Even our (very inadequate) maternity leave in the United States suggests that there’s a short timeframe after giving birth in which to recover. Although the Family and Medical Act covers many people, this only guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. (P.S. the US is the only wealthy country in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave.)
“Something I tell new mothers, and constantly remind myself of, is that it took 40 weeks to make your baby. ‘Snapping back’ after that amount of literal expansion is simply a myth,” says P.volve trainer Cecily McCullough. “You’re not a rubber band. You went through one of the most physically and hormonally dramatic changes of your life.”
Founder of Body By Simone Simone de la Rue, who recently launched a six-week postnatal program, adds that phrases like “get your body back” put unsustainable pressure on people who’ve just been through a lot. “Our bodies have housed a growing human for nine months, and then given birth. Not to mention being sleep deprived, stressed from trying to breastfeed, and dealing with the hormonal changes,” she says.
Women should be given realistic expectations of what their bodies will look and feel like—there will most likely be stretch marks, lower belly swelling, wider hips as well as a lack of strength, stamina, and endurance. “This is all normal and should be celebrated,” de la Rue says. Feeling forced to try to return to your pre-baby body as quickly as possible is not only an unhealthy mindset, but “it sets women up for failure, and takes away from the joy of motherhood.”
A smarter postnatal workout approach
When it comes to postnatal fitness, to make sure the exercises you’re practicing are safe and effective, seek out trainers and programs that are certified in postnatal fitness and that follow the latest medical advice. “With P.volve, we’re constantly working with our clinical advisory board to co-create workouts to ensure our method is rooted in science and research,” McCullough says.
So what does safe postnatal exercise look like? Initially, you’ll want to avoid high-impact activity or intense cardio—so skip the burpees and jumping, along with core twisting exercises and heavy weight-lifting until your body has fully healed, de la Rue says.
Body By Simone’s six-week postnatal program starts at a gentle pace of three 20-minute workouts a week to help regain strength and stamina. “There is absolutely no rush, and no pressure to return to working out every day,” de la Rue says. It will probably feel like you are starting from the beginning, but that’s okay—give yourself some grace and “literally take baby steps on your return.”
And don’t expect to progress on the exact same timeline as everyone else in your new moms’ group. “Realize that every body and every pregnancy is different,” she adds. Get clearance from your OB/GYN on what you can do and when, but also listen to your own body. “If anything does not feel comfortable, then don’t continue,” de la Rue says.
The most useful postnatal exercises
So what sorts of things should you be doing as you get your body moving again?
1. Dynamic stretching
McCullough says that dynamic stretching is a great place to begin exercising again. “It’s a gentler way of moving and stretching without overexerting,” she says.
2. Transverse abdominis breathing and kegels
The most important exercises, according to de la Rue, are transverse abdominis breathing (TVA) and kegel exercises. Both can be started during pregnancy and then carried on postnatal. “TVA breathing is a gentle way to start to reconnect to your core with no strain put on your abdominals,” she says. “If you do this exercise correctly it can feel the equivalent to sit-ups.” She added that Kegel exercises are extremely important if you have had a vaginal birth. Both of these exercises can be done standing or seated.
3. Biceps exercises
McCullough also recommends biceps exercises, noting that your biceps are probably the one part of your body that’s stronger post-pregnancy because “you have to hold your 10-pound bundle of love in a low-bicep isolation for what feels like days!”
4. Standing and quadruped ab exercises
It is vital to give your abdominal wall time to heal properly before doing any core exercises. According to the Cleveland Clinic, 60 percent of pregnant people experience diastasis recti, or separation of the “six-pack” abs. Although this usually resolves within eight weeks, it can take much longer and require the help of a physical therapist.
Once you’re ready to start engaging your core again, McCullough finds exercises done on all fours and standing abdominals to be the most helpful. “All fours (think bird dog and basically modified planks) allows you to connect back into your abdominals slowly and effectively. Standing abdominals ease your muscles back into a rhythm of using your abs while moving,” she says.
The mental approach
“This is one of the most special times in your life. Those early months you will never get back. Be present with your baby, enjoy every second and do not obsess about your body or your weight gain,” de la Rue says. “Your body will probably never look the same, and that is okay—you have a beautiful child to show for it. You are a warrior!”