Selfies boasting chiseled six-week postpartum abs might have you thinking you can bounce back from giving birth in a snap. But here's the truth: Pregnancy changes your body dramatically, and rushing back into your pre-pregnancy workout regimen is a bad idea. In fact, it can do more harm than good.
"Diving back in where you left off pre-baby can hinder core and pelvic floor healing," says Sarah Ellis Duvall, physical therapist and founder of Core Exercise Solutions. That's because in the weeks after birth, your body is more susceptible to risks like diastasis recti (abdominal separation) and pelvic floor issues such as prolapse.
Before attempting any postpartum exercise program, your first step should be consulting with your doctor. Once you get a thumbs up, start gently and heed what your body tells you.
Most importantly, always keep in mind that each woman's postpartum journey is unique, says Joanie Johnson, personal trainer, postnatal corrective exercise specialist and co-founder of Fit Pregnancy Club. Translation: What works for someone else may not be right for you, and that's totally OK. This isn't a competition or a race.
Ready to get moving? To help you get started, here's a 10-week, expert-approved plan for becoming active again. It's meant only as a guide — there's no one-size-fits-all approach to postpartum recovery and fitness — so always do what's best for you and in whichever order feels right.
Week 1: Go for a Walk
Finding your fitness groove postpartum is all about taking baby steps. Literally. "Walking is often overlooked, but it's one of the best exercises for new moms," says Ashley Reid, certified exercise physiologist and owner of Active Mom Fitness. Not only does it burn calories and increase energy, but a little fresh air can lift your mood and help you feel less isolated.
Plus, gentle exercise like walking improves lymphatic drainage and reduces swelling, says Duvall, who recommends a short stroll every hour or two. "The walks don't need to be fast or long," she says. "Even getting off the couch and walking around the house is good enough in the very beginning."
If you do venture out with baby, just be mindful of your posture when pushing a stroller, says Reid. Make sure the handles are at a proper height, wrists are in a neutral position and that you hold the stroller close to your body to avoid taxing your back.
And keep the baby in the buggy while you walk! Wearing your bundle of joy in a carrier too soon after giving birth can cause unnecessary strain on your posture and alignment and increase downward pressure on your pelvic floor, says Johnson.
Week 2: Strengthen Your Core
In the weeks after birth, you're probably itching to get your tummy back into pre-baby shape. But jumping into crunches and planks isn't the answer, says Reid, explaining that your abs are only part of the strong-core equation, which includes all the muscles from your pelvic floor to your diaphragm.
Pelvic tilts combined with deep breathing are a safe first step toward strengthening your core, says Reid. Here's how you do it:
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat.
- As you exhale, contract your abs and tilt your pelvis so that your tail bone tucks under slightly, and your muscles sink toward your spine.
- Gently push your lower back into the floor.
- Reverse the tilt of your pelvis back to a neutral position as you inhale, and let your belly expand.
As you grow stronger, you can progress to advanced pelvic tilt variations that challenge your core a little more. Check out this pelvic tilt tutorial for proper form.
Of course, if you had a C-section or diastasis recti, consult with your medical provider first.
Week 3: Find Small Ways to Get Active
Just because your doc gave you the green light to exercise doesn't mean you should go full throttle. At the beginning of recovery, a little bit of activity goes a long way.
"It's important for moms to realize that exercise doesn't need to be done as one long session," says Reid.
Focus on moving more whenever you can. Play a little music and have an impromptu dance party while you tidy up your living room. Since dance boosts serotonin levels, shaking your booty can also ease stress.
Looking for something more low-key? Try slipping in a few floor exercises like glute bridges while your baby does tummy time. At the end of the day, Reid says these small bits of movement will add up to big wins for your body.
Week 4: Breathe
Wherever you are in your postpartum journey, deep breathing can be a useful tool, especially when it comes to coping with the stresses of new motherhood. Matter of fact, diaphragmatic breathing, which expands the abdomen rather than the chest , can reduce the symptoms of postpartum depression, according to a 2016 study published in the International Journal of PharmTech Research.
"If you can't get a good deep breath, you're more likely to be in a sympathetic state, or what's known as 'fight or flight' mode," says Duvall, who explains that deep breathing early in the postpartum period can help with stress. Belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and turns on your parasympathetic response. Meaning: It slows your heart rate and has a calming effect on your body. Essentially, you'll feel more zen and even sleep better if you practice deep breathing every day.
Johnson agrees: "The best relaxation technique for a new mom is to mimic the rhythm of your baby's belly breath when they're sleeping." What's more, deep breathing also strengthens your diaphragm, massages your internal organs, increases lymphatic flow and plays an essential role in the healing of your core and pelvic floor.
Week 5: Pay Attention to Your Pelvic Floor
Does a little pee leak out every time you sneeze, cough or laugh? If so, you might be exhibiting signs of a weak pelvic floor. Your pelvic floor muscles sit at the base of your pelvis and support the bladder, uterus and bowel. The extra weight of pregnancy and the birth experience can dramatically weaken these muscles, says Johnson.
So, what can you do to feel like yourself again down there? The best way to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles is to practice deep belly breathing, according to Duvall. You're probably wondering, what does breathing have to do with my pelvic floor? Well, every time you take a deep breath, your lungs expand, your ribcage opens and your diaphragm gently pushes down on your pelvic floor muscles. Conversely, when you exhale, they contract slightly. Basically, deep breathing gently engages your pelvic floor muscles, and, in doing so, helps to strengthen them.
Kegel exercises can support the muscles in the pelvic area too, says Duvall. Here's how to do a proper Kegel:
- Squeeze the muscles that you use to stop yourself from peeing (don't contract your glutes or inner thighs).
- Hold them tight for a few seconds.
It might help to picture your pelvic floor as an elevator that's gently lifting toward your "top floor" (i.e., belly button) and then lowering back down to the "ground floor," says Reid, adding that using a soft ball between your knees during moves such as squats and bridges can also help activate pelvic floor muscles.
Not every woman needs to strengthen her pelvic floor muscles after birth. In fact, many will experience a hypertonic pelvic floor, or one that's too tight, according to Johnson, who explains that doing Kegels may just exacerbate the problem. In that case, you should focus on exercises that help relax the tension in your muscles. Deep breathing and gentle yoga poses, like happy baby and child's pose, can be very helpful.
The best and safest course for recovery is seeing a pelvic floor therapist, says Reid, who recommends that all women get evaluated by a specialist after giving birth whether they exhibit symptoms or not.
Week 6: Get a Foam Roller
If you have stiff muscles and you don't own a foam roller, you need to buy one stat. Foam rolling can help ease the discomfort, tightness and tension in your muscles that you experience postpartum.
"Foam rollers act as a self-massage by breaking up muscle adhesions, lengthening muscles and increasing muscle temperature, which all result in improved range of motion," says Reid. So, that gnawing knot in your back? Kiss it goodbye with a little foam rolling. Squeeze some foam rolling in between feeds or when your baby's in the swing.
Foam rollers can also be ideal tools to have in your fitness arsenal for recovery days. Once you return to exercising, your muscles are bound to feel extra sore. Show them some TLC by foam rolling between workouts.
Week 7: Improve Your Posture
Got back pain? Often the culprit is poor posture, says Johnson. That's because when you're sleep deprived and exhausted, you're more likely to slump and slouch when you're feeding, lifting or carrying your baby. Repeating these same movements again and again — especially bending over a crib — can do a number on your posture and your lower back.
The first step toward better posture is catching yourself in the act. "Check your posture in the mirror often," says Johnson, who recommends eyeballing to make sure you aren't jutting out your ribcage, locking out your knees or standing with your pelvis in a tucked or arched position.
Next, incorporate gentle stretches that open the chest and counteract slumped, rounded shoulders. For example, whenever you walk through a doorway, take the opportunity to get a nice chest stretch. Here, Johnson explains how:
- Bring your arms up into goal posts on either side of the door frame.
- Gently step through the doorway with one foot.
- Hold the stretch for up to 60 seconds.
Johnson also recommends using your foam roller to help with posture. Try lying on your foam roller lengthwise, so it's vertically aligned with your spine, then bring your arms out to the side. This satisfying stretch will give you a nice extension through your chest and back.
But be careful not to overextend yourself. "Women who've had C-sections should use caution when stretching, especially during back extensions as to not disrupt the healing of the incision," says Reid, adding that exercises like hip bridges and bird dog are also great for improving posture since they strengthen your back and glute muscles.
Week 8: Prep Snacks and Meals
As a new mom, you barely have time to shower let alone whip up a healthy dinner. "Finding time to cook meals can be tough, so we tend to go for the quick snack," says Reid. The problem? You end up eating cookies and chips because they're quick, easy, and convenient.
But nutrition plays a crucial role in energy and recovery post birth, according to Reid, who recommends stocking up on simple yet healthy foods like nuts, fruit, yogurt, cheese, whole grain crackers and pre-cut veggies. A well-balanced diet of whole foods will give you more energy to deal with sleep deprivation (plus it can help with any postpartum pooping issues, like constipation or hemorrhoids).
When it comes to larger meals, planning and prep is essential, says Duvall, who suggests cooking in bulk on the weekend, so you'll have a ton of leftovers on hand for weekdays. And stick to the basics: Simple, low-maintenance recipes with a handful of healthy ingredients are best. Even better if you can toss them in a slow cooker and walk away. Anything that requires less time and energy is key.
Week 9: Get a Workout Buddy
Being a new mom can be a very lonely experience, especially in the weeks after birth while you're nesting. All that alone time can make you feel a little blue and put a serious damper on your motivation to exercise.
Luckily, there's a simple solution to bursting the baby bubble: a workout buddy. "Exercising with a friend can help you beat the feeling of isolation," says Reid.
Duvall agrees: Spending time with another new mom can lift your spirits, plus it can help you stay more consistent with exercising. Truth is, you're more likely to get out of the house if you've scheduled a gym date with a friend. In fact, people with social support are more likely to work out, according to a September 2014 study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.
Don't know any new moms? A good way to meet other mammas is by joining "mommy and me" classes in your neighborhood, says Reid. Odds are the women you meet in class are just as eager to connect and make friends who can relate to the physical and emotional demands of becoming a mom.
Week 10: Find a Qualified Postpartum Trainer or Group Instructor
Jonesing to hit the gym? Before you rush back to CrossFit or hire a personal trainer, do a little research to make sure that your instructor or trainer is certified in postnatal fitness, advises Reid.
A person with training in postpartum recovery can ensure you don't hurt yourself and hinder your healing process, says Duvall. Someone who understands postpartum clients can suggest appropriate modifications, which are especially vital for women dealing with diastasis recti or any other postpartum complications, adds Reid.
Some gyms even offer group fitness classes geared toward postpartum recovery, according to Duvall. Bonus if they offer quality onsite childcare, too!