Returning to the Gym Postpartum: A Guide to Bounce Back Successfully

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There are many conflicting viewpoints floating around the internet when it comes to returning to the gym postpartum. So often, the new mother is responsible for seeking out this information for herself, and it’s easy to get lost in the sea of endless information.

By Coach Katie Clementi (Edited by: Austin Current, Sue Bush, and Maji Koetter-Ali, RD)

For example, it’s very prevalent to think that you will be given your physician’s “go ahead” to return to exercising around the six-week mark. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Also, most assume they can jump right back into the swing of their pre-pregnancy training routine without much of a plan. That is rarely the case and should be reconsidered for the sake of your short and long-term health.

This article will discuss a practical way to approach your return to the gym postpartum. First, we will discuss how to safely navigate your postpartum fitness journey while discussing the importance of abdominal muscles and pelvic floor rehabilitation. Next, we will discuss setting realistic goals and expectations for yourself and your training and giving you the dos and don’ts of strength training postpartum. Finally, we will answer the most common questions and provide sample workouts to safely get you back into the gym. Let’s dive into one of the most important ones first.

How Long Should I Wait To Lift Postpartum?

Expectation

At the end of the second phase of the postpartum period, there is a six-week appointment you are suggested to attend. Heading into this appointment, most women expect to get back into the gym just as they were before pregnancy.

Most think that they can go right back into running, jumping, and lifting as they were — but that’s not realistic. The reality is that no matter what kind of birth you had, your body is still healing. So it is crucial to make sure that you are comfortable, no longer sore or cramping, and that you have not had any bleeding for a few days.

Reality

After having that approval for exercise is when your healing really starts to kick start. Now is the time that you can continue progressing through the core and pelvic floor rehabilitation while you also start introducing some bodyweight exercises safely from home. These movements will feel different compared to how they felt pre-pregnancy after having a shift in your center of gravity for so long, so it is crucial to implement them as bodyweight first.  Your body will continue to heal and progress as you move through those exercises, and this is an excellent tool to use to measure your progress in the upcoming weeks. After a few weeks here, progressions in these movements are when you can expect to add in some resistance comfortably.

Postpartum training - physique development

Exercise Selection: Do’s & Don’ts

When returning to the gym postpartum, focusing on rehabilitation is essential before attempting heavy strength training. One big reason for this is that Relaxin — a hormone that our body uses during pregnancy to help the expansion of our growing body — is still at high levels postpartum. This hormone leads to increased mobility and flexibility within the body, which, if you are not careful, can cause injury when overloading joints too quickly during the rehabilitation process. Alongside the risk to your connective tissues is a host of other potential complications that should be considered.

Do’s

The first three to four weeks at home is the time to create a good routine without putting too much thought into weight loss. The first few weeks are a great place to start basic things — like taking walks!

Getting out of the house for some fresh air and vitamin D will be beneficial for all and can help to increase overall mood and well-being. In addition, after getting more acquainted with your new life as a mom, you can spend time implementing other essential activities like pelvic floor exercises and core rehabilitation.

Throughout pregnancy, your pelvic floor muscles take on the task of creating stability for your growing baby and can become very weak throughout that process. So, spending time to re-strengthen those muscles is something you want to take the time to do postpartum. Then, you can work in bodyweight movements that are slow and controlled, then add in some resistance bands or dumbbells once you’re ready. After you have gained more comfort with bodyweight and resistance band exercises, you can start to consider reintroducing a barbell into your training program. Below, you will find a list of exercises that we recommend starting with:

  • Bodyweight exercises – wall push-ups, wall sits, batwing wall planks, chair tricep dips, chair bodyweight squats
  • Pelvic Floor Exercises – Heel Slides, dead bugs/modified dead bug, Bird/dog, Glute Bridge, Pelvic tuck, 
  • Breathing Exercises – TVA breathing (360* breathing), side-lying, sitting on a ball, and standing are all beneficial. 
  • Barbell/Free Weight Lifting– Barbell will be the last to implement.

Don’ts

Do your best to avoid jumping movements or intense running for the first few months postpartum. Doing these activities too soon after having your child can create incontinence (the loss of bladder control), extending the time you need to rehab your pelvic floor. In addition, avoid doing any weighted abdominal movements for the first few months as you want to be sure that the abdominal separation that occurred while pregnant has had time to close up. Also, introducing a barbell too soon — especially without proper rehab — can create unnecessary tension in the abdominal wall and excessive pressure on the pelvic floor.

Cesarean consideration: Avoid movements that place resistance load across your lap/pelvis (barbell hip thrusts, for example) until the numbness has decreased and the swelling around the incision site has subsided. The cesarean incision is five layers deep — just because it looks healed on the outside after a couple of months does not mean it has had time to heal internally.

Below, you will find a list of exercises that we recommend avoiding within the first few months of your postpartum training:

  • jumping movements,
  • running (without properly rehabbing the pelvic floor), 
  • weighted abdominal movements, 
  • barbell movements without using DB first; 
  • Cesarean consideration: Avoid movements across your lap (hip thrusts, etc.) until numbness disappears. 

How Heavy Can I Lift Postpartum?

Although you have been released to start physical activity, there is still a chance it may be too soon.

How Do I Know It’s Not Too Soon?

Ways to know it is too soon to start resistance training is if you are still having aches and pains or cramping; or if you are still bleeding. In some cases, you may complete a few exercises, and the next day bleeding may reoccur again. This is your body telling you that you have not healed fully, and it is time to take a step back.

Getting back into weightlifting should be taken slowly. It may seem “boring” in those first few weeks, but what you do during this time will set your body up for months down the road. So think intention now, intensity later (this isn’t forever).

Start with reconnecting breaths to connect to the inner core that got weaker while carrying a baby and some light stretching as soon as possible. Once you are released, you can progress into bodyweight movements, banded exercises, dumbbell exercises, and lastly, you can implement barbell movements. From that point forward, you can slowly increase your weight selections.

Example of exercises/progression:

Week 1-5 PP (before getting released): 

  • Daily walks starting around two weeks PP that can progress by 5 mins as you see fit. 
  • Pelvic Floor Exercises – Heel Slides, dead bugs/modified dead bug, Bird/dog, Glute Bridge with a small ball, Pelvic tuck into a glute bridge. 
  • Breathing Exercises – TVA breathing (360* breathing), side-lying, sitting on a ball, and standing are beneficial.

Weeks 6-8: 

Bodyweight exercises include wall push-ups, wall sits, batwing wall planks, chair tricep dips, chair bodyweight squats, and single-leg movements (alternating lunge, lateral lunge).

Weeks 9-11:

DB/Bands/Machine exercises – Adding in resistance exercises by using lighter weights with dumbbells or machines is a great way to ensure that your body is ready to start increasing load. For example, DB box squats, DB farmer’s carry, SA DB Squat, RDL, OHP, etc., with lightweight for a few weeks, will set you up for success when adding barbell movements.

Week 12: 

Barbell/Free Weight Lifting – Barbell will be the last to implement. The reason is that using a barbell and too heavy of a load can damage the pelvic floor region. Also, carrying a heavier load too soon without recovering and proper breathing through movements can cause that load to push down on your pelvic floor and create more damage. 

Postpartum Nutrition

Your body needs calories to heal and recover; therefore, a caloric deficit is not recommended until at least six to eight weeks postpartum. Also, your sleep quality is not the greatest in those first few weeks, which means recovery is already less than optimal due to lack of sleep. Therefore, combining both lack of sleep and lack of nutrients or calories is not the best idea for recovering postpartum.

How Much To Eat

Women that are breastfeeding should expect to consume an extra 400-500 calories to maintain their breast milk supply. In addition, it’s important to remember that you burn calories while producing breast milk — approximately 20 calories per ounce produced — making it even more important to eat enough calories.

How To Find Your Postpartum Macros, Simplified

Breastfeeding:

First, you’ll want to find the number of calories you burn as your body performs essential life-sustaining functions, also known as basal metabolic rate (BMR). Click here to find your BMR. Once you establish this number, you will add at least 400 calories to the BMR.

Enter your own personal information into the calculator to find your TDEE. It is important to be sure that you are using your most recent weight to find the correct intake and not your goal weight.

Once you have the TDEE you can now add 400 calories. Ex: 1,939 + 400 = 2339 **Breastfeeding**

(BMR + 400cals = daily intake, and never be below 1500 calories for lactating females)

Next, you will want to find macro goals for yourself. Keep in mind that tracking macros is a great tool, but there is not a one-size-fits-all when finding the perfect macro breakdown. Using this calculator, you can find different macro options to start with. It is best to be consistent with tracking macros for at least two weeks before making any adjustments according to your goals.

It is worth noting that protein intake is recommended to stay within 1.3 grams (g) per kilogram (kg) of body weight while breastfeeding to preserve skeletal muscle tissue and to also keep a high protein intake throughout your whole postpartum journey to help with healing your body as well as weight loss. Choosing high protein foods, minimally processed whole food sources, and fruits and vegetables should be a top priority.

Tracking macros postpartum is not for everyone. Some women may find that they are not in the position to add that extra task and responsibility to their new daily routine alongside everything else. If that is the case, that is more than okay! Personally, I have not tracked my macros throughout my postpartum journey. However, I have been able to use my previous knowledge from spending years tracking calories and macros to make conscious decisions regarding my food choices. If you have experience with tracking your nutrition, use that knowledge to make responsible decisions. If you aren’t sure about how to approach your nutrition, consider hiring a professional to help. 

The first thing to focus on when looking to manage your nutrition without tracking your macros or calories is the types of foods that you are consuming. As mentioned above, choosing foods high in protein and high in vitamins and minerals will be very important for healing postpartum.

Creating a balanced plate will help to be sure you are including everything you need without going overboard. A great rule of thumb for doing this is to create a plate with 50% non-starchy carbs, 25% starchy carbs, and 25% protein (shown below). This doesn’t always have to mean that your plate has chicken, rice, and veggies — your options are plentiful, but be sure to keep with the percentages of each main food source. Alongside that, drinking water before your meal will help you feel more satiated and is a fantastic way to ensure that you do not overeat. 

We have included some of our favorite recipes below that are perfect for saving time and creating great meals for the whole family (click one and try it out)! 

Sweet Potato Black Bean Bowls

Sheet Pan Chicken Fajitas

Overnight Oats

Pressure Cooker Shredded Chicken

Portion Control

One other important tip to making progress without tracking is to control your portion sizes. Being mindful of the amount of food you are consuming will be beneficial to make sure that you are not overeating. Using your hand is a great way to eyeball certain foods to get an idea of how much you should be eating at a given time.

For example: 

Source: https://www.precisionnutrition.com/hand-portion-faq

Non-Breastfeeding:

When it comes to choosing a calorie intake postpartum, it can be tricky. In most cases, you will be less active than before due to not working out for six weeks, which may cause someone to assume they need to eat even less.

In reality, you are now eating to heal your body from labor and delivery. Consuming a minimum of 1800 calories per day, focusing on staying hydrated, and consuming healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, and protein is a sure way you’re keeping up with your nutritional requirements. 

Like anything, once you have been able to nail down the small things, you may consider putting yourself into a caloric deficit. But, keep in mind that it is recommended that you wait up to at least six to eight weeks before putting yourself into a caloric deficit.

Then, you can use the same formula and calculators shown above to find your intake and macro breakdown. You will not have to add the additional 400 calories to your TDEE.

Postpartum FAQ’s

I feel like I am ready right now (4 weeks Postpartum). So why do I still need to ease into weight lifting? 

Although you may feel ready mentally and look ready physically, your body will still be recovering internally. To set yourself up for long-term success, taking the proper steps now to rehab and reintroduce resistance training will pay off in the long term. If you do not take the time, you are setting yourself up for possible injury or prolonged issues (Ex: incontinence, Diastasis Recti, among other complications).

Will exercise impact my milk supply? 

Working out may impact milk supply if you are not consuming enough calories to support your milk production and exercise expenditure. In this case, it will be very important to be eating enough calories and drinking enough water each day to help your body continue to produce milk while burning more calories. 

What supplements can I use?

The supplements you have been using during pregnancy are great to continue utilizing postpartum. Similar to pregnancy, the most common nutrients that tend to be low postpartum will be zinc, calcium, magnesium, folate, and B6. Again, using a well-trusted prenatal and fish oil is a great place to start. You can also consider using a protein supplement to help keep your protein intake consistent, as that will help recovery.

Is caffeine safe postpartum? If so, how much?

It is important to note that you should continue to monitor your caffeine intake throughout postpartum. For example, you are limiting caffeine intake to 200mg per day if breastfeeding as you did while pregnant. Postpartum is hard; you’re tired and most likely sleep-deprived, so you may naturally want to turn to some sort of caffeinated beverage to help get you through the day. But, increased caffeine intake can negatively affect your sleep — which is already disrupted throughout this time. Also, increased caffeine intake may also raise any postpartum anxiety symptoms if those are relevant to you. 

How to Get Started at Home (Full Workout)

Exercise 1a: TVA Breathing – 3 sets of 10 breaths – 30 seconds to 1 min rest period

Exercise 2a: Heel Slides – 3 sets of 8 reps (each leg) – 30 seconds rest period

Exercise 2b: Bodyweight Glute Bridge – 3 sets of 8 reps (each leg) – 30 seconds rest period

(repeat 3 rounds of exercise grouping 2)

 

Exercise 3a: Incline Wall Plank – 3 sets of 20-30 seconds hold – 30 seconds rest period

Exercise 3b: Wall Sit – 3 sets of 30 seconds hold – 30 seconds rest period

Exercise 3c: Bodyweight Tricep Dip – 3 sets of 10 reps – 60 seconds rest period

(repeat 3 rounds of exercise grouping 3)

SCHEDULE A CALL WITH A PHYSIQUE DEVELOPMENT COACH

We help guide you past your plateaus and get you back on the path of progressing your goals of building muscle, losing unwanted body fat, and creating a better balance within your life. Our goal is to educate you throughout your journey to ensure you have a fundamental understanding of training and nutrition that gives you the tools you need to maintain progress and balance your overall health for years to come.

Click Here to schedule a call with a coach!

*It is important to make the distinction between sex and gender, neither of which are binary nor should be used interchangeably. In the text, we use the term “women” to refer to those who self-identify in this manner and/or were assigned female-at-birth. However, it is important to note that this only represents a subset of women and is not representative of all those who identify that way.

Written by: Coach Katie Clementi, CPT

Katie Clementi - Physique Development

 

References:

Postpartum period: three distinct but continuous phases – PMC 

Romano, M., Cacciatore, A., Giordano, R., & La Rosa, B. (2010). Postpartum period: three distinct but continuous phases. Journal of prenatal medicine, 4(2), 22–25.

Impacts of Caffeine during Pregnancy – PMC

Qian, J., Chen, Q., Ward, S. M., Duan, E., & Zhang, Y. (2020). Impacts of Caffeine during Pregnancy. Trends in endocrinology and metabolism: TEM, 31(3), 218–227. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tem.2019.11.004

Meeting Maternal Nutrient Needs During Lactation

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Nutritional Status During Pregnancy and Lactation. Nutrition During Lactation. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1991. 9, Meeting Maternal Nutrient Needs During Lactation. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK235579/ 

Nutrition Recommendations in Pregnancy and Lactation – PMC

Kominiarek, M. A., & Rajan, P. (2016). Nutrition Recommendations in Pregnancy and Lactation. The Medical clinics of North America, 100(6), 1199–1215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mcna.2016.06.004

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