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Postnatal exercise can not only help you get back in shape after having a baby but it can also boost your mental health during the often-challenging period after childbirth.
While many of us will want to get back to some semblance of our pre-baby body after pregnancy, postpartum ab workouts should only be undertaken once your body is ready – and with the advice of a health professional.
We asked the experts what the best postnatal exercise is, how to tone the stomach after having a baby and suitable postpartum exercises for back pain to help you ease back into exercise when you're ready.
What is the best postnatal exercise?
Postnatal exercise is important – but not any cost. 'I don't like to talk about getting back in shape after birth, as your primary concern should be how amazing you and your body are, not bouncing back,' says Clio Wood, founder of &Breathe (opens in new tab) – a wellbeing company focused on postnatal fitness.
'However, once you're ready, find a qualified trainer or class and see a women's health physio. Low intensity steady state (LISS) exercise, like walking, can be brilliant for building up stamina and cardiovascular capacity, helping to gently engage the core again,' she says.
'Working on strength is also great once you're ready, and exercises like squats build up your muscles in the legs and glutes which, along with the core (which wraps around your middle like a corset - not just abs!) helps rebuild balance, stabilise the pelvis and minimise back pain,' adds Clio.
Wendy Powell, Founder of MUTU System (opens in new tab), a medically recommended digital core and pelvic floor programme for mothers, agrees: 'This unending pressure to look a certain way, is the reason so many mums start to punish their bodies. The ab blast exercises, the restrictive diets, are simply not designed to help a postpartum body to heal properly,' she says.
'Our bodies need healing nutritious food and gentle but effective and restorative postnatal exercise specifically designed for a mother's body. Here's my advice for getting your post-birth recovery off to the best start:
- Be kind to your body
- Take a gentle daily walk
- Reconnect with your core and pelvic floor muscles
- Eat nourishing and healing food
- Make sure the exercises you're doing are designed for a postpartum body.'
If you feel up to it and have had an incident-free birth, yoga (opens in new tab) is ideal exercise to start with. 'There are gentle restorative movements and non-physical yoga practises that can be done a few days after giving birth,' says Hannah Barrett, a yoga instructor and creator of the Hannah Barrett Yoga app (opens in new tab). I created a postnatal core recovery programme (opens in new tab) with top physiotherapist Finola Burrell that can be started straight after birth,' she adds.
'In terms of movement, restorative postures like legs up and the wall and child’s pose can help to calm the body and mind and ease some of the aches and pains associated with motherhood,' says Hannah. 'For more dynamic yoga, you should wait until six weeks after birth and get signed off from a healthcare professional to exercise. Then I highly recommend going to a class with an instructor who is trained in postnatal yoga.'
How can I tone my stomach after having a baby?
'When I had my first baby, I jumped back into exercise too quickly doing the wrong things,' says Hannah. 'A key step in your postnatal recovery is learning how to re-engage and re-strengthen the deep core muscles. Don't jump back into poses like boat or plank without learning how to do this first,' she advises.
'Your body is amazing, and your abs have lengthened, and maybe separated (called 'diastasis recti') during pregnancy to accommodate a human being,' says Clio. 'It's important to rehabilitate these slowly and correctly – it's not a question of losing your baby belly. With the right care and rehab, your body can be even stronger than before pregnancy.
'Check with a women's health physio how wide and deep any ab separation is so that you can properly plan any exercise,' continues Clio. 'It's best to build up with core engagement without flexion (no crunches at first) so moves like dead bugs, and bird dog as well as lying toe taps – all key Pilates moves – which work your deep core muscles (called 'transverse abdominis') are best.'
Wendy recommends the MUTU System, which was recently piloted by an NHS Trust with promising results (91% saw diastasis recti improvement, and 76% of women felt physically stronger). 'The corrective abdominal postnatal exercise will give you a strong core and toned abs by strengthening your transverse abdominis muscle and your abdominal mid-line connective tissue and reducing a diastasis – which will flatten your tummy,' she explains. 'But this must go hand-in-hand with eating the right food. When you eat nutritious food it will not only help you lose any extra weight you might want to lose, it'll also help balance your hormones, too.'
Postpartum ab workouts and exercises for your belly
Before you begin postnatal exercise, Hannah recommends that you're aware of your body: 'Things to watch for is any pain, bulging or doming of the abdominals, or feeling like you can't control your core, as well as any unusual symptoms,' she advises. 'In this case, lessen the intensity.'
If you can manage the pelvic lift and warrior 2 poses described here, Hannah says you can move on to 'poses like plank and downward facing dog – however, these need to be done mindfully as they're more demanding on the core,' she says.
Hannah's postnatal exercise: Pelvic lift
- To engage the deep core come onto your back, bend your knees and place your hands on your hip bones and then bring them inwards an inch or so.
- Take a big breath into the belly, completely releasing the core. Then as you exhale lift the pelvic floor (like you’re trying to stop yourself passing wind and water), draw the navel to the spine and imagine the hip bones are hugging in towards each other like magnets.
- Underneath your fingers you should feel the muscles engage – try to avoid flattening your back as you do this. Aim to keep a neutral spine, which means a small gap between your lower back and the floor.
- Inhale and fully release, feel the belly expand and the muscles soften. Then exhale and repeat. Try doing this 3 times a day for 10 repetitions.
- You may then want to start trying this in different positions, like in a side-lying position or in table top.
Hannah's postnatal exercise: Warrior 2
- 'Bringing in a move like warrior 2 or goddess can be a good way of strengthening the core in a less intense way,' says Hannah.
- To do the warrior 2 pose spread your feet wide apart, with your feet facing forward and your hands by your sides.
- Turn your left foot out by 9o degrees with your toes pointing outwards. Swivel your right foot in slightly to help you balance.
- Raise your arms out to either side until they are shoulder height.
- Exhale then bend your left knee, as shown in the photo. Look towards your left hand, lengthening your spine as you do.
- Breathe here for a few moments then move slowly out of the posture back to your original position. Repeat the pose on the right side of the body. Repeat the sequence 3-4 times.
Hannah's postnatal exercise: Goddess
- Stand with your feet a bit more than hip-width apart.
- Take your arms to shoulder height then bend your elbows.
- Turn your feet outwards. As you exhale, bend your knees so they're stacked over your ankles, as shown in the photo.
- Bring your hips slightly forward, draw your navel gently towards your spine and squeeze your glutes. Keep your arms in position and active.
- Relax and drop your shoulders, keep your head straight, looking ahead and position your chin so it's parallel to the floor.
- Breathe for a few moments then slowly come up and out of position. Repeat 3-4 times.
'When you think of ab exercises, you might think of crunches or planks, but before you train the abdominal muscles in this way you want to ensure the deeper abdominal muscles are actually recruiting,' says Wendy. 'The transverse, the inferior obliques and the exterior obliques all work together, along with the muscles of your pelvic floor,' she explains. 'This vital phase of learning to recruit and engage the right muscles, first in isolation and then as a unit, must come first. Ab exercises for mums should focus first on recovery and reconnection.'
Wendy's postnatal exercise: Heel drop
- Lie flat on your back and place a pillow under your upper shoulders and head. Your knees should be bent up. Next, bring your knees in towards you chest so they are resting at 90 degrees. There should be no strain to hold them there. If there is, bring your legs in a little closer.
- Exhale as you draw your abs inwards and slowly drop one heel to touch the floor. Rest your heel on the floor as you inhale, then exhale and engage your abdominals and bring it back.
- Breathe into the back of your rib cage and relax those abdominal muscles.
- Exhale as you draw your abs inwards once more and slowly drop the other heel to touch the floor. Rest your heel on the floor as you inhale, then exhale and engage your abdominals and bring your heel back.
- Breathe in and relax your muscles.
- Repeat a few times on each side, then slowly drop one foot to the floor then the other.
Postpartum exercises for back pain
'Back pain can be caused by a number of different things – it's usually a combination of causes, so it depends where in the back it is,' says Clio. 'Check with your women's health physio for a proper assessment, as back pain can be radiating out from scarring (episiotomy, vaginal or c-section). It can also be a consequence of a too-weak or too-tight pelvic floor, ab separation, or carrying a baby around all day and feeding.'
When it comes to back pain, prevention is often better than cure – if you know how to hold your baby correctly you'll run less risk of hurting your back. 'To counteract pain from the imbalance of carrying your little one, make sure you're carrying equally on each side rather than favouring left or right,' says Clio. 'It also helps to feed with a pillow under your baby. Your arms and back won't take so much of the strain – which adds up when you're feeding for hours each day.'
Hannah's postpartum exercise for back pain: Bridge
'When we have lower back pain we tend to move less and this can actually make things worse,' says Hannah. 'Keep moving and try poses that focus and target the glutes – core examples are bridge pose and warrior 3. Focus on keeping stability through the pelvis, the spine neutral, moving slowly with intention and engaging through the glutes and core,' she says.
- Lie on your back on an exercise mat or carpet, with your knees bent and your feet parallel.
- Bring your heels as close to your bottom as feels right.
- Place your arms by your sides and lay your palms flat on the floor.
- Keeping your shoulders, hands and feet flat on the ground, slowly lift your hips, bum and legs upwards.
- If this feels comfortable, you can now lift your chest up from the floor.
- Hold this position while taking a few deep steady breaths, then slowly come back down.
- Repeat 3-4 times.
- Once you feel like you have the hang of this posture, you can try lifting one leg up into the air at a time, as shown by Hannah in the photo.
Wendy's postpartum exercise for back pain: Squats
'Your glutes play a big role in your core strength and confidence. If your glutes are not doing their job, your pelvic floor suffers, and so does your back,' says Wendy. 'Gluteal muscles not only stabilise around your tailbone, but they also help support your lower back muscles. If the glutes are weak, the low back muscles have to work harder, which makes them fatigued and sore. We squat a lot in MUTU – it teaches you to protect your back, and build glutes as you squat.'
- To squat correctly, your shins should be vertical but not tucked underneath. Channel your weight through your heels and the outsides of your feet.
- Bend your knees and push your hips back as if you are in a chair-sitting position.
- Once your thighs are parallel to the floor, return to an upright position.
- This can be done in reps of 12-15, up to 3 times a day.
- Squatting needs to be done correctly and may not be suitable for your individual circumstances. If you feel any bearing down or feelings of discomfort, stop and see a physiotherapist.
Our postpartum exercise for back pain: half rollback
This can help to release any tightness in the lower back, whilst firing up your deep core muscles and increasing pelvic stability.
- Start by sitting tall, knees bent, feet flat and hip distance apart.
- Bring your hands behind the knees or thighs and sit up tall, gazing forward.
- Take a deep inhale to prepare and lift taller. When you exhale start rounding through the spine to create a c-curve, tucking the tailbone under.
- Inhale, lengthen the back again, then exhale and sit tall again.
- Repeat 5 times.
Our postpartum exercise for back pain: 'swimming'
Swimming improves flexibility and strengthens your back, including your spine and your glutes. Start slowly to build up strength and control.
- Start flat on your stomach with legs and arms extended.
- Simultaneously lift both your left leg and right arm, hold for three seconds and switch sides. You should be forming a straight line from the tip of your fingers to your toes.
- Lift your head slightly and simultaneously move your arms up and down like you're swimming in the water.
- Keep your core muscles drawn in to protect your spine. Aim for lengthening your body rather than moving your body upwards.
How soon after giving birth can you exercise?
'Every case can be different and it also depends on the type of birth you've had,' says Wendy. 'You should wait a minimum of six weeks following an uncomplicated vaginal delivery, and at least 10 weeks following a c-section or a birth with any complications before commencing any intensive workouts.' she advises. 'Our advice is to ensure that you feel stable. Start with very low impact core and pelvic floor work before anything else.'
'I advise waiting at least six weeks after a vaginal birth and 12 weeks post-caesarean before you start postnatal exercise – at least until you've had sign off from your GP,' says Clio. 'However, there are breathing and core activation exercises you can do, which are gentle enough for the early weeks. But always bear in mind that your body has been through a lot. Try to take it easy, rest and recuperate – especially at the beginning,' she advises.