Safe Postpartum Exercises and Workouts

After giving birth, many new moms feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Others are itching to get back to exercising regularly, especially if they were active before and during pregnancy. And of course, many experience all of these emotions (and more) at once. Having a postpartum workout plan may help you feel better physically and emotionally.

Mothers Walking and Pushing Their Prams
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Benefits of Postpartum Exercise

Although it is difficult to make time to work out while caring for a newborn, exercise can be an important part of your recovery. Exercise can help relieve stress and improve your blood circulation. Moving your body is energizing and may also improve your sleep quality and help prevent postpartum depression.

When to Start Postpartum Workouts

It is important to consult your healthcare provider for medical clearance before exercise, especially if you had a c-section or experienced a complication during pregnancy or birth. Women who have had normal vaginal deliveries should usually be able to begin light exercise, such as walking, a few days after delivery. Only do this if you feel ready, though.

It's common for doctors to clear women for normal pre-pregnancy activities, including exercise, at the six-week postpartum check-up. If you want to intensify your workouts prior to this check-up, talk to your doctor first. If postpartum bleeding or pain increases after exercise, you may be over-exerting yourself. In any case, start slow and work gradually up to more exercise.

Remember to also drink water to thirst and be sure to consume plenty of healthy snacks, especially if you're nursing (which requires additional calories). If you are breastfeeding, feed your baby or express milk before exercising to avoid exercising with engorged breasts, which can be uncomfortable.

Best Postpartum Exercises

You'll want to do basic exercises that strengthen major muscle groups. Start with 10 to 20 minutes a day, and work up to 30 or more minutes of moderate-intensity exercise. If you performed vigorous-intensity exercise before pregnancy, you can return to that after birth, as long as you do so gradually and with guidance from your provider.

1

Neck Stretches

Breastfeeding and baby holding can really make your neck stiff. Be sure to relax your neck a few times each day.

  1. Gently drop your neck forward and let the weight of your head pull your neck and stretch it, holding for 5 to 10 seconds.
  2. Lift your head and drop your right ear to your right shoulder, again taking care to be gentle in your movements. Let it rest there for 5 to 10 seconds.
  3. Repeat on the left side.
  4. Once again returning to center, carefully relax your head backward, gazing upward and holding for 5 to 10 seconds.
2

Upper Body Exercises

Certified personal trainer and mother of four Heather Black suggests the following routine to work the upper body. You can do all these exercises standing or sitting (on a chair or an exercise ball):

  • Bicep curls: Start with your arms at your sides, fully extended with palms facing forward, holding a light weight in each hand. Raise your hands until your elbow is bent to 90 degrees, keeping your wrists straight. Lower and repeat.
  • Shoulder presses: Start with arms bent so your hands are near your shoulders, palms facing out, with a weight in each hand. Extend your arms up to vertical, then slowly lower and repeat.
  • Lateral raises: Hold your weights at your sides, palms facing in toward your body. Lift your arms up and out to the side, stopping when they are extended straight out from your shoulders in a T-shape. Lower and repeat.
  • Overhead tricep extensions: Use one weight. Hold it over your head with both hands (your arms will be extended straight up). Keeping your elbows pointing forward, bend your arms and lower the weight behind your head. Then extend the arms to raise the weight back up and repeat.
  • Bent-over dumbbell rows: Hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing the body. Bend over at about a 45-degree angle, keeping your back straight. Lift weights up until your arms are at or just below shoulder height. Slowly lower and repeat, staying bent over for the whole set.

Do 12 to 15 reps of each exercise using light dumbbells. Perform three to five rounds as a circuit, once or twice a week.

3

Core Exercises

Although many postpartum women are especially focused on their abdomen after birth (it underwent some amazing changes to grow a baby!), it's not a good idea to jump right into many of the traditional abdominal exercises like sit-ups, planks, and crunches.

Most women experience some measure of diastasis recti as a result of pregnancy, which is when the tissue between the abdominal muscles thins and separates to make room for the growing uterus.

In order to prevent the condition from becoming permanent, it's important to be intentional with your abdominal training, says trainer Heather Black. Many core exercises can actually exacerbate the condition, causing the center of your abdomen to “cone” or form into dome shape. 

Black recommends these restorative strengthening exercises, along with the curl-up progression (detailed in the next section), for the core and pelvic floor after birth:

  • Deep belly breathing: Your breathing is likely to feel different for the first few days after giving birth as your organs return to their former positions. Deep breathing can help in your physical and emotional recovery from childbirth. Place your hands low on your abdomen and practice slowly breathing in until you can feel your hands move. Then, slowly exhale. Repeat 5 to 8 times.
  • Abdominal bracing: Begin on your back in a relaxed, neutral spine position. Gently contract your abdominal muscles (imagine you’re about to get punched in the stomach and you need to tense your muscles for protection). Decrease the space between your rib cage and hip bones. Visualize trying to glue your entire spine to the ground. Hold for several seconds while continuing to breathe normally. Relax, then repeat 10 times.
  • Kneeling pelvic tilts: Start on hands and knees. Take a deep breath in while relaxing the abdomen. As you exhale, brace your core (as above). At the same time, squeeze your glutes and tuck your pelvis in, trying to decrease the space between your rib cage and hip bones. Release, then repeat 10 times. This exercise also helps stretch lower back muscles, which are often achy and tight after pregnancy. 
  • Kegels: Pregnancy and childbirth can weaken the muscles of the pelvic floor. Kegels strengthen these muscles.

Aim to spend 5 to 15 minutes per day on these exercises. 

Exercising your pelvic floor with Kegels can be beneficial even if you had a cesarean birth. It will help increase the blood flow to heal any sutures, and will also help restore the muscles to their pre-pregnancy strength. This includes the muscles that help with bladder control. However, not everyone should do Kegels immediately after birth. Talk to your doctor to find out if they are OK for you.

4

Curl-Up Progression

Instead of jumping right into sit-ups, Black recommends using the following progression to safely regain core and pelvic floor strength:

  • Head lifts: Lie on your back with your arms by your sides, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Take a deep breath in and relax your belly. As you exhale, slowly lift your head and neck. Hold this position for a second or two. Inhale as you slowly lower your head back down to the floor.
  • Shoulder lifts: When you can easily perform 10 head lifts, progress to shoulder lifts. Start in the same position. As you exhale, raise your head and shoulders off the floor while reaching your hands toward your knees. If this strains your neck, gently place your hands behind your head (but don’t pull on your neck). Hold this position for a second or two and then lower your head and shoulders back down to the ground.
  • Curl-ups: When shoulder lifts become too easy, move to curl-ups. From the same starting position, lift your head and torso until you’re about halfway between your knees and the ground. Reach toward your knees and hold this position for three to five seconds. Slowly lower yourself back to the floor and repeat for 10 reps. 
5

Lower Body Exercises

Just as before and during pregnancy, you don't want to neglect your lower body. Trainer Heather Black suggests the following exercises to work the legs and lower body:

  • Squats: For a basic squat, stand with feet about hip- or shoulder-width apart. Bend the knees and slowly squat down, sending hips back while torso stays straight. Keep your head up and extend your arms for balance, if needed. When you return to standing, keep a slight bend in your knees.
  • Forward lunges: Stand with legs slightly apart. Step forward and lower until the front knee is almost at a 90-degree angle. Keep your torso straight and engage your core as you step, bend, and return to the start position.
  • Romanian deadlifts: Stand with legs hip-width apart, holding dumbbells or a barbell at your thighs. Keeping your shoulders back, hinge forward from the hips, lowering the weight along your legs. Stop when you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. To come back up, press hips forward to engage your hamstrings and glutes as you return to standing.
  • Reverse lunges: Instead of stepping forward, step back into your lunge position. Hold onto a chair if you have trouble balancing.
  • Glute bridges: Start by lying on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Contract your abs and glutes (butt muscles) as you lift your hips up, creating a straight line from your knees to your upper back/shoulders. Hold for a breath and then slowly return to the ground and repeat.

Do 10 to 20 reps of each exercise, holding dumbbells (although most exercises can be performed without them if needed). Perform three to five rounds as a circuit, once or twice per week.

A Word From Verywell

Safe postpartum exercise is incredibly valuable for your mental and physical health as you recover from pregnancy and birth. Take some time to get to know and appreciate your postpartum body.

It may look and feel different from your pre-pregnancy body, but never forget that is because it did an amazing thing: grow and birth your baby. As you recover and settle into parenthood after birth, use exercise to support your strong, healthy body and mind.

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  1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Exercise After Pregnancy. Updated July 2019.