We’ve all seen the superhuman feats of models, celebrities and athletes who seem to instantaneously bounce back from pregnancy and childbirth. But if you’ve just given birth (or are about to), you may be wondering how and when you can get back into the workout game — and is it really that easy?
“Returning to exercise postpartum varies from woman to woman,” says Joanie Johnson from Fit Pregnancy Club in New York City, a fitness studio that caters to pre- and post-natal women. It depends on how active you were before and during your pregnancy. Plus, your body experiences a fair amount of trauma during labor and delivery so it will take time to heal and recover, especially if you had a C-section. Johnson says to ask your doctor to check for diastasis recti (the separation between the right and left sides of your abdominal muscles) and pelvic floor issues, too.
Plus, there’s often a mental hurdle to clear. “Many women feel like they’re completely out of touch with their bodies following pregnancy and birth,” says Johnson, which is normal. “The struggle of starting a fitness journey from an unfamiliar place — while experiencing frustration from the loss of control over the body — can be the biggest obstacle to overcome.”
Taking the First Steps Postpartum
When you do get your doctor’s OK, start slowly, only easing back into your workouts if you feel great. (Read: Don’t start where you left off.) Walking, cardio, yoga, Pilates and swimming are all fair game. You might also seek out fitness classes specifically tailored to postpartum women.
If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve got you covered. We asked Johnson for a postpartum workout plan to help you return to action safely and soundly.
Remember: Activate your core and pelvic floor to initiative all movements and move slowly and with intension. “Slight discomfort is OK when working out but sharp pain is a sign that something is wrong,” says Johnson. If you experience bleeding, dizziness, headache, fever, or sharp pain, call your doctor right away, she says. And make sure to get the go-ahead before you start this routine.
6 Exercises for the Perfect Postpartum Workout
1. Diaphragm Breaths
While you may think that you know how to breathe, the truth is most of us don’t breathe correctly. But diaphragmatic breathing can offer a restorative practice and a quick way to reset your body and mind. “Proper diaphragm breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the rest-and-digest response, massages the organs and enhances lymph flow,” says Johnson. Plus, activating your abdominal muscles while exhaling engages and strengthens your core.
How to: Inhale to a count of four, sending the breath low into the diaphragm and belly. Exhale to a count of four, focusing on wrapping the obliques, transverse abdominis, and rectus abdominis in toward your midline. Every inhale is a release of the muscles while every exhale fully activates, wraps and engages them. While you should feel your belly naturally rise and fall, don’t force your belly out, especially on an exhalation. Complete 6 rounds.
2. Pelvic Floor Lifts
While you may think you only have to worry about your pelvic floor prior to giving birth, you need to heal and strengthen this muscle with a postpartum workout, too. “It’s important to train the engagement and release of these muscles,” says Johnson.
How to: To activate your pelvic floor muscles, imagine the pubic bone, tailbone and both sit bones drawing closer together and up through the center of the body like a kegel. Either hold or pulse, releasing the pelvic floor completely between rounds. Coordinate the pelvic floor lift and pulsing while simultaneously exhaling and wrapping the abdominals. Complete 6 rounds of pulses or holds.
While this familiar move may be a good way to warm up your body during yoga class, it also helps to massage and stretch the abdomen, strengthen the spine and neck, and improve posture, says Johnson. All things your postpartum body needs!
How to: Start with your hands and knees with a neutral pelvis and abdominals engaged. Be sure your shoulders are stationed directly over your wrists and hips directly over the knees. Inhale to cow pose — arch your back and release the abdominals and pelvic floor. Lift your head and tailbone, opening across the chest. Exhale to cat pose — press through your hands and round your spine toward the ceiling, wrapping your abdominals together to engage them and lifting the pelvic floor. Let your head and neck relax. Complete 4 rounds of cat-cow.
4. Crib Lifts
Squatting increases total-body strength and improves hip flexibility. Meanwhile, arm raises build the muscles you need to safely lift a newborn. And doing them together? “[It] creates muscle memory that will support you and protect you postpartum,” says Johnson. Be sure to keep your spine straight, chest reaching forward, and weight in your heels throughout the move, which will help activate your glutes.
How to: Stand with your legs slightly wider than hip-width distance apart and your toes in a natural slightly turned out position. Hold your baby (or an eight-pound weight) and lower into a squat while imagining that you’re lifting your baby out of the crib. Then, engage your abs and feel a lift in the pelvic floor as your return to standing. Complete 8-10 reps.
Clamshells strengthen your hips and glutes. Postpartum, this exercise can also help to support your pelvis and relieve back pain and sciatica (pain in the sciatic nerve, which runs down one or both legs from the lower back), says Johnson.
How to: Lie on your side with your knees bent, legs and hips evenly stacked and neck and spine in one line. Rest your head on your lower arm. Engage your abs and lift through the pelvic floor. Then, keeping your feet together and without shifting your hips, raise your top knee toward the ceiling. Squeeze your glutes as you exhale and hold. Return the upper leg to its starting position for one rep. Complete 20 reps on each side.
6. Neck Stretch
Whether it’s from countless hours of carrying, rocking or breastfeeding your newborn, your neck, shoulders and upper body probably feel a little sore. This stretch will help to relieve the built-up tension. Stop your shoulders from hiking up by releasing them down and away from your ears, and engage your lats down your back.
How to: Tilt your head toward one shoulder while applying gentle pressure to the top of your head with one hand. Hold for 30 seconds and focus on deep belly breathing. Repeat this stretch, holding your neck at different angles that may feel tight. Repeat on the other side.