It's only natural to want your flat stomach back after delivering your beautiful baby. But it's important to approach your post-partum fitness routine with caution, especially if you've had a C-section. Remember: A C-section is major abdominal surgery, and your body needs adequate time to recover.
The most important first step is getting the OK to exercise from your doctor. Ask your OB/GYN for his/her recommendations on how to approach your return to fitness, as she can factor in your medical history. Next, realize that after nine months of housing a growing human being (pretty awesome, huh?), your belly will take some time to get flatter.
So here's your fitness plan: Cardio will help you burn calories so you lose excess body weight, including around your stomach. Strength-training builds muscle so you raise your metabolism and look leaner. And ab exercises tone the region and rebuild muscles that lost their firmness during your pregnancy.
Usually it takes at least six weeks to heal enough from the major surgery that is a C-section to resume exercise. You're eager to recover from child birth and achieve an enviable post-baby body, but patience is key.
Pushing yourself will not speed healing or bring about a flat stomach faster. In fact, it may put you at even greater risk for damage to your pelvic floor or abdominal muscles. Heavy lifting and intense exercise are off the schedule until you're cleared, or else you risk rupturing your scar and delaying healing.
Start With Gentle Exercises
When it comes to postpartum fitness, slow and steady wins the race. Begin your return to fitness with walking and Kegels. Stretches can also help break up scar tissue that can contribute to a pouch or overhang of extra tissue at your c-section site.
- Plow pose: Lie on the floor and reach your arms and legs above your head.
- Sphinx pose: Lift your chest and head just a few inches from the floor while lying on your stomach.
- Bridge pose: Lie on your back, bend your knees and press through your heels to lift your lower body and back off the ground.
All of these moves stretch your stomach and strengthen your pelvic floor without being too aggressive. If they hurt, stop immediately.
Cardio burns calories so you shed excess baby weight that's contributing to a round belly. You'll have to work your way into it -- even if you were active for much of your pregnancy -- because of the time off as you healed from surgery.
Brisk walking, perhaps with the baby in a stroller, as well as swimming or cycling are examples of gentle, low-impact forms of cardio to add in first. Jogging may also be an option if your doctor says so. If you can only do 10 to 15 minutes at a time due to your stamina and baby's needs, do several of these short blocks throughout the day.
Strengthening your pelvic floor keeps your lower back healthy and strengthens your bladder, so you don't have uncomfortable leakage. Kegel exercises — the same ones you likely did while pregnant — can be performed whenever you feel ready post C-section.
With several months of dedication, you can work your way up to longer bouts of cardio and even add in high-intensity intervals, which help you burn fat from your stomach faster.
A paper in the Journal of Obesity published in 2011 summarized numerous research studies showing that short bouts of all-out effort followed by short bouts of easy effort burns fat and improves markers of metabolic health, such as blood sugar and insulin levels, better than steady-paced workouts.
Perform a HIIT workout one to three times per week by cycling at a fast, intense pace for one to two minutes and then pedaling easy for one to two minutes. Include a warmup and cool down to complete 30 to 45 minutes of total work.
Lifting your baby and all her gear is sometimes a workout in itself, but isn't sufficient to flatten your tummy. Take just 30 minutes, a couple times per week, to strength train all the major muscles to increase your proportion of lean mass, raise your metabolism and encourage fat burn.
Muscle requires more calories for your body to maintain, thus you become a fat-burning machine all during the day — not just when you're working out. Even if you worked out with weights during your pregnancy, you've had to take time off during the six weeks post-partum.
Start with just one set of eight to 12 repetitions of moves such as squats, chest presses, rows and lunges. For the first several weeks, or even months, body weight exercises are appropriate; only add dumbbells or other heavy weight once you feel stronger and your doctor has cleared it.
Work Your Abs
Include some abdominal exercises during your strength-training session to rebuild the muscles. These moves themselves won't get you a flat stomach because they do little to burn calories, stimulate fat burn or reduce scar tissue, but they do help restore abdominal and pelvic floor strength.
- Hold modified or full side plank to work the internal abdominal muscles and those along your spine to help support your back, which sometimes suffers due to the weight of the baby during pregnancy. Work up to holding side plank for about 30 seconds each side.
- Perform heel slides by lying on the floor with your knees bent, feet placed hip distance apart. Slowly slide one leg out until it's parallel to the floor. Bring it back in to the original position. Repeat on the other side. Build up to 20 on each leg.
- When you feel stronger, add in the the double straight-leg stretch, also called double leg lowers. Lie on your back with your hands cradling your head and neck. Reach both legs up to the ceiling above your hips. Squeeze the legs together and lower them toward the mat as far as you can without feeling an arc in your lower back. Slowly return them to the starting position. Aim for 20 repetitions.
Some women develop diastasis recti, a separation of your abdominal muscles, during pregnancy. The connective tissue that connects the right and left halves of your rectus abdominus stretches, becomes thin and weak and separates.
You'll have less strength and a ridge-like protrusion up the middle of your belly. If you have this condition, talk to your doctor or a physical therapist about the steps and exercises necessary to help it heal.