A few weeks to a couple months after you give birth, your doc will tell you, “Okay, you’re good to exercise.” As if it were that simple.
Not that long ago, you squeezed a person out of your body, and now you’re hormonal (and you thought you were bad during pregnancy!), breastfeeding, sleep-deprived, and, oh yeah, have a crying baby to contend with. So how exactly are you supposed to exercise? Here, experts share the dos and don’ts of getting back into fitness post-pregnancy.
“Many women are understandably eager to return to their pre-baby fitness routine,” says Lisa Corsello, certified personal trainer, founder of Burn fitness studios in California. “There is a lot of focus on ‘I used to be able to do this, so I should be able to do it now,’ which can lead to lots of frustration and, in some cases, setbacks.” In fact, Janet Hamilton, certified strength and conditioning specialist, a clinical exercise physiologist with Running Strong in Atlanta, has even seen women suffer pelvic and sacral stress fractures when pushing themselves too hard post-pregnancy.
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During pregnancy, your body produces hormones that relax your body’s ligaments so that the baby can pass through your birth canal. For a while after giving birth, those ligaments are still loose, meaning that your joints aren’t as stable as they once were, says Hamilton. Meanwhile, hormones involved in the production of breast milk can throw off your ability to exercise as you used to. “Training at a high level should be put off until your body is back in balance, including hormonally,” she says. That means until after you’re done breast-feeding.
Holding, feeding, and carrying a baby around can work your wrist like never before, says Corsello. Prevent overworking them by taking it easy on your wrists during exercise. Modify any exercises like planks, pushups, or tricep dips that require you to hold your weight in your hands with flexed wrists. For instance, you could try doing planks on your forearms, performing bench presses, and completing cable tricep extensions.
“Your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles have been stretched, your spine has likely been in a position of more than usual extension, and your hips are likely a little off kilter from the spreading of your pelvis,” says Hamilton. The solution: Working your pelvic floor, the base of your core. While you can perform Kegels just sitting on the couch, even better is to integrate them into your exercise routine. Hold the down-there contraction during planks. Or every time you squat or do a lunge sets, draw the pelvic floor up as you stand, says Corsello. That way, you’ll train your entire core—pelvic floor and all—to work together.
Like we said, after giving birth, your body is still full of ligament-loosening hormones. That can make high-impact exercises like running, jumping, and plyometrics rough on your joints, says certified perinatal instructor, Jacquelyn Brennan, certified strength and conditioning specialist, co-founder of Mindfuel Wellness. Plus, it can take a few months or more to regain the strength of your pelvic floor muscles, which hold your internal organs in place like a sling. If yours are weak, high-impact exercises may make everything feel “jostle-y” and even lead to urinary leakage, she says.
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Taking your baby along with you on your runs is a great way to squeeze in exercise and spend quality time with your newborn. But it’s important to remember that pushing a stroller changes things up. “For one thing, by holding the jogging stroller, your hands are fixed and you don’t have natural arm swing to counterbalance the rotational forces of your legs wing, so your back kind of bears the brunt of it,” says Hamilton. Start by walking then jogging in short intervals before increasing your mileage. Also, if you experience any back pain, ease off of the stroller-in-tow running.
“Avoid abdominal crunches, full spinal extension, and twisting exercises until cleared of diastasis recti by your doctor, fitness professional, or physical therapist,” says Brennan. During pregnancy, your growing uterus can cause your rectus abdominis “six pack” muscle to split down the center into two three packs. These exercises can all exacerbate the problem, she says.
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Just because you’re avoiding crunches doesn’t mean you can’t work your core. Ab exercises that require keeping a stable spine—like planks and bird-dogs—engage the transverse abdominis, your inner core musculature, without putting stress on your rectus abdominis, says Brennan. Plus, your transverse abdominis is critical to stabilizing your spine, supporting your back, lifting your pelvic floor, and pulling your belly for a pre-baby silhouette, she says.