Everything you need to know about postpartum exercise (plus a video!)
There are so many common, but not normal postpartum complaints:
URINE OR FECAL LEAKING
ABDOMINAL WALL SEPARATION (DIASTASIS RECTI)
CESAREAN SCAR PAIN
WRIST AND THUMB PAIN
UPPER/LOWER BACK PAIN
OVERALL DISCONNECT TO YOUR CORE
You know what all of these have in common? Your pelvic floor.
Believe it or not, your pelvic floor is your core.
What’s the pelvic floor?
To break it down, the pelvic floor is a sling of muscles at the base of the pelvis that connect from the tailbone to the pubic bone. They contract in anticipation of movement to stabilize the pelvis, as well as lengthen to accommodate any increased pressure, such as with a cough or a sneeze. These muscles work in conjunction with the diaphragm, our major breathing muscle, which is why breath is so crucial in connecting to the pelvic floor. These two components also work together with the deepest abdominal muscles and back muscles. Together these four parts make up the “core”, or “stabilizing system”. Keeping these parts aligned properly also contributes to proper function.
First thing’s first: THE BREATH
Figuring out the proper breathing technique to both lengthen and strengthen your pelvic floor is the foundation of every step in healing the aforementioned ailments postpartum It is EVERYTHING and so essential. Luckily, it’s not that difficult to find the proper breathing technique and incorporate it seamlessly in to your everyday life.
Begin a breathing practice to coordinate the diaphragm and pelvic floor system. Sit comfortably in good alignment, with a slight curve in the lower back. Inhale through your nose as the ribcage expands laterally, and feel the pelvic floor lengthen down and relax. Then, exhale through your mouth as the rib cage comes back in, and the pelvic floor recoils back up and in. Getting your body in tune with this connection and movement will allow you to carry it over into your everyday life, exercise, and movement practice, so that it becomes more natural.
What about KEGELS?
So kegels can be great, if you’re doing them correctly. But most of the time women are doing kegels to just tighten and engage - which is only half of the equation. In order for your pelvic floor to function properly not only should you be able to contract your pelvic floor muscles, but you should also be able to lengthen them. A proper kegel is a lengthening of your pelvic floor as you inhale and a squeeze and lift up and in on the exhale. (as in the exercise we just did)
Once you’ve mastered the breath, or have a good grasp of it, you can begin to move on to putting it to movement with exercise.
A MAJOR NOTE HERE: it sounds so simple and easy and you may be tempted to skip this part - DON’T. The breath is the most important step to repairing the effects of pregnancy and childbirth and gaining a stronger core. You want that better body after baby? You gotta start with the breath.
Alright, let’s get moving!
If you’re mastered the breath, and you’re comfortably moving around postpartum and ready to begin some movement in to your day, you need to start slow. Trust me, the time you take repairing and strengthening here is so crucial. You do not need to “bounce back” - that’s not safe or effective. You need to strengthen forward. Lean in to this new body of yours and treat it with the respect and patience it deserves.
In the beginning, you can do some mermaid reaches to get the side body fired up. I also love doing sufi rolls and cat/cow. Here make sure not to go too deep of a cow pose because that minor inversion can stretch the abdominal wall too far (same for pregnancy - in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters you want to keep you cow small).
Building on …
bird/dog is a great exercise postpartum, especially for healing diastasis recti - which, research shows nearly 100% of women have to some degree - The bird dog exercise helps strengthen core muscles and stabilize the spine, particularly the lumbar region that supports most of the body. It also improves posture control, aligns the spine, reduces lower back pain, and strengthens the shoulder muscles. In table top position with a neutral spine, inhale and lift one leg parallel to the floor. If you can keep your hips steady and parallel, use your abs to help lift your opposite arm parallel to the floor as well. Stay here for 5 breaths and switch.
Toe Taps -
The toe tap activates stabilizing muscles deep in your core, specifically the transverse abdominis, and your rectus abdominis. Basically, you lay on your back and bring your knees up to a 90-degree angle. Then, slowly inhale and lower one toe down to tap the floor and use your abs to pull it back in on the exhale. Switch legs and repeat. If you feel your hip flexors start to fire, try and keep your lower back on the mat - this engages the abs a little more and forces them to take over the work. This really works the transverse abdominis which is connected to all those other parts that work with the pelvic floor so when you’re working here, you’re working the pelvic floor. Just remember to keep that Diaphragmatic breath going!
You may be asking yourself how this relates to your core and pelvic floor and those abs. And I hear ya. But this exercise helps strengthen and lengthen the glute muscles, the pelvic floor, hips hamstrings, spine and neck. We often forget that the back is part of the core, and we need to focus on 360 degrees of movement not only with the breath, but with our body. So bridging is essential to strengthening the backside.
Knee tucks -
This is a much more advanced move but I want to include it here so you can see the progression and where you’re going.
The knee tuck works your glutes, core, and hip flexors. Start in a high plank position with both feet on the sliders. Keep your hips level and pull one knee in to touch your chest, keeping your feet on the sliders. Keep your core tight and push your foot back into your original plank position. Switch sides. Once you feel strong here, you can move on to both legs at the same time.
If you feel your belly start to pooch out in the middle - stop. You’re not ready. Go back to toe taps and bridging and the other exercises and keep working. You’ll get there.
Side plank -
I love a side plank. It’s probably my favorite thing to do and great for working those obliques (we already did the front transverse abdominis and the back so let’s get those sides working!)
To start, have your legs a little apart for a stronger base. You’ll need this as you work up. Start with a 20 second hold and work up to a minute.
Once you feel good here, you can stack your feet.
When you feel really strong, you can lift your top leg (using your abs - NOT your hip flexors) a little for more of a challenge.
I hope this was a good intro for you and a foundation upon which you can build your postpartum exercise routine. To see some of these moves in action, please watch the video below which lays it all out for you!