It’s tempting to hit the gym running when getting the “all-clear” from your doctor to start performing postpartum exercises. And if only it was that easy. During pregnancy, the body undergoes massive changes as it makes room for carrying a baby, causing muscles, ligaments, and tendons to stretch and loosen. This physical change can be hard to experience as you may feel weakness where there was strength and instability where there was strong stabilization.
The great news is, that during the fourth trimester, there are key moves you can do to strengthen your pelvic floor and restore your core strength and health. And with a little patience, knowledge, and help from a pelvic floor physical therapist, you’ll not only regain your core strength post-baby but just might return to your training routine stronger than before thanks to building a strong pelvic floor.
Ab Separation & The Pelvic Floor Explained:
Diastasis recti – the dreaded abdominal muscle separation in the front of the core is feared by many expectant mothers. Thankfully, “Diastasis recti is normal, and it doesn’t mean your abs are ruined,” says Rachel Trotta, NASM-certified personal trainer, specializing in women’s fitness, prenatal and postnatal, nutrition, and therapeutic exercise.
During pregnancy, the core tends to become stretched and separated. As the pregnancy progresses and the baby grows, the abdominal muscles are in a habitually lengthened and weakened position. “Similarly, the pelvic floor (which is the muscular base of the abdomen, attached to the pelvis), comes under stress,” says Trotta. “Months of carrying extra weight — not to mention labor itself — puts pressure on the hammock-like muscles of the pelvic floor.” She explains.
Since the core and pelvic floor are hugely responsible for everything from balance to being able to hold your pee, things are going to feel a little “off” when a new mom returns to exercise. “Something as small as sneezing or as unexpected as stepping off a curb can trigger urine leakage, and either end of the spectrum — overdoing it, or not exercising at all — can encourage symptoms like pelvic pressure or lower back pain,” says Trotta.
More good news: With proper attention during the postpartum period, you can not only recover completely, but come back stronger, faster, and fitter than ever!
The Best Postpartum Exercise: Single-Leg Exercises
Single-leg moves, also called unilateral exercises, are moves in which you either balance on one leg or one leg is pulling most of the load. Trotta loves single-leg work for postpartum women for three reasons:
- Using one leg at a time imitates common, functional movements – like kneeling to pick up your baby, climbing stairs, or even stumbling and catching yourself. You need balance and coordination for real life.
- We tend to have a “favorite” side, and this habit will only be accentuated during the postpartum period when you will find yourself holding your baby more often on one side. Doing single-leg exercises helps to even out muscular imbalances and prevent resulting discomfort (like back pain).
- Single-leg exercises give your body a unique challenge that helps to strengthen your abdominal and pelvic muscles postpartum. Using only one side of your body demands more balance and stability from your core muscles, which means your core and pelvic floor will recover faster and smarter. No more leaks!
5 Postpartum Exercises To Avoid
While all women are unique in their recovery journey, it is generally advised to avoid the following exercises and other similar exercises until at least six weeks postpartum—sometimes even later:
- Leg Raises (from your back)
“These moves create a high amount of what’s called “intra-abdominal pressure,” which can adversely affect diastasis recti recovery, pelvic floor coordination, and wound healing in the early postpartum period,” says Trotta.
Although many women are technically cleared by their obstetrician to resume exercise at 6 weeks, Trotta encourages her postpartum moms to consider this a time for rebuilding, not picking up where they left off pre-pregnancy.
Instead of jumping into a vigorous exercise routine (even jogging) to lose weight, Trotta likes to frame the “fourth trimester” as a time to strengthen the pelvic floor, rebuild the core, and prevent urine leakage.
Incorporating Postpartum Exercises into Your Lifestyle and Workouts:
(Keep in mind, if you had a C-section, you’ll need to get official clearance from your doctor before doing any type of exercise.)
For the first two weeks, Trotta highly recommends new moms avoid any formal exercise and simply focus on recovering, taking short walks, and getting to know their new baby. “Take advantage of floor time with your baby to do belly breathing exercises, easy stretches, and mobility exercises” says Trotta.
This period is also a fantastic time to build a relationship with a pelvic floor physical therapist, who can give you personalized exercises to promote pelvic floor recovery. Here, Trotta shares a quote from an experienced pelvic floor physical therapist, Kim Breslin.
“Whether a woman births a baby vaginally or via C-section, she will absolutely benefit from seeing a pelvic floor physical therapist. The body goes through major physical changes during pregnancy, labor, and delivery and deserves special attention when healing postpartum. There is no one-size-fits-all exercise for healing the pelvic floor (Kegels are not the answer!) but seeing a specialist can help solve tricky symptoms like bladder leakage, prolapse, abdominal separation, or pelvic pain that can be a barrier to resuming workouts.”
Before you are formally cleared to exercise, you can begin re-strengthening your muscles and support your recovery by continuing your breathing exercises and adding lots of stroller walking and careful stair-climbing (in real-life situations, not at the gym). You can also practice your single leg strength with:
- Quadruped leg extensions
- Standing from half kneeling
- Stroller walking uphill
At this point, many women are cleared for formal exercise.
“Instead of jumping right back into a running or HIIT class routine, incorporate single-leg exercises like these into moderate workouts to gradually rehabilitate your core and pelvic floor,” says Trotta.
For each move, start with 8 reps per side, and progress to 20 reps per side.
- Single-leg sit-to-stands
- Single leg bridges
- Bodyweight split squats
- Side-lying leg lifts
Practice doing these exercises with proper breathing, allowing the pelvic floor to relax between each rep. “Even though you may be feeling the urge to “tone” or “flatten” your postpartum core, I would continue to discourage direct ab workouts, running, and high-intensity training.” Recommends Trotta.
Once you’ve cleared “the fourth trimester,” you’re significantly recovered and can most likely resume your regular workouts and incorporate many ab exercises with good breathing and control. “But stay on the lookout for concerning symptoms like urine leakage, pelvic heaviness, or abdominal “doming” when you sit up – gradual increases in intensity can help prevent pelvic floor dysfunction, even if you’re itching to jump right back into your regular routine.” Warns Trotta.
More advanced single-leg postpartum exercises Trotta recommends at this point include:
- Weighted single-leg deadlifts
- Pistol squats
- Reverse lunge to single-leg jump
The postpartum period is not a time to be inactive, but it’s also wise to adopt the mentality of “practicing slow to progress fast.” It’s not a time to push yourself, but instead, to lay a foundation of solid fitness, breathing coordination, and core strength that will both tone your abs and boost your athleticism for years to come.
The Postpartum Workout for a Stronger Core
(This is an example bodyweight workout, short and sweet for a mom with a 6–12-week-old baby.)
Instructions: Perform 8 reps of each of the following exercises (8 per side for the single-leg exercises), rest 60 seconds, then repeat as many times as you can within 12 minutes. Perform slowly and carefully, with good breathing.