Get in shape after a baby — part 2

Exercising six weeks after giving birth and beyond

Once you've given birth, getting back into shape can be tough. But, with our guide to getting back into shape, from six weeks after delivery, it really needn't be as difficult as you might think. Here's a few tips and tricks to getting back into shape after a baby:

Part 1 of our Get in shape guide looked at the the first six weeks. So what should you do after that time period to continue to shape up post-baby?

If you’ve managed to get started on some of the pelvic floor exercises and basic abdominal strength work outlined in part 1, then well done. But it is no time to stop, instead you should be increasing your exercises to further improve your tone and muscle control in these areas.

How to get back into shape after giving birth

You need to start to increase the overload on the pelvic floor and deep abdominals in order to continue to make progress – which means that as the exercises you are performing become easy, you need to increase the level of challenge.

Your pelvic floor exercises can be made more challenging by lengthening the holds of the slow contractions, and increasing the number of contractions you do overall, or reduce the intervals between them. You could even consider using 'vaginal weights' – small weighted cones are inserted into the vagina and then squeezed by the vaginal walls.

In addition to continuing with your pelvic flor exercises, it's important to keep up the abdominal work, too. Here are some exercises that you can add to your routine to make it more challenging:

Getting back into shape exercise 1: Leg slide

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Inhale and as you exhale, draw your navel towards your spine and slide one leg out along the floor until it is straight. Inhale, then exhale again as you draw the leg back up, keeping the pelvis level throughout. Repeat with the other leg.

Getting back into shape exercise 2: Bent knee fallout

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Relax the ribs and engage the TA (Transversus Abdominis) by drawing in the lower tummy. Let one knee fall slowly out to the side, while keeping the pelvis still and maintaining the TA contraction. Don’t allow the pelvis to rotate with the leg. Repeat 10 times and then swap legs.

Getting back into shape exercise 3: Knee lift

Lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor and core engaged. Pick one foot off the floor and lift the leg (keeping it bent). Stop lifting as soon as the pelvis starts to move or twist, lower and repeat. Repeat 10 times per leg.

Getting back into shape exercise 4: Four point kneeling*

Start on all fours with hands below shoulders and knees below hips. Have your spine in a neutral position – neither arched or rounded, and let the tummy relax and hang down. Inhale, and as you exhale, pull the pelvic floor muscles ‘up and in’, and then draw up the lower part of the tummy, keeping everything else perfectly still. Hold for six seconds, breathing freely. (*Do not adopt the four-point kneeling position until six weeks after delivery.)

The other goal, once those first six weeks are over with, is to shorten the rectus abdominis – the six-pack muscle. Research shows that the best way to do this is to work in the muscle’s ‘inner range’, in other words, when it is in a shortened position. But first, you need to ensure that the two sides of the rectus abdominis are knitting together properly.

Getting back into shape exercise 5: The rec check

Six weeks after giving birth, the separation along the linea alba should be the width of two fingers or less. Exercising your abdominals with standard ab exercises (like curls and crunches) if the gap is wider than this can impair recovery of the muscles and result in doming. So how do you know? Your doctor should be able to tell you from a quick examination. You can also try this test yourself:

Lie on your back with your knees bent up and feet flat on the floor. Place two fingers on the abdomen, around your navel and press down gently. Now inhale and as you exhale, slowly raise your head and shoulders off the floor, keeping the pressure on your navel. As the head and shoulders lift you should be able to feel the two portions of the rectus abdominis muscle closing in around your fingers. You will almost certainly feel a gap of some description (a gap of 1.5-2cm (0.6-0.8in) post-pregnancy is normal) but you don’t want the gap to be more than the width of two fingers.

When you have passed the rec check, try the exercises below to start retraining your abs.

Getting back into shape exercise 6: Kneeling pelvic tilt

Start on all fours with hands below shoulders and knees below hips. Have your spine in a neutral position – neither arched or rounded, and let the tummy relax and hang down. Inhale, and as you exhale, curl the tailbone under and tilt the pelvis. Hold, then release back to the start position and repeat. Avoid using the buttocks toinitate the tilt – focus on using the muscle at the front of your torso.

Getting back into shape exercise 7: Shoulder raise

Lie on the floor with knees bent and feet flat, arms beside you. Inhale, and as you exhale, draw your navel to spine and curl your ribcage towards your hips, allowing the head and shoulders to come off the floor. Hold in this position, keeping the abdomen flat, and then slowly lower.

Getting back into shape exercise 8: Half rolldown

Sit upright with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your hands under your thighs. Inhale and as you exhale, draw your navel to your spine and tilt the pelvis, scooping the abdominals and curling up the pubic bone as you roll off your sit bones on to the upper part of the glutes. Don’t pull on the thighs with your hands. Hold this curled position, breathing freely, and then return to upright sitting. Gradually increase the length of time you hold the position.

Getting back into shape exercise 9: Getting active

Now that the primary post-natal period is over, most doctors will give the green light as far as getting active again is concerned. Experts recommend aiming for low to moderate intensity workouts that last for 20-30 minutes, around three to five times per week.

Lower impact activity is recommended over higher impact options. Walking is the easiest option, especially because it's something you can do with your baby. To make your walking workouts more challenging, include some hill climbs and descents on your route. And to ensure good technique, as you push up a hill, don’t stick your backside out, but instead walk tall, with abdominals gently drawn back to your spine and torso upright. Down the hills, do the same, but also keep your arms bent rather than letting the pushchair or stroller stray too far from your torso. A one-hour walk, taking in a few hills, can burn around 260 calories.

Cycling is another great option and an exercise bike for use in the home can be a useful addition. Swimming, aqua fitness classes and gym-based machines such as the cross-trainer or stepper can also be introduced.

Getting back into shape exercise 10: How soon can you get back to running?

It's likely that your doctor will tell you to avoid running for the first few months after pregnancy. However, Norwegian distance runner Ingrid Kristiansen was back to her pre-pregnancy training levels within a month of giving birth. Certainly, if you weren’t a runner before having a baby, you should wait at least a few months before starting.

Strength training should be avoided for the first five months after delivery, but in the meantime, you can still work with light weights, using high repetitions and low resistance, to help restore muscle tone and endurance.

For those who weren't active before giving birth, a great activity to start with is Pilates. Focusing on the the core muscles, pelvic floor and abdominals, it is just what you need post-pregnancy. Make sure you tell the instructor you’ve recently had a baby, to ensure the exercises you do are all safe and effective. Yoga can be great, too – but it’s best to opt for specific post-natal sessions.

Factors to think about on your return to exercise

  • Ensure you are taking in sufficient calories and fluids if you are exercising and breastfeeding. The body needs an extra 500-600 calories a day to sustain breastfeeding.

  • Your baby may not like the taste of your milk immediately after exercise. It’s a better idea to express milk before exercise. This will also make exercise more comfortable.

  • Wear a supportive sports bra for all activities.

  • Joint stability can still be compromised up to five months after delivery, so be extra vigilant about good posture and technique.

  • Stretching to maintain flexibility and help restore correct posture is fine – but don’t stretch to increase flexibility – by holding positions for too long, or by stretching too far – until 16-20 weeks after giving birth – as relaxin is still abundant and muscles more vulnerable.

  • Be flexible. This is one occasion when goal setting is inadvisable. Don’t force yourself to stick to a schedule or feel disappointed with yourself if you can’t do as much as you would like.

  • Consider visiting an osteopath, chiropractor or physiotherapist to have your pelvic alignment assessed. Pregnancy can often tilt or twist the pelvis slightly, which may cause back and lower limb problems once you start exercising.

  • If you feel breathless, dizzy or nauseous during exercise or extremely achy or lethargic as a result of it – ease off. These are signs that you are overdoing things.

Getting back to pre-pregnancy exercise levels

Over time you can gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts to reach the levels you were at before your pregnancy. It may be that your performance improves because their is some evidence to suggest that sports performance in women can improve after giving birth.

There are two schools of thought on this. One is that the increased blood volume and accompanying red blood cell concentration enables more oxygen to be transported into the body. Another suggests that the experience of giving birth raises your pain threshold, so that you can push yourself harder.

If you are struggling for motivation in those first few months post-baby, it is always worth bearing in mind that women who don’t lose their baby weight within the first six months tend never to lose it at all. So, however tiring child-rearing can be, do your best to find time for exercise as it may shape you for the rest of you life.

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