A Family Affair

An all-over strengthening and shaping program that new moms can do with their babies

Now that your baby has arrived, you may be wondering which you’ll regain sooner: your prepregnancy shape or a sense of control in your life. Thankfully, an exercise program could be the solution to both. “A lot of postpartum women tend to get swamped with ‘just baby,’” says Michelle Mottola, Ph.D., director of the Exercise and Pregnancy Lab at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. “Every postpartum woman needs to take time out for herself. Exercise is a good way to do that because you feel you’ve done something for yourself.”

Many medical practitioners advise waiting until after your first postpartum examination (typically six weeks after delivery) to resume an exercise program. But a new mom can begin walking and doing strengthening moves for her abdominal, lower-back and pelvic muscles day one after delivery, as long as she had a normal vaginal birth.

“The exercises done at the early stages of the program help lay the foundation for exercises done later on,” says Lynn Allen, a certified aerobics instructor in Lawrence, Kan. Allen has trained many new moms and is a mother herself of an infant and toddler. She also is the former corporate fitness director for Universal Gym Equipment and current adviser to the Fitness Products Council.

Once you feel energetic enough to start doing mild- to moderate-intensity exercise like walking, swimming or low-impact aerobics, you’ll begin to build and tone your muscles, increase endurance, release stress and gain energy. You then can move on to our recovery program on page 106, an at-home option that most women can begin six weeks after delivery. It’s a total-body strengthening workout that targets areas new moms say they need to work: gluteals, abdominals and legs.

Allen acknowledges that as much as you need time to yourself and want your old bod back, it may be hard to leave your baby. Therefore, her routine includes four exercises you can do with your baby and four without. And remember Allen’s been-there-done-that advice: “Be patient in getting your shape and form back. It will come. It’s been there before; it will be there again.”


Getting-It-Back Basics

The purpose of these exercises is to rehabilitate muscles most stressed by pregnancy and delivery — those involving the pelvic floor, abdominals, and upper and lower back. These exercises will increase functional strength and prevent injury to vulnerable muscles and connective tissue. Child-rearing tasks, such as lifting children, can strain muscles in the torso, shoulders and lower back.

day 1 to week 3

You can begin the following gentle exercises and stretches the day after delivery with your physician’s approval.

1. Kegels Contract the muscles around the vagina (imagine you are stopping a stream of urine) and hold for 10 seconds, then slowly release. Aim for 5 sets of 10 reps at a time; do 3–4 times during the day. Strengthens pelvic-floor muscles.

2. Standing Shoulder Blade Pinches To work on posture, stand with your feet hip-width apart, legs straight but not locked, arms relaxed by your sides. Contract your abdominals to bring your pelvis into neutral alignment. Keeping shoulders relaxed, squeeze your shoulder blades down and back as if trying to hold a pencil between them. Begin with 10–15 reps, building to 2 sets of 20 reps. Strengthens upper-back muscles.

3. Cat Back Stretch Begin on all fours, knees under hips and arms under shoulders, back straight and in a neutral position. Inhale, then exhale and round spine up toward the ceiling, tucking tailbone underneath and relaxing your head and neck. Inhale and return to just past the neutral position, slightly arching spine, head up. Do 4–6 reps. Stretches back muscles and strengthens abdominals.

4. Belly Breathing Lie on your back in bed or on the floor, knees bent, feet flat. Inhale and expand your abdomen, then contract abs as tightly as possible, pulling navel in toward your spine. At the same time, tilt pelvis upward, bringing hips toward lower ribs. Begin with 10 reps and aim for at least 15 reps per day. When you can do 15 reps, begin to lift head, neck and shoulders up with each ab contraction. Strengthens abdominals.

5. Hamstring Stretch Lying flat in bed or on the floor, bend your right knee in toward your chest, and wrap a towel around arch of the right foot. Holding an end in each hand, straighten leg in the air until you feel a stretch in the rear of the thigh. Hold for 20–30 seconds, then point and flex your foot 10 times to begin to loosen calves. Repeat with other leg. Stretches hamstrings and calves.

(You also can include any other light stretching for major muscles: quadriceps, upper and lower back, chest and shoulders.)

weeks 3–6

Continue with exercises 1–5; add or substitute some of the exercises listed below as you are ready.

6. All-Fours Belly Breathing Begin on all fours, knees under hips and arms under shoulders. Inhale, then exhale as you contract abs and release. Do 10 reps, building to 20. Strengthens abdominals.

7. Opposite Arm and Leg Lift Begin on all fours, knees under hips and arms under shoulders. Lift and then straighten left leg to hip height and right arm to shoulder height without arching back. Lower and repeat. Work up to 8–10 reps per side, then switch sides. Strengthens back, abdominals, legs, buttocks, rear of thighs and shoulders.

8. Split Lunge Stand with right foot in front of left, the length of a long stride, feet hip-width apart, left heel lifted. Hold a chair for balance. Bend both knees so your right knee is directly over your right ankle and your left knee points down. Straighten legs. Do 10 reps and switch legs; build to 15 reps for each leg. Strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings and buttocks.

9. Wall Sit Lean against a wall with feet hip-width apart, pointed forward. Bend knees and lower thighs to parallel position. Hold for 10-15 seconds; build to 30 seconds. Strengthens quadriceps and increases torso stability.

six-week recovery program

(with baby)

Do the following exercises either holding your baby or with baby placed in a front carrier on your chest.

1. Bent Knee Good Mornings Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees bent. Hold your baby to the middle of your chest with both hands. Support her head with 1 hand and forearm and her bottom with the other hand and arm. Contract your abdominals and squeeze your shoulder blades together, shoulders relaxed. Keeping your abs tight and back straight, bend your knees a little more as you bend forward from your hips until your back is almost parallel to the floor, still holding your baby close to your torso. Keeping knees bent, raise torso to standing position; repeat. Strengthens mid- and lower back.

2. Bent-Over Row Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees bent. Cradle your baby, face up, lying across forearms, palms up. Keeping abdominals contracted and back straight, bend forward from your hips until your torso is at a 45-degree angle. Straighten your arms as much as possible, still cradling baby. Using your midback muscles, bend your elbows up and back toward your waist, bringing baby toward you. Slowly straighten arms and repeat. Note: Once your baby can support her head, do this movement holding her vertically with both hands under her arms. Strengthens biceps, and mid- and lower back.

3. Sit Squats Stand with your back to the seat of a chair, feet hip-width apart, legs straight but not locked. Hold your baby to your chest either with your hands or strapped into a front carrier. Contract abdominals so your tailbone points toward the floor; squeeze shoulder blades together. Keeping your back straight and body weight back toward your heels, bend knees, lowering torso into a squat as if to sit down into the chair. When the backs of your thighs just barely touch the chair, straighten legs to starting position; repeat. Strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings, buttocks and calves.

To progress: When you can do this move comfortably, lift up on toes as you return to standing position.

4. Chair Dips Place your baby in a front carrier on your chest, then sit on the edge of a sturdy chair or bench. Place hands on the front edge of the chair close to your buttocks, arms straight and fingers curled lightly over the edge. Walk your feet out in front of you so knees are at a 90-degree angle, thighs parallel to the floor; remove your buttocks from the seat so you’re supported by your arms and your buttocks are close to the edge of the seat. Your back should be straight, abdominals contracted. Bend elbows to lower torso vertically toward floor; don’t let elbows flare outward. Look straight ahead, keeping buttocks and back close to the seat as you lift and lower your body. Straighten arms to starting position without locking your elbows. Strengthens triceps.

To progress: Walk legs out and away from you so you’re balanced on your heels.

(without baby)

5. Push-Ups Begin on your hands and knees, arms straight and directly beneath your shoulders, knees behind your hips. Contract your abdominals so your head, neck, spine, hips and knees form a straight line. Inhale, bend elbows, and lower yourself toward the floor until your elbows are even with your shoulders. Exhale, and push yourself back up to the starting position in a straight line without collapsing your torso; repeat. Note: If these push-ups are too difficult, place knees under your hips, or do them standing with your hands against a wall. Strengthens chest, front shoulders and triceps.

6. Basic Crunch Lie on the floor, knees bent and feet a comfortable distance from your buttocks. Place hands behind your head, fingertips touching but not clasped. Contract your abs inward toward your spine, buttocks relaxed so your back is as close to the floor as possible. Inhale. Exhale, contracting abs toward your spine as you lift your head, neck and shoulder blades off the floor. Slowly lower and repeat. Note: if you still have a diastasis after pregnancy, you may need to splint. Strengthens abdominals.

7. Alternating Lunges Stand with feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, hands on your hips. Take a step forward with your right foot, bending both knees so your right knee is in line with your ankle and left knee is pointing toward the ground, heel lifted and torso erect. Push off the ball of your right foot, straightening legs; return to starting position. Repeat, alternating with the left leg. Note: If necessary, hold a chair for support to start. Strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings, buttocks and calves.

To progress: Hold a 3- to 8-pound dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging by your sides.

8. Partial Clean Stand with your feet hip-width apart, legs straight but not locked, and weight centered. Contract your abdominals so pelvis is in a neutral position, tailbone pointing down. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with an overhand grip, arms hanging naturally by your sides. Squeezing shoulder blades together, bend elbows out to your sides to pull dumbbells upward. When elbows reach shoulder height, rotate arms forward so elbows point toward the floor and palms face forward, all in a smooth, fluid movement. Swing elbows backward so knuckles face the floor, and lower arms to starting position; repeat. Begin with 2–3 pounds and build to 5–8 pounds. Strengthens upper and middle back and shoulders.