Few women would argue that giving birth is one of life’s most powerful and wondrous achievements. Most also would agree that if the price for bringing new life into the world is a body that’s changed forever, they’ll pay it. But that still doesn’t stop every woman from asking the inevitable: “When am I going to get my old body back?”
Indeed, it can be downright impossible not to dwell on calories burned and inches lost (or not lost!), especially when the prepregnancy wardrobe you stared at so longingly during your last trimester hangs untouched in your closet.
“It’s important to remember that you have to ease out of being pregnant, just as you eased into it,” says Karen Andes, a San Francisco Bay area dance and exercise instructor, who designed our postpregnancy workout that follows. For starters, Andes points out that your uterus may take from six weeks to several months to return to its normal size, which is why many women still look pregnant for weeks after giving birth.
From day 1
It’s never too soon to start getting your body back in shape after you give birth. Begin with the following 5 exercises, designed to relieve tension and discomfort and rebuild your “delivery” muscles, even before you check out of the hospital. Continue to do them for at least 6 weeks, longer if they still feel beneficial.
Pelvic Tilts With Kegels Lie on your back either in bed or on the floor, knees bent and feet flat. Contract your abdominal muscles and tilt your pelvis upward while simultaneously tensing the muscles around your vagina (this is the Kegel). Hold for 5–10 seconds, then slowly release. Return to starting position. Repeat 10–25 times, working up to a total of 100 per day. Once you can sit comfortably, you can do Kegels any time and any place — no one will be the wiser. Tones muscles in the pelvic-floor, vaginal and perineal areas.
Belly Breathing Lie on your back, knees bent and feet flat on the floor (or bed), about 12 inches apart. Rest your head and shoulders on a pillow and your hands on your abdomen. Inhale slowly through your nose, expanding your belly. Then tighten your abdominals as you exhale slowly through your mouth, focusing on pulling your navel toward your spine. Repeat 10 times. Strengthens abdominal muscles.
Low–Back Stretch Lie on your back and hug your knees into your chest, grasping the backs of your thighs. Hold for 10–20 seconds, relax and repeat 3 more times. Stretches lower-back muscles.
Hamstring Stretch Lie on your back with right knee bent and right foot flat on the floor or bed. Extend left leg toward the ceiling and place hands behind left thigh. Gently pull left leg toward chest, keeping shoulders relaxed. Flex left foot to stretch calf. Hold for 10–20 seconds, relax and repeat 2–3 times; switch legs and repeat. Stretches hamstrings and calves.
Shoulder Relaxer While standing or sitting, roll your shoulders forward 6–8 times, then backward 6–8 times. Do this periodically throughout the day as needed. Releases tension in upper back and shoulders.
Your priority at the outset of postpartum should be to increase your energy level, reduce stress, and prevent the aches and pains that come with a new baby. “The point is to boost your sense of confidence and well-being,” Andes says. “Focus on being healthy and nurturing your new baby, not on being thin.”
Andes suggests that you concentrate on flexibility and on your belly — and no one needs to tell you that after pregnancy your abdominal muscles are a bit lax. After all, for several months you’ve been s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d farther than you probably thought was possible, and it will take a fair amount of work to get those abs conditioned and toned again.
Go easy on them, says Andes. It’s fairly common during pregnancy for the vertical muscles of your abdominal wall to separate (a condition known as diastasis; see "Do You Have a Diastasis?" at: http://www.fitpregnancy.com/yourpregnancy/453. If you overexert these muscles before they’ve healed, you’ll make the separation worse. If you have a diastasis — or if you gave birth by Cesarean section — don’t do any abdominal work until you’ve checked with your doctor.
Even if your muscles are intact, don’t start any vigorous ab work until you’ve stopped bleeding, says Andes. But you can do exercises such as deep belly breathing immediately after giving birth and simple abdominal contractions after the initial pain and discomfort have subsided. (To remind yourself to do them, try using cues — say, whenever the phone rings, tighten your abs for a full minute.) Then, as you’re up to it, add in the rest of the “From Day 1” exercises.
A little effort
You should be able to begin a walking routine within a couple of weeks of giving birth (see “Walk It Off”), and at six weeks postpartum you can start in on Andes’ complete recovery routine.
“With a new baby in your life, you have no choice but to be flexible when it comes to exercise,” says Andes. Be creative about incorporating activities into your daily routine. Whenever you bend down to retrieve a fallen bootee, for instance, do a set of squats. Or, with your baby tucked into a sling or baby carrier, do pliés or calf raises.
“If all you can manage one day is a stroller walk to the market, then so be it,” says Joy Fawcett, an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, which will compete next summer in the Women’s World Cup to be held in the United States. A mother of two girls, Fawcett, along with teammate and fellow soccer mom Carla Overbeck, models our postpartum exercises. “Some activity is always better than none,” she adds, “and even a small amount of effort will give you an energy boost.”
Remember that your body doesn’t just look different following pregnancy: Structurally it’s different, too. The pelvis widens during those nine months, making you more vulnerable to hip, knee and ankle injuries. If you feel
wobbly during cardiovascular workouts, it also could be caused by the ongoing effects of relaxin, which can circulate in your body for up to a year after pregnancy.
Don’t be too hard on yourself, Andes says. “You need to be patient with nature and in awe of the process.” That process can start today.
1. Hissing Abs Lie on back, knees bent, feet flat on floor. Place fingertips behind head, touching but not clasped. Contract abs so back is in neutral position [A]. Inhale, as in belly breathing, then exhale, hollowing belly like a bowl; then lift head, neck and shoulder blades off floor [B]. As you exhale, make a hissing sound like a snake. Slowly lower and repeat for recommended reps (see workout schedule). Strengthens abdominals.
2. Push–Backs Begin on floor in prone position, propped up by your hands. Arms should be extended directly under shoulders; your lower body should rest on the fleshy part of your thighs just above your kneecaps. Contract abdominals so back is flat and body is in a straight line from head to hips. Slowly bend your arms, lowering torso toward floor as you count to 4. When elbows reach a right angle to your shoulders, pause for l second [A], then push back and rest buttocks on heels, arms extended [B]. Return to starting position and complete reps. Strengthens chest and shoulders; improves torso stability.
3. Opposite Arm and Leg Begin on all fours, with hands directly under shoulders, arms straight but not locked, and knees hip-width apart, directly under hips. Balance on inside of kneecaps to keep hips level and stable. Contract abdominals so back is flat and body is in a straight line from head to hips [A]. Using your abs for balance, lift left arm up to shoulder height and straighten right leg behind you to hip height, forming a line from hand to foot. Don’t move the nonworking hips and shoulder during the exercise [B].
Slowly lower to starting position, then repeat using other arm and leg. In a rhythmic motion, continue to alternate until you’ve done 10 on each side. Strengthens back, shoulders, buttocks and shoulders; improves torso stability.
4. One–Arm Bent–Over Row Stand arm’s distance from rear of a chair, feet hip-width apart. Holding onto back of chair with your left hand, bend at hips until back is parallel to floor. Hold dumbbell in your right hand, palm facing in and arm hanging straight down in line with shoulder [A]. Squeeze shoulder blades and bend right elbow up and toward waist; elbow will be slightly higher than back in the finished position [B]. Slowly lower to starting position, do reps, then repeat with left arm. Weight: 5–l0 pounds to start; progress up to 15 pounds. Strengthens middle back, rear shoulder and biceps.
5. Standing Shoulder Combo Stand with feet hip-width apart, legs straight but not locked. Contract abs so spine is in neutral position, chest lifted and shoulders relaxed. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms in and elbows bent close to sides so dumbbells are in front of shoulders. Squeeze shoulder blades together and press dumbbells overhead, straightening arms without locking them [A]. Return to starting position, then lower forearms so they’re parallel in front of you, elbows still bent and close to sides; lift arms directly upward and sideways to shoulder height [B]. Lower arms, bring dumbbells back up to shoulders and repeat for recommended reps, starting with overhead press. Weight: 3–8 pounds to start. Strengthens upper back and shoulders.
6. Quarter Squat With a Tilt Stand with feet hip-width apart, legs straight but not locked, hands on hips. Contract abdominals so spine is in neutral position. Do a Kegel and hold it as you tilt your pelvis up and under; contract buttocks at end of pelvic tilt [A]. Relax, returning spine to neutral, and repeat 15–20 times. Then, bend knees to a quarter squat, sitting back on heels and pressing tailbone to rear [B]. Return to standing position, contracting buttocks at top of lift, and then repeat the squat for recommended reps. Weight: None to start; progress to 5–10 pounds in each hand, arms at sides. Strengthens pelvic muscles, buttocks, hamstrings and quadriceps.
7. One–Legged Hip Extension Stand facing rear of a chair; hold with both hands for support. Bend left knee slightly with right leg extended behind toes, touching floor behind you. Lean forward slightly (15- to 20-degree incline) to protect back. Keep hips and shoulders square, abs contracted [A]. Without changing position or rotating hips, lift right leg up behind you, contracting buttocks [B]. Slowly lower and repeat as recommended. Immediately do exercise 8 (superset) before changing legs. Weight: None to start; progress by attaching a 2- to 5-pound ankle weight to the working leg. Strengthens buttocks and hamstrings; improves torso stability and balance.
8. Standing Hamstring Curls Begin as in the end position in exercise 7, right foot lifted off floor, buttocks contracted. Without chaning hip or knee position, flex right foot and bend right knee, bringing heel in toward buttocks. Straighten leg, then repeat for all reps. Do exercise 7 with left leg before repeating this exercise on left side. Weight: None to start; progress by attaching 2- to 5-pound ankle weight to working leg. Strengthens hamstrings.