Once the initial fog of the newborn bubble has eased, and women are ready to start moving their bodies again postpartum, one of the questions they will often ask is “What are the best exercises after pregnancy”.
Whilst there is a lot we can do in the first 6 weeks postpartum it’s worth checking in with the guidelines around physical activity first to check you are safe to exercise. Find out more here.
Once you are confident that you are safe to exercise postpartum, I really do believe it’s important to get your body moving again. Physical activity has numerous health benefits, as well as helping to boost mental health, which is so important in those first few months of parenthood (and beyond)
What are the best postpartum exercises?
No matter how you gave birth (vaginally or abdominally) there’s a lot we can do in the first 6 weeks that can help speed up your postnatal recovery. If you had a straightforward, vaginal birth you may find you feel ready to do these postpartum exercises in the first week or so post birth, whilst a more complicated delivery may mean you want to wait a little longer to start.
Here are 4 of the best exercises after pregnancy for weeks 1-6:
- Breathwork – during pregnancy our breathing is affected due to the uterus extending upwards towards the diaphragm and limiting its ability for a deep inhale. This can encourage a shallow breathing pattern which can lead to tightness in the chest and neck, reduced function of the abdominal canister (abdominals, pelvic floor, back muscles) and a feeling of anxiety and stress. Postnatally we want to relearn how to breathe deeply and efficiently, making the most of each inhale. When you inhale imagine the breath heading down towards the pelvic floor and encourage the ribcage to open out in all directions (360 degrees). As you exhale keep exhaling until there is no air left in the lungs. Practice 4-6 of these, each day. Breathwork like this also helps to stimulate the Vagus nerve which is responsible for our “rest and digest” reaction (ie it will calm us down).
- Kegels – also known as pelvic floor exercises these are a great way to bring tone and function back to the pelvic floor. Even if you had an abdominal/caesarean birth your pelvic floor may need some attention after 9 months of carrying your growing uterus. Pelvic floor exercises will build strength and help reduce your chances of Urinary Stress Incontinence and prolapse. Aim for 10 holds (of up to 8 seconds each) and 10 pulses (fast and quick), 2-3 times per day for maximum benefits. You can read more about postpartum pelvic floor exercises here.
- Deep core activation – during pregnancy your abdominal muscles will have stretched and lengthened to accommodate your growing bump. Postpartum it can take a little while, and some stimulation, for the abdominals to revert and gain their full strength. Including some deep core activation exercises in your daily routine will help bring function back to the core.
- Walking – Once you feel ready to, and have the energy to, you can start including short walks into your daily routine. These should be built up gradually and are also a great way to get some fresh air, and some Vitamin D. If you are babywearing please make sure that the sling or carrier is comfortable and there is some lumbar support to carry the weight of your baby.
In some countries you may have access to a 6/8 week check up with your doctor and can speak with them about physical activity and have them check any scars. However, for many this isn’t the case, but you may feel physically able to do more demanding physical activity around this time.
Here are 4 of the best postpartum exercises for weeks 6+:
- Hip Hinges – these are one of my favourite go-to exercises for all parents. We spend so much of our day bending down to pick up children, changing nappies, bathing our children etc. It’s so important that we develop good habits, and have the strength to perform these movements well, and this is where hip hinges come in.
Stand in a neutral starting position (feet hip-width, knees soft, pelvis and spine neutral). Bring hands to prayer position. Inhale and start to bow from the hips, hinging forward until the spine is as parallel to the floor as your flexibility allows. The knees should still be soft but not bent. Exhale and start to press the feet into the floor, bringing the body back to standing in neutral. Repeat for 12-14 reps.
- Thoracic Extensions – when we spend so long looking down at our children, we end up with our thoracic spine (our upper back) in deeper flexion and this can create a lot of tension in that area. Thoracic extension helps to build strength in the upper back and opens the chest to help ease that tension.
Stand in a neutral starting position (feet hip-width, knees soft, pelvis and spine neutral). Bring fingers to the temples, elbows wide. Inhale and as you do so start to take the eyeline up towards the ceiling and let the chest go with it. We are trying to lengthen the upper back, not dump into the lower back. Exhale to bring the ribcage back to neutral and repeat 12-14 times.
- Zips – these are a great way to encourage engagement of the pelvic floor and TVA (your corset muscle that wraps around the trunk). These muscles give us more support when we lift our children, or lift heavy loads, so are really important postnatally.
Start on hands and knees, with the back neutral (imagine there is a tray of coffee on your back that you don’t want to spill). Imagine a zip running vertically from your tailbone, up to your sternum. Inhale and then as you exhale imagine being zipped up. This means closing the anus, vagina, urethra and then drawing the lower tummy in slightly like you’re doing up tight jeans. On the inhale slowly relax, essentially unzipping. Repeat for 6-8 reps.
- Rows – Rowing exercises are so great at supporting good posture! As parents we spend so much time cuddling our children, feeding them etc and these positions pull the shoulder blades apart. This can leave us feeling very hunched over, and the shoulders can start to round. Rowing exercises build strength in the mid traps and rhomboids, which in turn can help realign the shoulder blades.
Start in a kneeling position, with a resistance band in your hands, arms reaching forward at shoulder height, and shoulder-width apart. Inhale, and as you exhale start to bend the elbows backwards, pulling your hands apart and drawing the band closer to you (as if you are rowing). Visualise the shoulder blades drawing closer together and try to keep the spine neutral as you move. Inhale to release back to start position. Repeat for 8-12 reps.
And then what?
As you start to feel stronger the goal is to eventually build back up to roughly 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week, in line with the Chief Medical Officers Guidelines for adults. It’s important that you take your time and listen to your body as you gradually build back up to your previous fitness regimes. This is a marathon, not a race so don’t compare to others!
I genuinely believe that the Best Exercises After Pregnancy are the type you enjoy, and that help you feel safe and supported throughout. You can do it!
Best Exercises After Pregnancy – Useful Links:
- Risks of exercising too soon postpartum
- Postpartum pelvic floor exercises
- How soon after pregnancy can you exercise – exercise after birth?
- ‘Postnatal exercise: The best workouts for building up your fitness again’ – Read here