On average, women can begin to exercise 6-8 weeks post birth for a vaginal birth, and approximately 12 weeks after a c-section. However, it is important to get your GP’s clearance before starting any exercise program.
The body adapts in so many ways to accommodate the growing foetus throughout pregnancy and to facilitate birth. Although it’s possible for the body to settle back to how it was pre-pregnancy without exercise, it is worth analysing what might have changed and how you can aid the process. When exercising it is important to not do anything that may exacerbate any issues in the body, and work in a way that is beneficial and healing.
Below are outlined some of the main ‘issues’ to be aware of, and the most beneficial exercises to do in the postnatal period.
It is so important to be mindful of the core post birth, as this where the biggest adaptations have occurred and where most people feel weaker/disconnected. Think of the core holistically as the abdominals, lower back and pelvis and you can see how connected these joints are for stability and strength. During pregnancy the abdominals are generally stretched and weakened, causing an anterior tilt of the pelvis (arched spine) which often results in lower back pain.
The pelvic floor will also be stretched and weakened through labour, so should be encouraged to return to normal strength. The pelvic floor has so many functions including reducing the risk of incontinence, supporting the internal organs, promoting good posture and improving sexual sensation. If there is any feeling of pressure, or leaking when exercising it is advised to stop what you’re doing and go back to pelvic floor activation again. In addition, it is worth going to see a women’s health physio for a check-up as leaking is not something as women we should accept. It is a sign of pelvic floor weakness and could indicate incontinence in later life, so is definitely worth tackling now.
Recommended exercises for abdominals:
Transverse Abdominis Breathing
Lie flat on your back with the knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Allow your spine to have a natural curve in it, so don’t imprint your back into the floor. Inhale fully to the diaphragm. On the end of the exhale engage the core – feel like the belly button is connecting to the spine and the sides of the body are drawing in, like you’re wearing a tight belt. Hold for 5 seconds, then relax the core as you inhale fully again. This can also be performed on all fours. Repeat 20 times.
Lie flat on your back with the knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Allow your spine to have a natural curve in it, so don’t imprint your back into the floor. With your core engaged as for the transverse abdominis breathing, slide one leg away along the floor be careful to really hold onto your core and not let your hips tilt. Bring the foot back in and change to the other leg. Do 10 times.
Elbow to knee
On all fours, with a flat spine, engage your core by activating belly button to spine. Stretch one leg out behind you and the opposite arm out in front. Imagine both your hip bones are facing towards the floor. Hold this position for a slow count of 5.
Adaptation 1: Tap your hand and foot on the floor and then lift, keeping a straight spine. Repeat up to 10 times before changing sides.
Adaptation 2: Draw your elbow to knee, rounding your spine and then stretch again. Try and imagine your core is really working to pull your knee in to promote strength in this area. Repeat up to 10 each side.
Lie on your back with your feet in the air, knees bent at 90 degrees. Imprint your whole back into the floor and place your hands behind your head, or by your sides for more support. Without letting any part of your back lift from the floor, slowly lower one leg to the mat, keeping it bent, until the heel taps. Then lift it again and repeat on the other side. It is important to really hold onto the core here and not let the back arch. Keep moving slowly for a count of 10 before resting and repeating.
Similar to heel taps, it is important to not let the back arch, so aim to keep it pressing into the mat at all times. Lie on your back with your feet in the air, knees bent at 90 degrees, press your hands together in the air straight above you. Slowly move one arm back behind you until it nearly touches the floor, then bring it back together. Repeat with the other arm for a total of 10.
Adaptation: Add the opposite leg stretching, but move carefully so there is no movement in the core and back. Bring it back to the middle then swap sides.
Recommended exercises for pelvic floor:
Get in a comfortable position, either lying on your back with your legs bent, kneeling on all fours or seated with a straight spine Take a few deep clearing breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Then, inhale deeply and at the end of the exhale imagine drawing up through your anus and holding there. Don’t tighten your buttocks or tense any part of your body. Let the pelvic floor relax gently and immediately inhale to start the process again. After a few cycles, start incorporating the front section of your pelvic floor, the contraction is like when you try and stop yourself urinating. These moves can be done in two ways:
• Slowly: as described above. Hold the contraction for a slow count of 5, then release. Do around 10 at this speed.
• Quickly: At the end of the inhale, contract (pull up) your front and/or back passages and then pulse them for a count of 10. Relax, then repeat another 5 times.
It is important to do these exercises slowly to promote the endurance aspect of the muscle which will support you in daily life. Equally important are the fast pulses as they strengthen the pelvic floor for when you need more support, for example in higher intensity exercise or when you cough
Recommended exercises for back/chest strengthening:
In addition to core strengthening, another common issue is stiff, internally rotated shoulders caused by the repeated posture of feeding, holding the baby and pushing the pram.
Here are some ways to stretch and strengthen the chest and upper back.
Stand tall with a straight spine and engage your core. Stretch your hands to the side with the palms flexed, and look up whilst pushing your hand back behind you to open your chest. Oppose this stretch by rounding your back and arms in front of you, then repeat.
Take these with the knees on the floor, arms shoulder width apart. Lower as far as you can whilst keeping your body shape still. Contract your back muscles at the shoulder blades to help you on the lowering motion. This movement is so strengthening for the chest.
Thread the needle
On all fours, lift one arm high and then thread it under the other arm. Keep the hips high and melt the shoulders into the floor. Stay in this stretch as long as you need before changing sides.
Tips by Rosie Stockley, personal trainer and founder of MAMAWELL.
NB: Always consult your GP or health practitioner before starting any new exercise regime.
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