Back to Basics

How a new mom found her way back to fitness one step at a time. Check out our progressive workout to help you get your body back, too.


As I peer into the full-length mirror in my hospital room, I'm faced with a twist on the proverbial conundrum: Is my belly half-full or half-empty? Just shy of 6 pounds, my little bundle of joy managed to delete 12 of the pounds I'd gained during pregnancy. Yet my midsection is still some five-months-pregnant-looking, puffy and soft to boot. Flesh surrounds me with a hang-dog look that says, "Plan on me being around for a while."

As a marathon runner, I thought I would return to fitness quickly beginning with sensible walking, then jogging and biking as soon as I could. I had, after all, heard of women who had gone running the day after giving birth. OK, so it was nobody I knew, but the fable persisted. How hard could it be?

Two Weeks: It's been two weeks since I gave birth, and I've yet to go for a walk. My exercise consists of nocturnal stumbles back and forth from my bedroom to the nursery every two hours to a very sweet but hungry baby.

I finally decide to go for a "hike." This feels like a monumental task, largely because it entails getting dressed. I spend the better part of the morning preparing: I try on three pairs of shorts before finding one I can fit in comfortably. I dress myself, I dress the baby. The baby poops. I re-dress the baby. I gingerly slide the baby into her carrier and head out the door triumphantly. I get to the end of the block and look down at my daughter. Her tiny body is swallowed up in her carrier, her little mango-shaped head collapsed to the side, her nose mushed against my chest in a position that seems to preclude breathing. It is a most pitiful and uncomfortable sight. I don't have the heart to continue. Total mileage: two blocks.

Three Weeks and Counting: Taking advantage of a burst of adrenaline, I leave the baby at home with my husband and attempt to jog. My first steps amaze me. Is this my body, or did somebody switch with me in the hospital? I struggle to lift my feet from the ground. The "lifting" mechanisms in my groin and thighs have been rendered useless, and I barely avoid tripping over the pavement. I'm reduced to a shuffle. Total mileage: one mile.

Four Weeks: Hallelujah! I've managed to jog. Just two miles a day, and oh-so-slowly. My feet still shuffle, and I have trouble lifting my legs. And the dull pain in my pelvic area is taking an awfully long time to subside. Still, I'm moving.

In this state of exhaustion, fitness just hasn't been a priority. Baby is No. 1. Sleep is a close second. My marriage is up there somewhere, but don't make me choose between a romantic moment with my husband and a nap!

The Second Month: I'm more fatigued than ever. On a good day, I jog a few miles. Then I lift light weights at home for an upper-body workout. But I pay for those spurts with renewed exhaustion and do nothing for the next three days. I decide not to worry.

The Third Month: What was I, crazy? Lifting weights? Why, my baby is an ever-increasing resistance workout all by herself! In the crib, out of the crib, on the changing table, down the stairs, in the bath — my back aches. My arms ache. My wrists have developed alarming electrical-shock sensations. I peek ahead in my child-care book: She won't start walking until when?!

The calorie demands of nursing are not to be denied. By now, I've found out that all those friends-of-friends who commenced working out immediately after giving birth — surprise! — were not breastfeeding.

At last, the experience every new mother awaits — my little angel sleeps through the night! I feel as though a shroud has been lifted. On my run this first miraculous day, there is renewed spring in my step. I feel so good, I play with the idea of setting a long-term goal for myself: to run the local mile race next summer. Oh, I know it's just a fleeting idea right now; I've learned enough in three months to know that my priorities are forever changed.

But still, it feels good.

First Steps: An Exercise Program for New Moms

The following "First Steps" routine, designed by pre- and postnatal fitness instructor Bonnie Rote, R.N., will help you regain strength and flexibility. Begin as soon as your doctor gives you the go-ahead.

Days 1–14 After Giving Birth

Kegels (not shown): Contract the vaginal muscles, hold for l0 seconds, and slowly release. Do this 8–10 times, building to 20–25 reps. Strengthens pelvic-floor muscles.

1. Belly Breathing: Lie faceup with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Inhale; then exhale, pulling your abdominal muscles inward. Hold this contraction for 5 seconds, breathing normally; then relax. To progress: As you contract your abdominals, rotate your pelvis upward, keeping your buttocks and lower back on the floor. Release. Do 8–10 reps, building to 20–25. Strengthens abdominal muscles.

2. Upper-Back Press: Kneel on the floor. Lean forward and rest your forehead on a yoga block or rolled towel, arms relaxed by your sides, palms up, head and neck aligned with your spine. Maintain this position and squeeze shoulder blades together, lifting arms up behind you. Hold for 2 seconds; then release to starting position. Do 5–8 reps, building to 12. When you can do 12 reps with ease, add 1¼2- to 2-pound weights in each hand and progress to 2 sets of 12 reps; rest 30 seconds between sets. Strengthens upper back and rear shoulder muscles.

Weeks 2–6

Around two weeks postpartum, add these exercises to your routine.

3. Glute Bridge: Lie faceup on the floor with your heels on the edge of a chair so your knees are bent and directly above your hips. Raise your hips off the floor by first contracting your abs, then buttocks, until your torso forms a straight line. Lower by releasing hips without arching spine. Do 2 sets of 8–12 reps. When you can do 2 sets of 12 reps, keep feet in the same position but move farther away from the chair. Strengthens abs, buttocks and hamstrings.

4. Back Bridge: Kneel on the floor, arms under your shoulders and knees under hips. Contract abdominals so your body forms one straight line from head to hips. Maintaining this neutral position, extend your left leg behind you at hip-height, keeping hips square. Maintaining your balance and with your abs tight, extend your right arm in front of you at shoulder height. Hold for at least 5 seconds, using ab muscles to maintain back position. Lower arm and then leg; repeat on other side. Continue to alternate sides, working up to 5–8 reps on each side. Strengthens abs, upper and lower back muscles, shoulders and buttocks.

5. Starting Lunge: Stand next to a chair, holding onto it with your right hand. Separate feet into a lunge position, left foot in front of right, hip-width apart. Contract abs. Bend both knees, lowering torso toward the floor. Straighten legs and repeat for reps before switching legs. Start with 1 set of 8–12 reps on each side; work up to 2 alternating sets of 12. Strengthens buttocks, hamstrings, quadriceps and calves.

The Next Steps: 6 Weeks Postpartum and Beyond

The following 6 exercises are designed to strengthen and tone all of your muscles for an effective and efficient total-body workout. If you've been using the "First Steps" exercises consistently, you can do this program 3–4 times a week, with a day off in between. Otherwise, start with 2 workout days a week and add a day or two when you're ready (and remember to get your doctor's OK before beginning).

1. Easy Plié: Rest hands on hips and stand with feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart, toes and knees turned out. Keep torso erect, abs pulled in and heels on the floor as you slowly lower your torso. Make sure your knees don't extend beyond your toes. Rise up slowly to starting position; repeat. Do 2–3 sets of 15 reps. Strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings and buttocks.

2. Step-Ups: Stand with feet hip-width apart in front of a step that is 6–8 inches high. Step up onto the center of the platform with your left foot, followed by your right foot. Step down with the left foot; tap your right foot on the ground, then step up with it, followed by the left foot. Do 25–50 alternating step-ups. Strengthen quadriceps, hamstrings, buttocks and calves.

3. Flutter Kicks: Lie facedown on the floor with your legs straight and toes pointed, elbows bent and in front of shoulders. Rest your chin on your hands and contract your abs. Without bending your knee, slowly lift right leg about 4 inches off the floor. Bring the right leg down as you raise the left leg, keeping hips in contact with the floor. Continue to alternate for 25–50 reps. Strengthens buttocks, legs and lower back muscles.

4. Push-Ups: Kneel on all fours, arms straight and knees under hips, hip-width apart. Press hips forward until torso forms a straight line from head to hips. With your hands under your shoulders, bend your elbows, lowering chest to the floor. Press up and repeat. Build up to 15 reps. Strengthens chest, front shoulders and triceps.

5. Alternating Press: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, abs contracted so your spine is in a neutral position. Hold a 3- to 5-pound dumbbell in each hand, elbows bent and pointing down toward floor, palms facing in at shoulder height. Lift right arm toward the ceiling without locking elbow. Lower and repeat with the other arm. Continue to alternate for 10–15 reps with each arm. Strengthens shoulders and upper back.

6. Super Crunches: Lie faceup on the floor, knees bent and feet flat. Place fingertips behind your head without clasping. Contract your abs and lift head, neck and shoulders off the floor. At the same time, lift your bent knees off the floor until knees meet your elbows and hips lift slightly off floor. Hold for 2 seconds; then slowly lower to starting position without arching your back. Do 2–4 sets of 15 reps. Strengthens abdominal muscles.