I have a mom in one of my fitness classes who is due to give birth any day now. We were chatting after class a few weeks ago, and she said to me: “So, after my 6 week check-up, I’m pretty much ready to come back to working out again like normal…right?
I’ve been hopeful that over the past few months of having me as her coach in some of her classes, I would have successfully impressed upon her just how important it is that she scales back on some of the weights and more rigorous activity in favor of exercises and routines that are more supportive of her body…especially for her core and pelvic floor.
It’s not that I want to discourage her from participating in exercise that she likes and enjoys, but right now isn’t exactly the best time for high intensity classes and workouts like CrossFit and boot camp. She has taken my advice and she has scaled back quite a few things so that she can keep participating in the CrossFit classes, but I can still see the mental “hang-ups” she has over learning how take her foot off the accelerator in terms of exercise intensity and releasing herself from the mindset of “go hard or go home” that runs so rampant through this community. The idea that if it can’t be done as fast as possible, as hard as possible, or as much as possible, then it just doesn’t count as legit exercise is ridiculous…especially for new or expecting moms. It, quite simply, is WRONG!
I am a CrossFit coach. But the problem with the CrossFit or boot camp community, when it comes to new or expectant moms, is that these moms are being encouraged to push themselves just as hard as everyone else. To earn that “badge of honor” that they are tough enough or strong enough to keep going hard even while pregnant or just after giving birth.
Unfortunately, most athletes and instructors are completely ignorant when it comes to the issues that new and expectant moms face with their bodies. And these athletes and instructors, in their machismo-and-testosterone-laden ignorance and exuberance, wind up cheering and pushing these women into places where they can (and often do) cause long-term damage to their bodies.
These women will earn their badges of honor. Their coaches think they’ve done a great service by “helping” these women get the most out of their workouts. The Facebook posts go viral. “Wow” emojis abound. 5 minutes of fame are earned. Then everyone else goes about their lives. And quietly, behind closed doors, when no one else is watching, these women suffer. They are left with bodies that feel weak, broken, and riddled with pain because of a dysfunctional core and pelvic floor…all stemming from exercise that was too much for their system. But there’s no room for weakness! Toughen up! Go hard or go home! So, they toughen up to keep up appearances. And then they suffer quietly, not understanding what happened. Assuming that it’s just part of life as a mother. But they’re wrong. It doesn’t have to be this way.
If you’re an avid CrossFitter, and you just got all hot and bothered by what I said…just know that there are some aspects about CrossFit that I do like and think are beneficial; but just like everything else in life, there are some aspects about it that are just downright scary to me (and this is coming from someone who has been coaching CrossFit for quite some time now).
So going back to my story, my client was a bit caught off guard when I told her that NO, the 6 week mark/check-up is NOT in fact the end all be all sign that it is A-okay to start working out full throttle again. I reassured her that she will certainly be able to get back to her CrossFit training…when the time is right…and to try not to stress out about it too much. The gym and the weights will always be there (metaphorically speaking). We first and foremost need to focus on getting her core and pelvic floor strong and functioning well again. Only then will we add more layers of exercise as her body and her mind feel stronger and more capable of handling more demand and heavier loads over an extended amount of time.
It doesn’t matter how strong, well-conditioned, or how amazing of an athlete you were before you became pregnant. Yes, a superior athlete will probably be able to handle a bit more exercise demands than the average gym-goer or weekend warrior during and after pregnancy; but you cannot outsmart your body, and more specifically, your core and pelvic floor. ALL moms need to respect the process of core recovery and you’ll be wise to listen to your body if it’s telling you that you’re demanding too much of it. Your body will let you know!
Once you transition into the postpartum period, you have to EARN the right back to be able to exercise at a higher intensity and with heavier loads. You have to put in both the work and the time to get back to that place again SAFELY. There is no starting at zero and jumping right to 60 mph postpartum.
So, if you’re currently pregnant or newly postpartum, I want to share my thoughts with you on how I suggest you plan on returning to exercise once your little bundle of joy arrives. On a side note, these recommendations also apply to you if you’re a mom with a few more years under your belt…especially if you never took the time to put in the foundational postpartum work.
These suggestions are the ones I followed after the birth of each of my children, as well as the ones that I have recommended to the many moms I have worked with over the years. I hear your concerns as an athletic mama that is eager to hit the gym again. I myself have had the same concerns. If you do your best to follow these few suggestions for your postpartum fitness plan, you will be ready and prepared to return to the more intense exercise you so love and crave when the time is right, and you will be able to keep up with it over the long haul because you took the time to do your foundational work first!
Consider this your postpartum fitness checklist. Here are the four areas you will want to work through and progress through accordingly as you move through your postpartum period:
Step 1: Get Your Rest
Step 2: Let Yourself Recover
Step 3: Begin a Core + Pelvic Floor Restoration Program
Step 4: Start a Foundational Strength Training Routine
Let’s talk about each one of these in more detail…
Step 1: Get Your Rest
If you just recently had your baby, this is such an important step and it’s one that simply can’t be ignored (especially when you have older children that require your attention as well). Your body has gone through a tremendous amount of change and stress. On top of all of that, you now have to care for a newborn around the clock. Give yourself at least a few weeks to a month or so to really settle in, find your groove, establish a routine, and allow for your body and mind to simply REST.
Now when I say to rest, I don’t mean to simply do away with all movement and activity, and to set up shop on the couch all day. Admittedly, some days this is exactly what you will want to do, and it’s totally fine and probably necessary to some extent. What I am saying is that you will want to minimize being on your feet for long periods of time throughout the day. Your pelvic floor is very vulnerable right now and the last thing it needs is more stress placed upon it from being on your feet too much. This still holds true even if your baby was born via C-section.
The first few days, weeks, or months following a stressful experience like childbirth are traumatic on the body, and the time immediately after is when the most amount of healing occurs. You will want to take advantage of this time and rest as much as you can in order to optimize your healing.
You’ve got a lot on your plate right now with trying to juggle your own needs, your newborn’s needs, and any other family members’ needs. Everything else can wait, and do your best to not stress out or feel guilty if the laundry hasn’t been done, the house is in a bit of disarray, or you simply don’t have the energy to prepare dinner, school lunches, or breakfast for everyone right now. There will be a time for that down the line.
Step 2: Let Yourself Recover
Recovery is the next essential step for you and your body, and more specifically, your core and pelvic floor.
Lots of people like to compare labor and childbirth to running a marathon. They are both very physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing on the body. Although I will say that these two events are NOTHING like one another. Running long distances is a piece of cake compared to the stress of pushing a small human out of your body!
Similar to running a marathon, your body has gone through a seriously physically demanding event that requires LOTS of recovery work. Unlike running a marathon though, childbirth also has a few more stressful factors to consider:
- You just spent the last 9 months going through pregnancy, which is stressful enough in and of itself. Pregnancy places a LOT of pressure on the abdominal wall and pelvic floor (causing diastasis recti, hemorrhoids, prolapse, incontinence).
- There are a lot of unpredictable factors that occur during childbirth to cause damage to the core and pelvic floor (e.g. tearing, episiotomy, forceps, vacuum, C-section (planned or unplanned).
- Once baby is born, we have additional factors to contend with: sleep deprivation, caring for your newborn, hormones raging all over the place, mental fatigue, etc.
These all are REAL factors to consider and ones that shouldn’t be taken lightly. I understand that you are a tough and strong mama, and you may have had an exceptional fitness level both before and during pregnancy. But once you hit postpartum, I would like you to think of this as starting back at zero. This is in the best interest of your body, its full recovery, and its long-term strength and health. You need to continue giving yourself and your body some much needed downtime and to keep your stress levels low in order to recover properly.
Step 3: Begin a Core + Pelvic Floor Restoration Program
If there’s one step that I can’t emphasize enough that you shouldn’t skip…it’s this!!!!!
I know I said earlier that you will want to get at much rest and recovery as possible after the first few weeks and months home with baby, but this one I want you to get started with as soon as you are feeling ready and up for it (as soon as any stitches or incisions have healed as well).
For you mamas that are even a few years out from having your last baby, this is the step that I will want you complete if you are looking to take on a more challenging and strenuous exercise routine.
How do you know if you should take part in such a program? You will benefit from a core + pelvic floor restorative program if:
- You were pregnant at any point in time.
- You have birthed a baby (either vaginally or via c-section).
- You have Diastasis Recti (abdominal separation)
- You have a pelvic organ prolapse.
- You want to learn how to both contract AND relax your pelvic floor, or you are carrying too much tension in your pelvic floor.
- You experience ANY type of incontinence.
- You have lower back pain, SI joint pain, upper back pain and tension or stiffness through the neck and shoulders.
- You want to improve your posture.
- You experience pain during intercourse.
- You want to strengthen your core to be able to lift heavier weights and do more strenuous physical activity like CrossFit, boot camp, and/or running.
Now, I want you to keep in mind that when I say restore your core and pelvic floor, I’m not talking about just doing a bunch of crunches, sit-ups and kegels. No ma’am. To re-strengthen and re-train your core and pelvic floor to function well, we need to do more than just a few simple exercises. We need a whole body approach that incorporates all the pieces necessary for a strong core, strong glutes, a happy pelvic floor, and a body that moves, feels, and functions well overall. We will focus on alignment, breathing technique, lifting and carrying techniques, and fundamental exercises to retrain the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles on how to function optimally.
This is exactly why I developed the Restore My Core program for pregnant and postpartum women. Every mama needs a program just like this that can take her get from rest and recovery, to feeling strong and prepared in her core and pelvic floor, and finally beginning a foundational strength training routine.
You can go here if you would like to find out more information about this program. There is a program specifically created for moms who have delivered vaginally and for moms who have delivered via c-section.
Step 4: Start a Foundational Strength Training Routine
I know you’re anxious to speed things up and get back to more your intense workouts (#therapy), and here’s the good news: following the previous three steps we’ve talked about will absolutely help you to do just that!
I’ve seen it all too often in my line of work. Women dive head first into their pre-pregnancy exercise routine as soon as they are able to be up and on their postpartum feet. They believe that once they are feeling a bit better, it’s time to hit the weights hard, or go run a few miles.
Unfortunately, it‘s just not that simple or easy. This may be a faster approach; but like most quick fixes, it doesn’t really work and it may wind up doing more harm than good. Sorry mama…it’s the truth!
Step 1: Get Your Rest==>Step 2: Let Yourself Recover==>Step 3: Begin A Core + Pelvic Floor Restoration Program==>Step 4: Start a Foundational Strength Training Routine
These are the ESSENTIAL first steps we want to take before we even think about lifting any sort of heavy loads, doing any sort of plyometric work like burpees, box jumps, or jumping rope, or lacing up those running shoes again.
Ok, you get it…now what?!?!
Now it’s time to start bringing in more workouts that are meant to rebuild your strength and fitness (and not break you down from too much intensity, load, and volume).
How do you accomplish this? By choosing full-body strength training workouts that incorporate ALL the major movement patterns (push, pull, squat, hip hinge, lunge, and press …although we will stay away from overhead pressing movements for the first few months postpartum and opt instead for exercises like lateral and front raises) and body positions (on your back, side-lying, kneeling, ½ kneeling, seated, standing, split stance, and single leg). We will also incorporate stabilization training for the core, while being careful to avoid crunches, sit-ups, or exercises where the belly is hanging towards the floor.
We also want to make sure that we use a moderate amount of weight to be able to maintain good alignment and breathing mechanics for EVERY exercise. Further, we will need to make sure we program adequate amounts of rest in between exercises. We can pair these workouts with lots of walking or other gentle forms of aerobic training throughout the week (because you’re still going to be very tired from a lack of sleep). We don’t need to create even more stress on the body than necessary. As you gain more strength, and start getting more sleep every night, we can start thinking about adding more interval-type cardio workouts.
I can’t stress enough that these workouts NEED to have a purpose behind them. The purpose of helping you feel and be stronger and fitter…not to simply wear you out or get a good “burn” going. There’s SO much more to women’s fitness than creating workouts that promise to help you fit into those pairs of jeans again…especially as it relates to postpartum women.
Yes, I understand that may be a goal of yours and it’s not inherently a bad one, but we need to be concerned with more than the vanity side of things. We need to be concerned with how your body functions. Give yourself and your body the time, patience, and grace it needs to heal first from the inside out. Do this, and everything else will fall into place before you know it!
For an 8-week core program that focuses on healing and re-training your core, pelvic floor, and entire body to function well again, and to help you gain back strength and improve your fitness in a safe way, click here.