kegel exercises. These exercises help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles. They can also be done just about anywhere. This is especially convenient for new moms who struggle to find time for a workout.
Short, easy walks are another way to add a little more activity. They also get the body moving, blood flowing, and heart rate up. Walk on a smooth, flat surface if possible. A treadmill in the gym is one option. Although, if you have access to an easy trail through the neighborhood, that’s another.
It’s important to know that Relaxin, a hormone produced to prep the body for childbirth, may still be present postpartum. This can mean reduced joint stability. So, skip the hills and rocky trails until stability and strength have returned.
Free weights are a good option for a postpartum workout routine. These are an easy addition to an initial fitness routine, particularly if you or your client isn’t ready to hit the gym. Keep the weight light, nothing over 20 pounds. Use just enough to get a feel for having weights back in your hands.
Exercises that work well with free weights include:
One-arm dumbbell triceps extension
Dumbbell triceps kickback
What if you’re not quite ready for weights? Bodyweight exercises are another way to ease back into exercise after childbirth. Planks, bridges, and lunges can help build full-body strength.
When returning to exercise, it’s important to recognize that you can’t just return to where you were before the pregnancy. Yes, if you were doing high-intensity exercise before, you can get back to that eventually. But for now, focus on gentle exercise instead. Once you’ve rebuilt your strength and endurance, you can kick your exercise program back up.
Here are a few strength training exercises that fall into the light exercise category. This makes them ones to add to postpartum workouts:
Plank – Start in a prone position with hands, forearms, and elbows on the floor. Toes are on the floor with the hips up and in a neutral position with the rest of the upper body. Hold, then release to the floor.
Walking lunges – Start in a standing position. Take a large step forward with one leg, then lower the body down until the front knee is at a 90-degree angle. Step the back leg forward to a standing position. Start again with the opposite leg.
Bridge – Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Engage your glutes and press your hips up. Hold, then release back down.
Overhead press – Start in a seated position, holding weights at your chest. Lift the weights overhead and slowly lower them down.
Bench press – Lie on your back, weights at your chest. Press the weights toward the ceiling and slowly lower down.
Curl – Lie on your back, knees bent with feet on the floor. Engage your core, lifting your upper body to your knees until your shoulders are off the floor. Hold, then release back down.
Reverse curl – Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet lifted so the shins are parallel to the floor. Engage your core, lifting your upper body and hips upward, and drawing your upper body toward your knees. Hold, then release back down.
The transverse abdominis is one of the key muscles to strengthen when working to flatten that belly. Focus on drawing-in exercises—pulling the belly button toward the spine—and abdominal squeezes to start. Once strength improves, add exercises such as plank, boat pose, and stability ball crunches.
A new mom doesn’t have to leave her baby to work out. She can still build her strength and endurance by exercising with her infant child. Including the baby means mom and baby get to spend time together, which is always a win.
A good stroller makes it easy to bring the baby along for walks. Also, holding the baby can add weight and resistance to several postpartum workout exercises, such as:
Walking lunges - Hold the baby against your chest as you move through your lunges.
Overhead press - In a seated position, hold your baby at your chest and then lift the baby overhead and slowly lower down.
Chest press - Lie on your back with your baby on your chest. Press the baby up toward the ceiling and slowly lower down.
Curl - Lie on your back, knees bent with feet on the floor, and the baby at your hips. Engage your core, lifting your upper body to your baby until your shoulders are off the floor. Hold, then release back down.
Reverse curl - Lie on your back, knees bent with feet lifted, and the baby on your shins. Engage your core, lifting your upper body and hip upward until you can kiss your baby's forehead, then release back down.
For each of these or any other baby-inclusive exercises, practice without the baby first. This helps ensure you have the moves down. Then make sure you can provide the correct support for your baby. Some exercises may require the baby to hold its head up. So, save those exercises for later in the workout plan if your child isn't ready yet.
You'll need about 500 extra calories if you're still breastfeeding. Keep an eye on your intake to ensure you're meeting your body’s basic needs. Make a point to eat healthy food—colorful vegetables and fruits, protein, and whole grains. This helps to support the body while reducing any additional weight gain.
Gather friends for a daily walk, join a group class, or enlist the help of a personal trainer. Having someone else involved in your fitness plan will stoke motivation after having a baby. An exercise partner also supports long-term success for new moms.
Hydration is always important in supporting a healthy body. It’s even more so if you're still breastfeeding. Ensure that you're getting enough water to support your daily needs. Don’t forget that you’ll need more for when you're exercising.
We know it can be hard to find time to rest with a new baby. At the same time, this is especially important. The body needs time to recover, not just from exercising but also from the regular daily stress of being a new mom.
Just as each pregnancy is different, so is each mother's weight loss and fitness journey. Some moms are fit before getting pregnant. For other moms, having a baby may be the first thing that inspired them to get fit. Focus only on your fitness level, your body, and your goals.
Navigating postpartum fitness can be a tough process, but the health benefits are worth it. Take it slow and keep your goals in mind.
If you enjoy working with new moms, consider expanding your skills to include the whole family with the ISSA Youth Fitness Certification. With this certification, you'll learn how to tailor a fitness plan to the unique needs of kids and teens as they grow physically and mentally.
Selman, R., Early, K., Battles, B., Seidenburg, M., Wendel, E., & Westerlund, S. (2022). Maximizing recovery in the postpartum period: A timeline for rehabilitation from pregnancy through return to sport. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 17(6). https://doi.org/10.26603/001c.37863
Poyatos‐León, R., García‐Hermoso, A., Sanabria‐Martínez, G., Álvarez‐Bueno, C., Cavero‐Redondo, I., & Martínez‐Vizcaíno, V. (2017). Effects of exercise‐based interventions on Postpartum Depression: A meta‐analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Birth, 44(3), 200–208. https://doi.org/10.1111/birt.12294
Exercise after pregnancy. ACOG. (2022, March). https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/exercise-after-pregnancy