5 Postpartum Exercises For Strength And Recovery

Ali Handley from BodyLove Pilates is back – this time, with step-by-step workouts for rebuilding strength after childbirth.
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The last time we chatted with Ali Handley, the founder of BodyLove Pilates, she shared five workout moves that make for a stronger pregnancy and a more easeful childbirth. But it's just as important to rebuild bodily endurance after welcoming our little ones into the world, and today, Ali tells us how, complete with step-by-step instructions.

You did it! You ran that race like a champ, and you have your beautiful baby in your arms. Now it’s time to focus on your recovery, and this can start right away. Even just ten minutes a day will greatly accelerate your healing and your return to strength and fitness. But make sure you take your time and be patient. I didn’t rush my recovery – please don’t feel like you should rush yours!

1. TVA Counting

When you are pregnant, your abdominals – your six-pack muscle in particular – have to separate to make room for your growing baby. This is know as Diastasis Recti. It’s 100% normal, and almost all postnatal women will have some degree of separation after birth. Repairing your Diastasis is the number-one thing to focus on when you are postnatal. If you don’t close the separation, you will undoubtedly have back pain in years to come. 

Focusing on deep core breathing activation exercises is the crucial first step when returning to fitness. The Transverse Abdominis (TVA) is the only muscle that brings the two sides of the abs back together, so it's really important to do exercises that target this muscle.

How to: Inhale through your nose, and allow your belly to fill up with air and your muscles to relax. Exhale out your mouth and image pulling your belly button all the way to your spine. Hold that connection and begin to count out loud. Make sure to take small sips of air as you count. The goal is to be able to maintain the connection whilst breathing. Start out by counting to ten and build to 25.

Tip: If you are having trouble staying connected as you count, grab one of the 1,000 swaddle cloths you probably have and wrap it around your belly, crossing the two sides over your belly button at the front. As you exhale, pull the swaddle or scarf tight around you and hold it tight as you count. This is called splinting.

2. Pea Up A Straw

No matter how you gave birth, your pelvic floor muscles deserve some TLC. Don’t be put off if at first you cannot feel the engagement. The trauma they go through during childbirth can result in some numbness, but the pelvic floor muscles are thinking muscles – the more you think about them, the more they activate and grow stronger. Activation of the muscles sends blood flow to the area, and blood flow to the area means healing.

How to: The pelvic floor muscles form a figure-eight around the vagina and anus – imagine placing a little pea right in the center. Inhale through your nose and imagine fully releasing the pelvic floor muscles. Exhale out your mouth and imagine you suck that little pea up a straw that goes up into your belly. Inhale and fully release the pea back to the start position.

Tip: From a seated position, I like to always have something underneath me, like the physioball, so I can imagine really lifting it up off a surface. If you are having difficulty feeling the engagement, try doing the exercise from a child’s pose position.

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3. Spine Twist Stretch

When you are pregnant, particularly by the end, your upper spine becomes very stiff, and your ability to rotate, turn and twist becomes less and less. Now is the time to focus on mobilizing the spine  and really target your ability to rotate the ribcage. Overall, there is so much tightness in the body after pregnancy and even more so now with your new bub, so making sure you are consistently stretching will help relieve any pain and stiffness.

How to: Reach your arms out to your sides and bend your knees. Cross one leg over the other just above the knee. Allow your knees to fall to side of the bottom leg. 

As your legs drop to one side, let your head fall the other way, rest your cheek down and look along your arm. Hold for as long as you feel like your body has time to relax and settle into the stretch. Keep breathing a nice gentle rhythm of inhale and exhale throughout the stretch.

Tip: If your partner is handy, have them place pressure down on your hip and chest, encouraging a deepening into the stretch.


4. Rowing

Hold your baby. Feed your baby. Rock your baby. All of these activities, while lovely, are really wreaking havoc on your posture. The rounding of the spine you experienced during pregnancy is multiplied tenfold with all the work you're doing now as a new mom. You need to focus on strengthening the muscles of the back and shoulders to help counter the rounding forward of the spine. I always say, just sitting up tall with your chest proud and belly pulling in is 100% an exercise when you’ve got a new baby!

How to: This exercise requires a green or blue Thera-Band. (You can purchase these easily on Amazon, and they're so useful for lots of exercises and stretches you will do as a new mom.)

Hold the Thera-Band between your thumbs and hands, behind your back. Inhale through your nose, sitting up as tall as you can. Exhale out your mouth, draw your belly button to your spine, bend your elbows and draw them back in line with the body and behind you, but without rounding the spine as you do. Inhale through your nose again, stay tall, and return to the start position.

Tip: Before I move my arms, I first stabilize and support my spine by wrapping my abs around and pulling my belly button to my spine. This makes me grow taller and resist any spine rounding as I complete the exercise. I also like to imagine my elbows are digging a trench through sand as they move back.


5. Squats

You have never squatted down so much in your life as when you have a new baby, have you? When they're not attached to you, it’s likely that they're on the ground, and the bigger they get, the harder it is to get them up again. You need to learn the proper mechanics of squatting to ensure you are using your lower body strength, not your back, and supporting your spine with your deep core.

How to: Inhale through your nose and sit back into the squat. Exhale out your mouth and feel your belly button pull into your spine. Keep this connection as you push through your feet and stand back up.

Tip: The best way to get the mechanics right is by using any household chair as a prop. Do your squats to and from the chair behind you. It’s actually harder than you think, but it will get you finding the right hinge position and muscle activation.

p.s. Did you catch Ali's top five moves for building prenatal strength?