Working in the postnatal wellbeing field, one of the most common questions I get from new mums is this:
What type of postnatal exercise is safe for me, and what exercises should I avoid?
It’s a difficult question to answer in a blog post – because the answer will be different for each woman. What is and isn’t considered to be safe will depend on several factors, such as the woman’s level of fitness before and during pregnancy, the type of birth she had (vaginal or Caesarean), whether she had a traumatic birth, or perhaps an episiotomy or perineal tear, how well her pelvic floor is restoring to full function, whether she has an abdominal separation (diastasis recti) and how severe it is, how much rest she’s currently getting at the time, whether she had significant blood loss during labour which might have affected her iron levels….
The list goes on and on, because the factors are very diverse, which is why in my clinic I always undertake a detailed initial assessment for each new Mum who comes to see me for rehabilitation.
But I know this isn’t possible for everyone, so I’ve put together a list of the five most important moves for new mothers to avoid.
When looking at this list it’s important to remember that these restrictions aren’t FOREVER! I know some women might see the list and become frustrated or demotivated, but please remember that by sticking to the guidelines now, you’re likely to recover from your pregnancy and delivery much quicker, which will enable you to get back to the fun stuff a lot sooner – and with less ongoing problems (such as embarrassing leakage issues in Body Attack!)
So the following moves are best avoided for the first several weeks (or months) until such time that you are fully healed from pelvic floor issues, diastasis recti, back pain, and C-section surgery. Remember that every woman heals at a different rate, so to be really sure you should seek advice and support from a women’s health OT, women’s health physio, or a fitness trainer with excellent training in postnatal wellbeing.
The top five types of exercises for new mothers to AVOID
Exercises that put lots of strain on the belly – such as crunches, sit ups, or double leg lifts. These all increase the “intra-abdominal pressure” in the torso, and can worsen an abdominal separation or increase pelvic floor dysfunction.
High impact activities
Running, jumping, bouncing on a trampoline, jumping jacks, burpees, box jumps, skipping, Body Attack classes. These also put increased pressure on the pelvic floor musculature, which can lead to or worsen incontinence.
Heavy overhead work
Such as lifting heavy weights over your head – again can result in increased intra-abdominal pressure, plus, if you don’t have good core control – which is common post pregnancy due to weakened abdominals, there is a danger of lower back injury.
Moves where your legs stretch apart from each other at speed
Splits, sumo squats, skiing type movements, mountain climbers, jumping jacks, kickboxing – place additional strain on your pelvic floor muscles and ligaments
Moves where your belly is hanging down – such as planks. Now this is a bit of a controversial one, as lots of new mums and trainers like to use planks, because they know they shouldn’t be doing sit ups (see point 1!). But it’s best to use caution with planks early on, and to make sure that if you’re going to do them, that you’re able to properly engage your abdominal muscles, to prevent poor form and potential back pain.
Right, so what CAN I do??
Well firstly, remember, these guidelines are only to be in place until you’re HEALED! So please don’t fret, or get impatient! It’s best to grade your workouts down a notch for a few months to make sure you heal fully, and start gradually building back up. Please don’t jump back in full-bore, and risk exacerbating a condition that hadn’t quite healed, or creating a brand new problem.
Things that are great in the early months (after six week check up) include:
Walking : Seriously this is the best – on your own, with a friend, or grab the pram and take bubs around the block – use good form and walk mindfully – don’t just stroll, really think about your stride, your posture and your breathing. Keep upright, shoulders back and down, core “on” while walking – especially when pushing a pram!
Pilates: My absolute favourite – you can choose from mat or equipment classes –Just make sure you let your instructor know you are postnatal. Everything in Pilates can be modified or replaced, so if your instructor doesn’t alter any exercises for you, think about how much knowledge they have – don’t be afraid to ASK them about what post-natal training they’ve done! Mums and Bubs classes are great as they are tailored for post-natal women.
Yoga – another great low impact option. Again, let your instructor know you are postnatal, be gentle with your body and don’t push too far into any pose. Remember you may still have some amounts of relaxin running through your body, which keeps your ligaments more prone to over-stretching. Also, avoid hot or bikram yoga if you’re still breastfeeding.
Weights – weights are a fantastic way to build strength and fitness back up after baby, they’re also a great way to address potential muscle imbalances that arise in new Mums. It’s best to avoid group classes until you’re healed and I recommend booking some one to one sessions with a trainer to check your form and set up a program if you’re not familiar with weight training.
Finally, a word on instructors and group fitness classes:
As I mentioned earlier in the article, don’t assume your instructor or trainer has any knowledge about working with postnatal clients. There are so many amazing trainers out there. But unfortunately many of them don’t have specialised training in working with pregnant and postnatal clients. There’s a lot happening in the postnatal body, and recovery can often take a lot longer than we think it will. There’s also a lot going on ‘inside’ our body that we can’t see, which we should be mindful of when it comes time to get back to exercise. So always ask your trainer what postnatal training and qualifications they have, and ask them to talk about how they will adapt a program for you. If you’re not happy with their response – find another trainer! You only get one body, so make sure you find someone who’s going to help you look after it!
Also, let’s just chat about group fitness classes. Quite often group classes will have up to 30 – or even more – people in the class. So it’s difficult for a trainer (even one who knows you are postnatal) to watch you carefully and remind you of all the modifications. So there’s a lot of responsibility on the postnatal woman (ie. You!) to make sure you know your restrictions when it comes to these classes, which often feature lots of the movements I mentioned above. Also, be particularly cautious of energy in group classes. When something is super fun and inspiring, it can be quite easy to get “dragged along with the crowd” and attempt moves that are outside of your comfort zone, or to feel like you’re not doing enough and want to measure up to everyone else.
My final piece of advice…
Just be patient, take these first few months to really get to know and respect your body, and do the right thing by it. Trust me – your body will thank you for it down the track – and hopefully never let your pelvic floor fail during Body Attack!
Until next time, keep well.
Cheers, Sarah xx
ps. If you’d like to know more about how best to regain strength and function while recovering from pregnancy and childbirth, check out my Body Mind Baby online postnatal wellbeing program, our next program begins on May 2. Register before April 22 to take advantage of our early bird pricing – just $117 down from $147.