Are you ready to return to exercise after having a baby? That depends.
After both of my pregnancies I remember feeling the itch to move. Exercise in all forms has always been an integral part of my routine, and I wanted SO badly to have that ME time. But, with a newborn I often found it difficult to squeeze in workouts, meal time/prep, and allot time for much needed self care and sleep. Did I want to exercise? Heck yes. But, I quickly learned that movement was going to look a bit different with a baby around. I needed to adjust my expectations, take breaks, ask for help, and approach my workouts in a smart way so that my body was physically and mentally ready for the task at hand.
With my most recent postpartum recovery I started very slow and mindfully with diaphragmatic breathing, pelvic floor connection, core rehab exercises, and pelvic floor physically therapy (still going monthly). Since I knew Micah was my last pregnancy I also didn’t feel the added pressure of “recovery” in a specified timeline. Another big difference from my first postpartum experience was I intentionally chose to ignore others’ postpartum bodies, recoveries, and social media posts. This was MY body and my journey and I would take as long as I needed to recover and return back to activities I enjoyed free of any pain, discomfort, or pelvic floor symptoms.
But once I started adding more movement into my daily routine (workouts + day-to-day tasks), there were a few things I considered for monitoring my progress, goals, and symptoms.
How to Approach Fitness Postpartum
1. Pressure Management
Consider these questions:
- Are you able to manage pressure within your core during movement?
- What about during movement that is unexpected (e.g. sneeze, cough, quick change in direction)?
- Do you experience any pelvic floor symptoms that indicate you may not be properly managing pressure (e.g. leaking, heaviness)?
After having a baby our core is in a state of “healing” and we have to be mindful of how we load or overload it. If we overload the core (progress too fast too soon) or have less than optimal breath and pressure management strategies, then we may inhibit the healing process, or bring on symptoms.
What is pressure management? Your core uses pressure to stabilize your spine and torso. Our core actually turns “on” before we initiate any other movement (like reaching for something in the fridge). Crazy right?! On an inhale breath, the diaphragm descends, expanding the abdomen and relaxing the pelvic floor. On exhale, the diaphragm ascends and the pelvic floor and transverse abdominals follow by gently contracting in response to the exhale. That contraction provides stability, strength and control on the exhale breath. Breath plays a huge role in how we manage pressure. For many, the relaxation component of the inhale is the hardest because we have no idea to truly relax our stomach and pelvic floor thanks to years of sucking in. If breath patterns are impacted by sucking in or we hold tension or breath hold throughout our workouts / day-to-day, than we may experience an imbalance of pressure. This is when symptoms may pop up.
Consider this: where are we directing the pressure? Is the pressure being evenly distributed, or is directed more to specific areas, like out onto a diastasis or down onto your pelvic floor? Postpartum our goal is an even distribution of force. Pushing out on our abdomen, or belly breathing like patterns, and coning/doming would indicate too much pressure on our abdominals. Bearing down on the pelvic floor or a feeling of heaviness would also indicate too much pressure. In our core we tend to direct pressure towards areas of least resistance. If we are continuously sucking in, the pressure has nowhere to go but down (pelvic floor).
Video: Get Mom Strong
This is so KEY postpartum because how we breath impacts our body from the inside out. If our breathing strategy helps maintain a balanced system, we decrease the severity or chances for dysfunction, and increase healing. We all breathe 25,000 times/day, but HOW we do it matters.
How are you managing pressure during planned movement and unexpected movement? Planned movement would be during your workouts and unexpected would be something like a sneeze. Are you experiencing symptoms of pressure mismanagement during one of these, or both? Ultimately we want to get to the point where we are symptom free in both scenarios and we don’t have to think about it too much.
As you move about your day and your workouts, tune into how you’re feeling and how your body responds to movement. Are you bearing down? Do you feel heaviness or discomfort in your pelvis/vagina? Do you notice any coning/doming? This is a sign that we may need to make some adjustments. An example would be decreasing the weight, range of motion, or breath. The goal would be to continue making adjustments until we find a symptom free zone.
2. Posture and Finding Neutral
Consider these questions:
- How do you maintain your form and position during static movements (standing posture, setting up for a lift)?
- How do you maintain your form during actual movement (moving through the exercise)?
Managing pressure postpartum is a combination of posture and breathing. Our body position / alignment is step one when setting up for a movement and truly lays the foundation for taking on a demand. Our muscles work best in a mid-range position and for your core this is in a neutral spine. A quick reminder that neutral is a range and your neutral may look and feel different than someone else’s. But, there are more optimal positions for our spine to be in, particularly when we start adding load.
Postpartum we may find ourselves in less optimal position with some compensatory patterns. After all, we just grew a human! For example, the thoracic spine tends to get super tight, but it’s meant to rotate, flex, extend, and be mobile. Postpartum we want to add some thoracic rotation and breath work to allow for some movement, or the low back may jump in to help. However, our low back (lumbar spine) is meant to be stable.
I took this photo at 39 weeks pregnant. The weight of the belly is pulling my pelvis forward, pushing my body into an Anterior Pelvic Tilt position. I also have a bit of a glute squeeze/tuck 🙂 Postpartum this position tends to linger. Spending some time experimenting and finding neutral is important before we progress in exercise. Your postpartum core work should also emphasize movement and breath in a neutral position.
What is neutral? Neutral is when our ribs are generally stacked over our pelvis, so shoulder aligned with center of hip. We can find neutral by using a mirror to see when our shoulder is aligned with the middle of the hip.
I share a fun trick to find your neutral in this post.
To minimize injury or symptoms, working through neutral and breath is SO important before advancing postpartum. Loading a barbell on a weak core in a non optimal position can lead to injury. If you are feeling a bit wonky, I encourage you to adjust the load, decrease range of motion, or regress the movement until you find a symptom free zone.
Consider this questions:
- How does breath strategy change postpartum?
- What breath allows you to feel the most supported in movement?
After we are set up in position, we focus on the breath. Postpartum I typically recommend “blow before you go” or “exhale on exertion.”
Exhale on exertion: We want to exhale when our muscles are activating, or performing the hardest part of the movement. I exhale AS I move. An example would be a dead bug. We want to exhale as we extend our arm away from the body. We want to inhale as the muscles are lengthening or stretching, or when we are bringing the arm back towards the body.
- Lift and squeeze in the pelvic floor. I like using a pilates ball early postpartum to help build that mind/muscle connection.
- With the squeeze the lower abdominals and back turn on.
- Think about emptying from the bottom up, something I learned from Stacey.
Blow before you go: This is something I incorporate during loaded movements, specifically a squat or deadlift. This means we start our exhale to engage the core before we initiate the movement. This better prepares us for the movement by stabilizing our core. As I get ready to descend into my squat I exhale and engage my core, then move down and up.
4. General Wellbeing
Consider these questions:
- What does your support system look like?
- How much sleep are you getting?
- Do you drink / eat enough?
- How are you feeling overall?
- Do your workouts leave you feeling sore/depleted? (not the goal)
Rest, proper nutrition, hydration, and support are crucial to postpartum physical and mental wellbeing. Working out on 3 hours of broken sleep is going to be draining, and quite honestly – not enjoyable. Exercise is stress on the body. Ask yourself – does my body need more stress right now? Maybe a walk, mobility flow, or even just an hour soaking in the bath is what you need.
Early postpartum workouts should also not leave you feeling sore and depleted. The goal is to restore function, (re) learn foundational movement patterns, and leave you feeling good and successful. If you are too sore I would bet the movement is too advanced (for now) or we need to dial back something in the program (e.g. reps, range of motion, load).
As you can see from above there is A LOT to consider in a return to movement postpartum. Breath, posture/alignment, pressure management, and general wellbeing are four things I like to look at with every mama.
You got this mama.