Mum and baby exercising in a white room

Is it safe to exercise after giving birth?

If you've just had a baby and want to exercise again, but have no idea where to even start (or how to start), then this post is for you. Find out all about your pelvic floor, core muscles and what exactly is safe during your post-partum journey.

Exercise after giving birth is a very important part of a woman’s post-partum recovery.

Exercise can be beneficial to Mum and baby!

Rebuilding strength can help reduce the posture-related pains associated with feeding and carrying a baby (like a sore back and neck); and it can even help with promoting faster recovery in areas that might have needed stitches (like a c-section incision, or any tearing).

But it’s important to know exactly which muscles you should be exercising, and how soon after giving birth you can actually use these muscles.

It’s also good to remember that all pregnancies, labours, births and women are individual, and it’s therefore advisable to get clearance from your midwife or doctor before commencing exercise, as they will have a good understanding of your history, and post-natal care requirements. If you had severe abdominal separation, vaginal tearing, prolapse, or any other such issues, you might need the care of a specialist physiotherapist prior to starting any post-partum exercise.

Your body has undergone enormous physical, and physiological, changes in order for you to become a mother. Do it the curtesy of a decent recovery, and a restorative return to activity.

Exercise after pregnancy

Which muscles should you strengthen after birth?

The muscles I focus on initially with my post-partum clients are the ones which are most affected by pregnancy, labour and birth. These include:

  • Pelvic floor
  • Transverse abdominis
  • Posterior chain muscle groups
  • Diaphragm

We then move on to larger muscle groups, to promote lean muscle mass. Learn more about my post-natal packages here.

What is the pelvic floor?

Imagine a “net” in the bottom of your abdomen. Found in both men and women, this muscle has the very important job of holding your insides… in. Excess weight on the abdomen, like in pregnancy (but also in obese individuals) puts additional pressure on this muscle.

See a diagram of the pelvic floor here.

Giving birth vaginally can also cause trauma to the pelvic floor; particularly if the second phase of labour (the pushing) is prolonged and arduous.

Issues like incontinence (leaking urine, usually during rigorous activity or when sneezing or coughing), and the varying levels of vaginal prolapse (where the uterus or bladder “sink down” into the vagina- this might feel like a heaviness or dragging in the vagina), can happen when the pelvic floor muscles are weakened or over-stretched due to too much weight.

What is the transverse abdominis?

The TVA is the core muscle that acts a bit like a corset, wrapping around your midsection from the lower back to the front of your abdominal wall. It’s the deepest core muscle (aside from the pelvic floor).

It’s job is to stabilise your spine; particularly the lower back. You can read more about the TVA here.

Most women also experience some form of abdominal separation during pregnancy (diastasis recti), so strengthening the TVA can help to close this gap and reduce the need for surgery to close the gap.

What is the posterior chain?

Pregnant lady on a ball rubbing her back as though in pain

This refers to the group of muscles that support our posture. Including the muscles in the upper back and shoulders, the spinal extensors, the glutes and the hamstrings. A weak posterior chain is often responsible for lower back pain.

Tip: If you sit down with your legs out straight in front of you, pull your toes up, and then “slump” yourself forward over your legs (keep your toes up), you will likely feel some very intense stretches in some parts; these are all part of your posterior chain, and they could indicate areas which are tightest and/or weakest!

What is the diaphragm?

This is the muscle that helps us “belly breathe”. I like to teach my post-partum clients about belly breathing, partly because it encourages correct use of the muscles in the belly, but mostly because it promotes relaxation and recovery.

When you have a baby who’s feeding every few hours around the clock, sleep isn’t something you get a lot of. Daily periods of deep, belly breathing have been shown to be highly effective in aiding recovery and improving energy levels.

This 3-minute “Stop, Breathe and Think” is a useful video, and is a perfect daily interval for the life of a busy new mum. (You can thank me later).

0-6 weeks

What’s happening:

Enjoy this precious time with your newborn baby
  • Recovery from labour, possibly including stitches
  • Pronounced abdominal separation
  • Possible pelvic discomfort
  • Uterine contractions and heavy bleeding
  • Hormone drops which can result in mood swings, sadness, anxiety (known as the “baby blues”) or even post partum depression if the symptoms linger.
  • Feeding baby every 2-3 hours round the clock

What you should do (only with Doctors approval, and if you’re feeling up to it):

  • Rest and enjoy time with your baby
  • Pelvic floor exercises
  • Short walks to promote blood flow
  • Deep belly breathing

What to avoid:

  • Heavy weights
  • Running or high impact sports
  • Long periods of exercise (even walking)
  • Abdominal exercises like crunches, planks or leg raises and the like

7-12 weeks

What’s happening:

Gentle exercise to strengthen your hips and thighs can be extremely beneficial
  • 6-week post partum check
  • Abdominal separation should begin to reduce
  • Hormones and mood swings should have settled
  • Relaxin (a hormone to loosen ligaments and joints) remains
  • Heavy bleeding should be mostly gone
  • Uterus is back to it’s normal size

What you should do (assuming your post-partum check is clear):

  • Begin, or advance on, pelvic floor exercises
  • Begin gently exercising the muscles around your hips, belly and upper back for posture support
  • Longer daily walks
  • Deep belly breathing

Note: the type of exercises at this stage will vary greatly between mothers, depending on previous levels of fitness and the type of labour and birth, and it’s important to get qualified coaching. Get in touch if you have any questions about getting started on your own post-natal fitness journey.

What to avoid:

  • Strenuous or plyometric exercise- including heavy weights
  • Extended periods of exercise
  • Any exercise which causes discomfort of the lower back, pelvis or neck
  • Any movements putting direct strain on the “6-pack” abdominal muscles

This period is perfect for beginning my 6-week “Restore Your Core” post-natal exercise package. If you’re local to Sydney contact me now to find out more!

13-20 weeks

What’s happening:

Mum and baby lunging and smiling
Exercise is a great way to bond with your baby, too!
  • Your abdominal separation reduces further
  • The hormone relaxin is still present, though much reduced
  • Pain around the birth site (whether vaginal or c-section) should be gone
  • Pelvic floor and TVA should have some strength and endurance back
  • Your period might return to normal (if you’re not breastfeeding)

What you should do:

  • Continue to progress pelvic floor and TVA strengthening
  • Begin to incorporate exercises to strengthen large muscle groups, like the legs, calves, obliques, shoulders and chest
  • Include some moderate low-impact cardiovascular exercise such as swimming bike riding
  • Deep belly breathing

What to be cautious of:

  • High impact exercises- especially if you have no history of this kind of training
  • Unilateral leg exercises like lunges, that put direct pressure on the pubic symphysis (the area of the pelvis that becomes weakened during labour and birth to make room for baby’s head)
  • Heavy weights

21 weeks onward

Safely exercising after having a baby can help with recovery, weight-loss and improve mood and energy levels.

What’s happening:

  • Your body will be physiologically close to its old self again now
  • You might have some remaining “loose” skin around your belly and hips- this is perfectly normal
  • Any abdominal separation should be almost gone
  • The TVA and pelvic floor should be strong

What you should do (assuming you’ve taken care of your post-partum exercise carefully up ’til now):

  • Include some abdominal exercises
  • Include some moderate-impact cardio exercise, like jogging or rowing
  • Use moderately heavy weights
  • Introduce unilateral leg exercises
  • Deep belly breathing

What to be cautious of:

  • Anything that causes pain or discomfort in your lower back or pelvis
  • Plyometric exercises for a month or two longer- especially if you had a vaginal delivery with an arduous pushing phase

How soon should you be back to your pre baby weight?

I always tell my clients that it takes 9 months to make a baby; you should give yourself at least that much time before beginning to worry about your appearance. I try and have women focus on their strength, posture and building a strong body- not for aesthetics- but because I know they will be able to enjoy motherhood a lot more in a body that feels capable.

Try to avoid reading any content which puts pressure on you to “bounce back” quickly, or scrolling through posts of celebrities looking flat-stomached immediately after birth. It serves no purpose other than to make you feel like rubbish.

If you have any questions about your post-partum fitness journey, please drop me an email and I’d love to help.

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Jess Neill

Jess Neill

I'm a Personal Trainer, Pilates Instructor and Pre and Post Natal Training specialist. I'm also a mother of two, and I live on the beautiful Northern beaches of Sydney. If you liked this post, don't forget to leave a comment and share! Subscribe to my monthly newsletter for the latest health and fitness news.

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