I’m a gal that likes to lift weights and challenge myself in the gym, so I completely understand where she’s coming from when a new postnatal client asks me: â€œSo, when can I go back to CrossFit/heavy lifting/running/doing the â€œhardcoreâ€ stuff again?â€
This is something that comes up a lot for the moms I work with on their postpartum restoration, recovery, and re-strengthening programs. So, if you are like many of the women that I work with -you are probably wondering the same thing too -right: â€œWhen can I move on from this â€œbasic levelâ€ stuff and get back to more rigorous training?â€
Well, unfortunately there is no exact or magic number of weeks (but it’s definitely NOT immediately after your 6 week check-up!) because every woman’s birthing experience is different and every woman’s body heals differently. I know -not exactly what you were hoping to hear, but it’s the absolute truth!!!
In general, I absolutely believe that you are going to want to ALWAYS include some basic level mobility, activation and strengthening exercises in your programming so that you have a solid base level of fitness from which to build upon. We want to make sure that your body is feeling, moving, and performing well before we throw more intense activity into the mixâ€”because if not, this will only add insult to injury. I like to think of your core and pelvic floor as the foundation for your â€œhouseâ€/body. If your foundation isn’t functioning well, then the rest of your house is going to suffer as a result. So, we need to address your foundation first and foremost and continue to address it as we build more bricks (strength training/intense activity) onto your foundation.
Also, we want to build these â€œbricksâ€ slowly and progressively onto your foundation so that you can continue pursuing more intense weight lifting and physical activity for years to come without a lot of physical setbacks and preventable limitations.
Sticking to our house construction comparison -what happens most of the time to houses that are quickly slapped up with shoddy construction methods? More often than not, these houses are riddled with all sorts of problems shortly after completion because the builder didn’t take his/her time to make sure that the house was built in a structurally sound and methodical manner. The same premise applies to prenatal women trying to return to more vigorous exercise -or simply just exercise for that matter!! If you jump in too fast and furiously, more often than not, you are going to end up experiencing some sort of physical pain and limitation that stems from not taking the time to progressively ease yourself back into exercise again. I cannot stress this enough!!!
I know I talk a lot about this subject, and it’s because it is so freaking important! A postpartum body needs to be handled much differently than a CrossFit Games or collegiate level body. As beautiful and amazing as pregnancy and birth is, it is also still a VERY traumatic physical experience for a woman’s body. She has in fact experienced trauma to her body and needs to be given and take the time to heal properly.
On the other side of the coin, you may also find that you don’t ever really go back to your previous ways of rigorous training, or maybe you approach it a bit differently. You may focus more on your alignment, technique and breathing mechanics instead of just rushing through everything to get it done as fast as possible. You may have to adapt your fitness routine to suite your current needs -and that is PERFECTLY FINE as well!! From someone with personal experience and who has a â€œgo-go-goâ€ mentality, I can say that pregnancy and postpartum does a beautiful job of gracefully forcing you to slow down and take notice of the process of â€œbeingâ€ and fully experiencing what is happening in the moment. It has forced me to come to re-realize that there is no point in â€œrushingâ€ through my workouts ALL THE time. True progress happens when you take the time to slow down and understand what it feels like to do things properly.
So with all this being said, and while I don’t necessarily think there isn’t any magic date or time frame for returning to more intense training, I do think though that you should have AT LEAST 3 months of solid strength training (that hits all the major movement patterns) under your belt before you move into more intense training (i.e. running, jumping, and heavy weightlifting) to give your muscles, tendons, and ligaments the opportunity to strengthen and be ready for the stress of more demanding training.
I will also say -and I know you have heard this before -that you need to listen to what your body is telling you.
Here are some clear physical signs (that should not be ignored) that your body is not ready or strong enough for what you’re attempting to put it through:
- You experience pelvic or lower back pain both during/after exercise.
- You feel unsupported through your core like you are â€œfalling out the front of youâ€ when you exercise.
- Your pelvic floor feels heavy both during and after exercise.
- Your body shakes or trembles when you hold or perform certain exercises.
- You constantly hold your breath to create a false sense of stability because you can’t brace sufficiently through the core.
- You leak urine at any time, but especially when you are working out. Despite the CF video that is circulating out there that makes light of peeing yourself during exercise -it is NOT okay or normal to pee yourself. This is your body telling you that something is not right.
One of the first vital steps for getting back into more intense exercise (and this can be a very tough one for ladies that are so used to the go hard/go fast mentality) is understanding that increasing your workout intensity WILL NOT fix or strengthen muscles that aren’t firing and functioning correctly. So if you are experiencing any of the symptoms that we just talked about, know that working harder isn’t going to fix the problem or make it just magically disappear -i.e. holding a plank longer, lifting even heavier weights, running faster, etc.
What will happen instead is that your body will find a way to compensate for the dysfunctional muscles by having surrounding musculature pick up the slackâ€”which then only causes a snowball effect of pain, dysfunction, and discomfort throughout the rest of the body. The other thing that can happen is that the compromised musculature (mainly your core and pelvic floor) will finally (and quite literally) â€œblowâ€ from the constant demands of intense training and complications like worsening of a Diastasis Recti, hernia, and prolapse can occur.
If you are experiencing some of the symptoms mentioned above, then the following exercises are some examples of those that you should avoid until your core and pelvic floor issues are resolved:
- Heavy lifting, Olympic lifting, pull-ups.
- Kipping exercises (pull-ups, knees to elbow, toes to bar, muscle ups)
- Sit-ups, crunches, oblique twists, V-sits, leg lowers, double leg lowers, hollow body holds.
- Planks, push-ups, roll-outs, or other exercises where the belly is hanging down towards the floor.
- High impact exercises like box jumps, burpees, jumping rope, skipping, and running.
There are foundational pieces that every woman should start with on her road to postnatal recovery like proper alignment, learning to activate your core and pelvic floor in conjunction with your breath, and learning to use your breathing and core and pelvic floor contractions with movement and exercise. If you focus wonderfully on all of these foundational pieces for the first few months after the birth of your baby, but then you go to a CrossFit/bootcamp class or start lifting heavy weights without incorporating these key pieces into your exercise routine, then you are only causing yourself to move backwards with your recovery. ALL exercise should be mindful exercise in which you are constantly checking in with your alignment, your breathing, and making sure that you are contracting your core and pelvic floor before exertion of every rep -even if that means having to slow down a little bit or scale back the weight to make sure you are moving with intention.
So to wrap things up -once you have healed and done the work to restore optimal function to your core and pelvic floor, then by all means GRADUALLY start progressing to more challenging stuff. Just be sure that you are moving mindfully during your workout. Every workout should be a workout with intention and focus, not just going through the motions, especially when you have a decently loaded barbell in front of you.
I absolutely understand that you may be feeling the jitters to â€œhit the gym hard againâ€ now that your baby is here. But first and foremost, we want a body that functions and that FEELS the way it’s supposed to feel. Your immediate goal shouldn’t be to heave as much weight around, or do as many burpees or pull-ups as possible in a given amount of time. Your immediate goal should be to recover properly and have a body that works properly.
As always -I am here to help! If you trying to figure out how to get back into exercise after the birth of your baby, please feel free to contact me!