Your Week-By-Week Guide to Postpartum Exercise

Your Week-By-Week Guide to Postpartum Exercise

By Peri Hughes, Pre & Postnatal Exercise Expert, Founder of PH Method

Congrats, Mama! You’ve completed the marathon of growing, carrying, and birthing a tiny human. It’s no easy feat. After an initial period of resting (as much as you can) and soaking up the magic of newborn life, you may be itching to start moving your body again. But when is it safe to work out, and where do you even begin? In this article, I break it all down for you, helping you safely navigate returning to exercise postpartum.


But first a bit about me: I’m a former dancer and certified pre/postnatal exercise specialist, and I learned first-hand when my two littles were born that pregnancy and childbirth are the two biggest events your body can go through. The physical transformation is huge (thank goodness for Ingrid+Isabel’s super stretchy activewear!), but the emotional change is something no one prepares you for. You’re going through a major identity shift as you enter into motherhood so returning to something familiar and invigorating like exercise has more benefits than you know.

When is it Safe to Work Out Again?


Whether you birthed your baby vaginally or via C-section, it’s important to remember that your body has gone through a physical trauma, and for some women, major abdominal surgery. The initial weeks post-birth are a critical time for you to rest, heal, nourish, and restore your body as you bond with your baby.


The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends new mothers resume normal physical activity and exercise 6 weeks after vaginal delivery and 8 weeks post C-section. However, you probably won’t feel ready to get back to your pre-pregnancy routine without giving your pelvic floor and deep core muscles some love first. The good news? You can start with some gentle exercises to reclaim some strength earlier than 6-8 weeks. In fact, the sooner you start the better. So grab yourself a supportive legging… here’s my week-by-week postpartum workout plan to help you heal.


Weeks 1-3: Rest & Restore


During those first few weeks postpartum, minimum physical exertion is advised. You’re probably still bleeding as your uterus contracts down to its pre-pregnancy size, and the internal wound on the uterine wall left behind by the placenta starts to repair. During this period, I recommend gentle walks that you can gradually increase in length as you start feeling better. Not only does this help improve circulation, getting outside can do wonders for an exhausted Mama’s mental health… I know it did for me!


During this time, you can also begin to safely stimulate the deep core muscles with a simple breathing technique called “360 breathing.” When performed correctly, it’s the best abdominal exercise you can do for your body right now—and it’s just breathing! Gentle enough to be performed in the days immediately following birth, it simulates the body's relaxation response and helps slowly build your mind-muscle connection. Here’s how to do it…

Photo credit: Peri Hughes


360 Breathing
Find a comfortable seat either on a chair or sitting cross legged. Sit up tall with your ribs aligned over your hips and your ears over your shoulders. Bring one hand to your belly and one to the side of your ribcage. Take a deep inhale through your nose, breathing deep into your ribcage and your belly. On your exhale, purse your lips and visualize a birthday candle 8 inches away from your mouth. Exhale the air out like you are blowing through a straw. Allow the breath to be audible. Every time you exhale, you want to gently hug your deep core muscles towards your spine.

Weeks 3-5: Ab Rehab


Before we get into the next series of exercises, it’s important to note that these are rehabilitative (think: physical therapy after undergoing knee surgery). We need to re-engage the pelvic floor and deep core before we can safely work out again. So once you’ve mastered your 360 breathing, the next step is to begin layering in exercises that will begin strengthening the core muscles from the inside out.


These exercises will also help heal diastasis recti, which you probably know as ab separation. It impacts the majority of pregnant women since as your uterus grows, the connective tissue that brings the abdominal wall together naturally stretches and weakens. In some cases, abdominal separation will heal on its own. However, most women will need to perform some postpartum rehabilitative exercises to help close the gap and restore the tissue underneath. Here are some tried-and-true ones I swear by…

Pelvic Tilt w/ Ball
This exercise is great for bringing awareness and connection back to the pelvic floor. Start in an all 4’s position with hands under shoulders, knees under hips, and a small pilates ball or cushion between your thighs. Inhale into the ribcage and the belly in preparation for movement. On the exhale, begin squeezing the ball/cushion, drawing your pelvic floor muscles up towards your naval, and wrapping your deep core muscles in towards your spine. While you exhale, gently tilt your hip bones up towards your ribcage, elongating your lower back and bringing your pelvis into an posterior pelvic tilt. Inhale, return your pelvis to neutral, and release the contraction of your inner core and pelvic floor. Repeat up to 8x. Tempo should be slow and in coordination with your breath. 

Single Sided Knee Drop
Lay on your back with knees bent and feet hips width on the floor. Bring your hands to rest on the front of your ribcage. Inhale and drop one knee out to the side, keeping both hip bones pointing up towards the sky. Exhale, engage the pelvic floor and deep core and bring the knee back to its original position. As you perform this exercise, you want to make sure the supporting knee stays stable. Repeat 6-8x on each side. 

   


Glute Bridge w/ Ball
This exercise starts to layer in glute activation. Lay on your back with legs bent and feet hips width apart on the floor. Place a small pilates ball or cushion between the inner thighs. Inhale, breathe into the rib cage and belly. Exhale and begin to squeeze the ball/cushion, lift the pelvic floor towards the naval, and wrap your inner core muscles towards your spine as you start to roll your pelvis off the mat and into a bridge position. Keep your shoulder blades cemented to the mat. Inhale and roll all the way down to the floor, releasing your core and pelvic floor at the bottom. Repeat 8-12x. 

  


Side Lying Clamshell w/ Ball
Come to a side lying position with your knees bent and slightly forward of your hips. Use a small pilates ball or cushion to support your waist. Inhale to prepare your body for movement. As you exhale, lift your pelvic floor and wrap your core in towards your spine as you lift the top knee and press it back (think: opening a book). Inhale to lower the leg back down, keeping both hips stacked. Repeat 6-8x on each side.

Why Focus So Much on the Core?


Rebuilding your deep core muscles really is the foundation of a successful postnatal workout program. When you can successfully activate these muscles again, it doesn’t just help build strength. It has a positive impact on your day-to-day by improving posture, protecting your low back, and providing stability to the pelvis and spine. 


Almost immediately post-birth, you will be bending over to pick up your baby. This means loading up the core and pelvic floor right away when it’s at its weakest. A newborn in a car seat can easily weigh close to 12-15lb! The more we can train our bodies to exhale and engage our deep core through exertion, the more we can help protect our pelvic floor and reduce the risk of postpartum injury. 


Weeks 5-8: Rebuilding Strength 


Of course, the goal with any postpartum program is to eventually progress out of the rehabilitative phase, challenge the core in new ways, and build overall strength. This is great news if you want to pick up running again or get back to that pilates class you love. But even better, it will help prepare your body for the physical demands of motherhood like carrying or chasing after a toddler… they say it’s an extreme sport for a reason.


The following exercises will feel progressively more challenging than the ones you completed earlier in this program. They’ll continue to strengthen your core, in addition to the muscles that make up the posterior chain—so necessary for breastfeeding moms who often find themselves in a rounded shoulder position.

 

Fire Hydrant
Begin in an all 4’s position (optional to add a loop resistance band around your thighs). Inhale to prepare for movement. Exhale, lift the pelvic floor and wrap your deep core muscles in towards the spine as you lift one leg directly out to the side. Keep both hips level and shoulders square to the floor. Inhale to return the knee to its original position under the hip. Repeat 6-8x on each side.

      

Bird Dog
Again, start in an all 4’s position with hands under shoulders and knees under hips. As you inhale, extend your opposite arm and leg off the floor and away from the midline. Exhale and engage your core and lift your pelvic floor, bringing the hand and knee together under your belly. Inhale to extend the arm and leg back out. Keep your spine steady and in neutral as you move. Repeat 6-8x on each side. 

  

Reverse Tabletop 
Sit on the floor with your legs bent out in front of you. Lean back with your hands on the floor behind your shoulders to support you. Inhale to prepare your body for movement. As you exhale, root down through your feet and begin lifting your hips off the ground into a reverse tabletop position. Engage your pelvic floor, deep core, and glutes. Chest stays wide and your gaze is looking up to the ceiling. Inhale to lower your hips back to the floor. Repeat 6-8x.

 

How Do You Know if it’s Too Much Too Soon?

As you begin exercising postpartum, your body will give you signs that you’re exerting yourself too much and need to back off. This could include an increase in bleeding, leaking, or even peeing your pants if you do too much before your core and pelvic floor are ready. There’s no shame in it—these symptoms are incredibly common, however that does not mean they should be accepted as normal. Pelvic pain, pressure, or leaking when you’re running or jumping can be signs of pelvic floor dysfunction. If you’re experiencing any of this discomfort, I recommend consulting a pelvic floor physical therapist, who can build a personalized plan to help to heal your core and strengthen your pelvic floor. 


There is so much societal pressure to bounce back after baby. This creates unrealistic expectations for new mothers when they are at their most vulnerable. The truth is it will probably take a lot longer than 6 weeks to feel like yourself again and your body will forever be changed. This doesn’t mean you can’t get to a place of feeling strong and confident in who you are again—it just takes baby steps. Your body took 9 long months to grow your baby, so give yourself grace and time to heal as you enter this new chapter. 



Peri Hughes is a former dancer, master barre instructor, and certified pre/postnatal exercise specialist. Her experience with her first pregnancy moved her to launch PH Method, an evidence-based workout designed to support women on their journey from fertility to pregnancy and motherhood. Her efficient and pregnancy-safe classes help women prepare mentally and physically for the changes these big life transitions can bring. You can work out with Peri live in San Francisco or online anytime via her on demand workouts. For more information, visit phmethod.com.


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