So, baby is here, you’re settling into your new way of life, and you’re anxious to get back into the gym.  Maybe you’ve even gotten the “green light” from your healthcare professional to resume normal activity again.  Not so fast!  I know this may not be what you want to hear, but I say this with the highest regard for your health and wellbeing as a new mom.  I see all too often what can happen when a new mom is made to believe that she’s okay to jump right back into her typical fitness routine post pregnancy. Resuming your pre-pregnancy routine prematurely can result in nagging lower back and hip pain, a diastasis that hasn’t healed properly, leaking, an umbilical hernia, pelvic organ prolapse of varying degrees. Any of these unfortunate results can further lead to feelings of insecurity, confusion, and failure as a woman starts to lament the fact that her body didn’t “bounce back” like many told her it would after baby.

 

This is why I do the work I do, and work with moms in all stages of motherhood because there is a significant and widespread misunderstanding about how to train and coach postpartum women.  After the birth of my first baby, I did everything wrong when it came time to get back into exercise.  There was plenty of running and jumping, breath holding, crappy alignment and posture, core exercises that placed too much pressure on a healing core and pelvic floor, and so on and so on.  Looking back, I wish I had known right then and there everything I have learned over the years as it pertains to training prenatal and postnatal women so that I could have set myself up for the best possible postnatal recovery.

 

The mistakes that I suffered through are the reasons why I have devoted so much of my time and energy into anything and everything related to women’s health…especially for new and expecting moms.  And although pregnancy and postpartum are happy and exciting times for a woman, we cannot ignore the fact that these periods also bring with them tremendous physical (as well as emotional and mental) strain and stress.

 

After having gone through the physical demands of carrying and birthing a child, we need to look at the postpartum period as a time of essentially recovering from injury.  When someone goes through a knee or hip replacement surgery, breaks a bone, or sprains an ankle, we proceed with caution and provide them with a plan of action as it pertains to resuming physical activity and exercise.  But when a woman is pregnant or has just given birth, we merely tell her to “listen to her body”, make no mention of the need for ANY type of rehabilitative measures for her body, and provide her with a list of VERY general recommendations that leave room for all kinds of interpretation as to how she should proceed with getting back into fitness. This, of course, often sets her up to prematurely return to certain activities when her body isn’t exactly ready for them!  Hopefully, you can see that returning to fitness postpartum isn’t as simple as resuming normal activity after the 6 week check-up.  We need to approach things with well-thought-out, more specific, and progressive guidelines that will enable a new mom to establish a foundational level of strength, stability, coordination, and function, and then gradually progress her through the first year postpartum (so that she can return to the activities she enjoyed pre-pregnancy with confidence and without worry of complications later down the line).

 

We are going to talk about those guidelines right now.  These are guidelines that I use with all of new moms I work with, whether in-person or through distance coaching. I believe these to be the safest and most effective guidelines for healing the body and returning to exercise postpartum. Regardless of whether you are a CrossFit athlete, a runner, a boot camp fanatic, a Body Pump enthusiast, a powerlifting or weightlifting athlete, or if bodybuilding or physique training are your jams…the same principles still apply!

 

I will also tell you that even though my “day job” includes coaching a lot of moms through high intensity type training, I am not the typical “all or nothing”, everything extreme, no excuses type of trainer.  I approach these types of classes and style of fitness with a very different mindset than most.  I recognize the athlete mindset (i.e. go hard or go home) that many of the women that I work with possess because I have been there myself many times; but prenatal or postpartum is not the time for such a way of thinking and approaching your fitness programming.  And it’s my job to pump the brakes a little bit for these women, and to help you to recognize and understand that we need to respect the process and all that your body and mind are going through.

 

This piece IS NOT about how to speed up your postpartum recovery so that you can get back in the gym and begin setting new PR’s at 9 weeks postpartum, so that you can get out there and go run a half marathon, or so that you can be ready by three months postpartum to go compete in a local fitness competition.  Instead, I am going to teach you how to approach fitness during the first YEAR postpartum in a way that ensures your body is healing and functioning well, and gaining strength in a progressive manner so that we can layer on more intense exercise when the time is right. Sound good?  Okay…let’s dive in!

0-3 Months Postpartum

 

Before we continue, there is one big consideration that I want you to keep in mind here:

  • Postpartum is a recovery PROCESS. It’s important to make sure that you’ve got your alignment dialed in, your breathing mechanics dialed in, and your core and pelvic floor are functioning well again, with good muscle tone, strength, and endurance to FIRST support your body through simple everyday activities. We have to do this before we layer on more stressful activities like weightlifting, running, plyometric training, gymnastic movement, etc.

 

There are also a few more factors that we need to take into account to help us determine how and when you will return to fitness postpartum:

  • How did your labor and delivery go?
  • Did you have any tears, or stitches?
  • Any bleeding?
  • How well are your core and pelvic floor healing? Are you doing any of sort of restorative exercises for the core and pelvic floor?
  • Are you breastfeeding?
  • How are you adjusting to life as a new mom?
  • How much sleep per night are you getting? Sleep plays a huge role in our overall recovery, not to mention our ability to recover from exercise as well.
  • Any signs of a prolapse, incontinence, hip, back, or pelvic pain? Any feelings of heaviness or bulging in your pelvis?
  • Have you booked an appointment to see a pelvic floor physical therapist in your area?

 

I strongly recommend that you spend most of your time resting as much as possible during those first few weeks postpartum. Maybe even longer, depending on how you feel.  Regardless of how fit or how much you worked out during your pregnancy, you are essentially starting from scratch here in terms of building up your fitness again. We need to give the body adequate time to rest and heal in order to handle more load and stress.  With that said, I absolutely believe that you can begin GENTLE workouts before your 6-week check-up if you are feeling good, healing well, and there is no increase in symptoms (pain, bleeding) after working out.

 

Your healthcare provider will usually want to see you around 1- 2 weeks postpartum (barring no complications), so I prefer to have my clients simply focus on resting, bonding with baby, and adjusting to their new way of life until that first check-up.  During those first few weeks, you can begin practicing good alignment and posture (like I mentioned above) as well as some gentle diaphragmatic breathing throughout the day.

 

Once you’ve had that initial check-up and your healthcare professional says that you are healing well, then we can start incorporating some restorative work for the core and pelvic floor.  Usually after the first month or so, you can start to incorporate more leisurely walking and some short strength training sessions. (Please note though that when I say strength, I mean learning how to use your own bodyweight again. Believe it or not, there is an initial learning curve for figuring out how to move your own bodyweight again postpartum.) After this, we can start adding in some light strength work (e.g. resistance band training, modified TRX and ring training, and LIGHT dumbbell and kettlebell training).

 

PLEASE NOTE: Regardless of all the social media posts you may see of women “bouncing back” and doing all sorts of crazy ab work and high intensity exercise like running, heavy weightlifting, and plyometric work…NOW is not the time for this.  The joints and tissues of the body still remain very lax, stretched out, and weak at this time, which means they are highly susceptible to injury when placed under high stress and heavy load!!  This is not the time to earn a badge of honor or be out to prove anything to anybody. Your long-term health is in jeopardy if you come back too hard too fast. And also remember: just because you CAN do something, it doesn’t mean that you SHOULD do it.

 

0-3 Months Postpartum Strength Training:

 

Frequency:  1 – 3 days per week

Time:  10-30 minutes per session…depending on how you are feeling that day.  Remember to start small and build up your window of time per session.

Intensity:  Light to Moderate Intensity (2-5 on a 1-10 Rate of Perceived Exertion scale)

Activities:  Bodyweight exercises (squats, stationary lunges, stationary reverse lunges, step-ups to a low box, rear foot elevated split squats to a low box, inverted rows, wall push-ups), light resistance band training (lat pulldowns, rows, chest presses, band pull-aparts, band face pulls, banded squats, banded glute bridges, banded hip thrusts, band pull-throughs, Pallof Press variations, etc.), LIGHT weight training (incline chest press, floor press, dumbbell or kettlebell goblet squats, lateral and front raises goblet stationary lunges/reverse lunges, etc.), some core training (modified side planks, heel slides, modified dead bugs, farmer’s carry holds and walks, tall kneeling or 1/2 kneeling band pullovers, glute bridge variations, clamshells, hip thrusts).

*Please keep in mind that as you begin to load exercises, be sure to pay close attention to how you are feeling through your core and pelvic floor both during and after your workouts.  And remember to roll to your side when needing to get up and down as you continue to heal your Diastasis Recti.

 

0-3 Months Postpartum Cardio:

 

  • Leisurely walking should be your activity of choice during those first few weeks/months postpartum. Feel free to walk as many times per week as you feel up to it.  Leisurely walking helps to keep your cortisol levels down so that healing can occur without a hitch.
  • Other forms of cardio that you can start to include as you get closer to the 3-month mark include biking (watch your alignment and breathing), rowing with the damper set at a low setting (again watch your alignment and breathing), and swimming.

 

Frequency:  1-2 times per week (this includes any activity outside of leisurely walking)

Time: 10 – 30 minutes per session.  Gradually building up the duration of each session.

Intensity: Light to Moderate (3-5 on a 1-10 Rate of Perceived Exertion scale)

 

4-6 Months Postpartum

 

Please understand that at this point, I am assuming that you have worked your way through all of the steps for 0-3 months postpartum. Even if you’re at 4 months postpartum, if you haven’t done the 0-3 month work, you need to go back and do it now.  Again, we want to re-establish better breathing patterns, regain function, strength, endurance, and coordination in the core and pelvic floor, develop a solid level of strength, and be able to control our own body weight first before adding on more intense and advanced exercise progressions.

Hopefully, by this stage in the game, learning how to lift your baby, weights, and everyday items has become like second nature to you. We also want to ensure that your diastasis is healing well, and that you aren’t experiencing any pain or dysfunction through the core and pelvic floor.  One last thing: if you haven’t had a chance to get in to see a women’s health physical therapist…then now is THE time to do it (before we start adding in more challenging exercises like running, plyometric work, heavier weightlifting).  I always tell my coaching clients that even though your healthcare provider may have told you everything looks good inside and down below, we need to have a more detailed picture about what’s really going on with your core, pelvic floor, and body.  Most physical therapists will tell you that it can take up to 2 years for the female body to ENTIRELY recover from pregnancy.

4-6 Months Postpartum Strength Training:

 

Frequency:  2-3 days per week

Time:  15-45 minutes per session (depending on your energy levels and schedule, because we all know how #momlife can be sometimes!).

Intensity:  Moderate Intensity (4-6 on a 1-10 Rate of Perceived Exertion scale)

Activities:  We continue on with many of the same exercise as before, but now we can start sprinkling in slightly more challenging variations like some LIGHT barbell work (deadlifts, back squats, front squats, bench press , overhead presses), LIGHT kettlebell work, bodyweight exercises (push-ups and front planks on an incline, pull-up and chin-up progressions), moderate resistance band training (slightly more challenging lat pulldown variations, rows, chest presses, band pull-aparts, band face pulls, banded squats, banded glute bridges, banded hip thrusts, band pull-throughs, Pallof Press variations, etc.), dumbbell training and medicine ball training with more moderate amounts of weight.

*Please keep in mind as you begin to load exercises, be sure to pay close attention to how you are feeling through your core and pelvic floor both during and after your workouts.

As far as plyometric-type exercises (box jumps, jump rope, double-unders, burpees, broad jumps, tuck jumps, bounding exercises, skipping exercises, etc.) and running are concerned, there are a few considerations to keep in mind here before adding these activities back into your program:  If your diastasis is healed, you’re not experiencing ANY sort of pain or discomfort, you’re not leaking (in any amounts), you’re NOT breastfeeding, you’ve been seen by a pelvic floor physical therapist (and they have said everything has healed well and you’re cleared for these types of exercises), ONLY THEN may it be okay for you to add them back in at this time.  I will also add that I prefer you have at least 3 months of solid strength training under your belt before adding back these high impact activities.

Every woman heals differently from pregnancy and birth, but I like to take a more conservative approach to returning to fitness postpartum.  I’m more comfortable with adding these types of activities back into your program (and in low volume) after the 6-month mark, provided all the considerations mentioned above are met!

If you’d like to learn more about how to incorporate running into your postpartum fitness routine, I talk more about it in an article I wrote a few months back.

 

4-6 Months Postpartum Cardio:

 

  • Try to keep up with as much leisurely walking as possible to keep those stress hormones down.

Frequency:  1-2 times per week for anything outside of leisurely walking (biking, swimming, rowing).

Time: 10 – 30 minutes or more/session (depending on how you are feeling and if your schedule allows for it).  Your intensity is going to be a bit higher, so GRADUALLY build up your duration for each session.

Intensity: Moderate (4-6 on a 1-10 Rate of Perceived Exertion scale/feeling a bit more breathless, but still able to carry on a short conversation).

* Another way to safely increase your intensity for cardio session (instead of running) and to feel more of that “burn” you may have been craving is to incorporate short interval training sessions into your weekly workouts.  If you have met all of the criteria we talked about for getting back into running at this time, then you will also want to EASE back into running by using intervals of short bursts of jogging followed by easy light walking to recover.

 

Interval Training Guidelines:

 

  • You can either perform incline interval walking done either on a treadmill or outdoors, or intervals on a bike or rower.
  • You can also start incorporating some sort of metabolic conditioning-type/interval training workouts with simple enough exercises that will allow you to really focus on your alignment and breathing (i.e. bodyweight exercises and moderately weighted exercises).
  • If you are going to start running, then please also use the following format to GRADUALLY incorporate more running into your fitness program. This format can also be used for any other type of cardio interval training as well:
    • Keep your “working” intervals short in duration (15-30 seconds) and your rest periods AT LEAST twice as long as the working intervals. If your work intervals are going to be 15-30 seconds, then you will rest in between each work interval for AT LEAST 30-60 seconds.
  • Your total time doing interval training should be NO MORE than 20 minutes per session.
  • Frequency: No more than 1-2 interval training sessions per week. If running, I’d prefer to see no more than one running interval workout per week.
  • Intensity: Still a moderate intensity for the working intervals; 5-6 on a 1-10 Rate of Perceived Exertion scale.

 

6-9 Months Postpartum

 

Okay, so you’re past the 6-month mark, your pregnancy hormones have tapered off somewhat (unless you are still breastfeeding), you’ve done the rehab work to heal your diastasis and it has healed nicely, you’ve booked an appointment with a women’s health physical  therapist (and gotten the green light!), you’re not feeling any pain, discomfort, or dysfunction, you’ve been gradually building up your strength again with a few months of total body strength training, baby is sleeping decently well through the night, and you have a little better of a handle on your schedule (enough precautions for you :))…this is when we start to “ramp” things up a bit more, and when I mean ramp up, I don’t mean going all-in all at once.

 

This is where we can start upping the weight a little more, adding in more plyometric work (still low-moderate volume), adding in more Olympic style weightlifting (with moderate amounts of weight that allow us to keep proper breathing patterns and alignment intact), more moderately weighted kettlebell work, more running intervals, and more moderately-higher-intensity metabolic training. Again, this all hinges on having taken the precautions mentioned above and feeling strong in your body.

 

6-9 Months Postpartum Strength Training:

 

Frequency:  2-4 days per week

Time:  20-45 minutes per session (depending on your energy levels and schedule).

Intensity:  Moderate “Slightly Vigorous” Intensity (6-7.5 on a 1-10 Rate of Perceived Exertion scale)

Activities:  More moderately-weighted barbell work (deadlifts, back squats, front squats, bench press, overhead presses, etc.), possibly some moderately weighted Olympic style weightlifting with dumbbells/moderately weighted barbell, moderately weighted kettlebell work, bodyweight exercises (lower incline push-ups and front planks, pull-up and chin-up progressions), moderately-heavier resistance band training, moderately weighted glute bridges and hip thrusts, slightly more challenging core work (e.g. TRX rollouts, slightly advanced dead bug and leg lower variations, slightly heavier farmer’s carries, slightly advanced side plank and Pallof Press variations), and moderately heavier dumbbell work and medicine ball work.

 

6-9 Months Postpartum Cardio Guidelines:

 

Activities:  Anything outside of daily leisurely walking: biking, swimming, rowing, hiking, etc.

Frequency:  1-2 times per week.

Time: 10-30 minutes or more/session (depending on how you are feeling and if your schedule allows for it.)

 Intensity: Moderate-slightly vigorous (6-7.5 on a 1-10 Rate of Perceived Exertion scale/you’re feeling slightly breathless, working up a sweat, getting your heart rate up, but still able to speak a sentence).

 

Interval Training Guidelines:

 

  • You can either perform incline interval walking (done either on a treadmill or outdoors), or intervals on a bike or rower.
  • If you are going to start running, then please use the following interval training format to GRADUALLY incorporate more running into your fitness program. If you’ve already been doing running intervals and your body feels good during and afterwards (NO pain, discomfort, or dysfunction whatsoever), then you may be ready to start adding in more steady state running for short distances or time:
    • Keep your “working” intervals short in duration (15-30 seconds) and your rest periods AT LEAST twice as long as the working intervals. If your work intervals are going to be 15-30 seconds, then you will rest in between each work interval for AT LEAST 30-60 seconds.
  • Your total time doing interval training should be NO MORE than 20 minutes per session.
  • Frequency: No more than 1-2 interval training sessions per week.
  • Intensity: Moderate to slightly vigorous (6-7 on a 1-10 Rate of Perceived Exertion scale).

 

9-12 (+) Months Postpartum

 

So,you’re getting closer to the one-year postpartum mark.  You may be feeling more like yourself in your body again…especially as you get close to 12 months postpartum.  You’ve probably settled in nicely to a routine by now.  And maybe you’ve even been able to be more consistent with your workouts now that your babe is a bit older.  Or, maybe this is not the case at all, and that’s perfectly fine as well. Every baby is different and every family dynamic is different.

 

Even if you are feeling like you’ve settled into your body more and your way of life by now, I still want you to consider what we talked about earlier: It can take up to two years for a woman’s body to entirely heal from pregnancy…sometimes even longer if you are breastfeeding. Please, please keep this in mind as you continue to dial up the intensity of your workouts.

 

There is something else I want you to keep in mind since part of my day is also spent coaching high intensity CrossFit-style group classes (and considering it’s all the rage these days): You don’t need to feel incredibly wiped out or exhausted after a workout or feel incredibly sore for days after a workout in order for it to be considered a “good workout”.  While there are some great benefits to high-intensity training, when done correctly and within reason, I really try and stress to my coaching clients that there’s no need to rush back into these style of workouts again the second they begin feeling stronger and more physically capable.

 

Motherhood is stressful enough when you’re chasing after kids and running on just a few hours of sleep every day!  I’m all for challenging myself during a workout, but not to the point where it has me feeling completely whipped afterwards.  During pregnancy and postpartum, we want to focus on quality over quantity of exercise/workouts and a balance between stressful and stress-relieving  activities.  Lastly, you don’t have to bump up the intensity of your workouts.  If you’re just not feeling it, then don’t force it.

 

9-12 (+) Months Postpartum Strength Training:

 

Frequency: 2-4 days per week

Time: 20-60 minutes per session (depending on your schedule; you can also feel free to break your workout up into small chunks throughout the day if you primarily exercise at home).

Intensity:  Moderate-Vigorous Intensity (6-8 on a 1-10 Rate of Perceived Exertion scale)

Activities:  Slightly heavier barbell work (possibly 6-8 rep max weight depending on how you have been feeling and progressing through your workouts over the previous months, deadlifts, back squats, front squats, bench press , overhead presses, cleans, snatches and their variations), kettlebell work (including but not limited to swings, cleans, snatches, windmills, bent-presses, Turkish Get-Ups, and heavier dumbbell work), bodyweight exercises (full push-ups and front planks and their variations, more advanced pull-up and chin-up progressions or unassisted versions), heavier resistance band training, heavier weighted glute bridges and hip thrusts (possibly with the barbell), more challenging core work (e.g. ab rollouts, advanced dead bug and leg lower variations, heavier farmer’s carries and their variations, advanced side plank and Pallof Press variations), heavier medicine ball work, slightly more challenging met-cons and high intensity intervals.

*Again…all of these recommendations are hinging on whether or not you have healed your DR, you show no signs or symptoms of ANY sort of pelvic floor dysfunction, and you have gradually focused on building up your strength in all the movement patterns to handle a bit more rigorous training.  Now is also the time to book that appointment with a women’s health physical therapist, if you haven’t done so already.  We especially want to be sure that everything is functioning well with your core and pelvic floor as the intensity builds with your workouts.

 

9-12 (+) Months Postpartum Cardio:

 

Activities:  Any activity outside of daily leisurely walking: biking, swimming, rowing, hiking, steady state running, etc.

Frequency:  1-2 times per week.

Time: 10-30 minutes or more/session (depending on how you are feeling and if your schedule allows for it).

Intensity: Moderate-slightly vigorous (6-7.5 on a 1-10 Rate of Perceived Exertion scale/you’re feeling slightly breathless, working up a sweat, getting your heart rate up, but still able to speak a sentence).

 

Interval Training Guidelines:

 

Whatever form of activity you choose for your interval training (running, biking, rowing, incline walking, stair climbing), remember to keep your “working” intervals short in duration (15-30 seconds) and your rest periods AT LEAST twice as long as the working intervals. If your work intervals are going to be 15-30 seconds, then you will rest in between each work interval for AT LEAST 30-60 seconds.

 

  • Keep your interval training sessions to 20 minutes or less per session.
  • Frequency: 1-2 interval training sessions per week.
  • Intensity: Moderate to vigorous (6-8 on a 1-10 Rate of Perceived Exertion scale).

 

If you’d like to learn more about the types of workouts you can perform throughout your first year as a new mom click here!

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