The Best Way To Progress Back Into Exercise After Giving Birth

August 13, 2021 - 9 minutes read

Returning to exercise after giving birth can have so many positive benefits for postpartum women. Not only is it a great way to get back into pre-pregnancy condition, a consistent exercise routine can also help decrease stress and provide relief from the social isolation that can often occur after delivery.

As long as your doctor has cleared you to exercise and you’re not experiencing postnatal bleeding, discharge or pain with activity, the following progression can be followed to create an effective postpartum exercise program*.

*Please note that these are general guidelines. If you’ve had a cesarean section, an episiotomy, or experienced tearing or other trauma during labour and delivery, check in with your body and let comfort be your guide in determining your own personal timeline.

The best way to exercise after giving birth:

1. Pelvic floor activation
2. Light walking
3. Deep core activation
4. General stability and low impact activity
5. Controlled movement and light strength work
6. Compound movement and moderate strength and impact work

Stage 1: Pelvic floor activation

Throughout pregnancy, and especially during delivery, the pelvic floor muscles can become stretched and lose their ability to engage the way they used to pre-pregnancy. Postpartum, this can lead to stress incontinence, pelvic pain or just a general feeling of laxity in the pubic area, which is why focusing on these muscles is a great first step to return to exercise.

When to begin:

You can begin to reconnect with your pelvic floor as early as 12 hours following vaginal delivery, or 4-8 weeks following cesarean delivery.

Tips to get started:

Learn to re-engage these muscles by following a progressive pelvic floor exercise routine. Take the time to understand the anatomy of this area and work to connect with these muscles without engaging others around it, like the quads and glutes.

Stage 2: Light walking

A lot of new moms tend to feel confined to their homes during the first few months after giving birth, so getting out for a good walk is a great way to change up the scenery, get some fresh air, and build back a bit of muscle tone through the legs and core.

When to begin:

You can typically start taking some brief walks within 1 to 7 days following vaginal delivery, or 4-8 weeks following cesarean delivery.

Tips to get started:

Begin creating this new habit by scheduling in a 10-15 minute walk around the block on most days of the week. As you begin to get into a routine, gradually increase the distance and speed at a rate that’s comfortable for you and your recovery.

Stage 3: Deep core activation

Following pregnancy, the core muscles undergo a lot of stretching and strain, which often leads to diastasis recti after baby is born*. And while your body is generally able to bounce back to some degree on its own postpartum, it’s important to help the process along by purposefully reconnecting with those deep core muscles to reduce the laxity that’s now present through the abdominals.

*If you have severe diastasis, be sure to talk to your doctor before attempting any core exercises since you may need to see a physiotherapist who specializes in postpartum training.

When to begin:

Most women can begin deep core activation and strengthening within 7 to 10 days following vaginal delivery, or 4-8 weeks following cesarean delivery.

Tips to get started:

Learn to reconnect with your transverse abdominis muscle to improve your stability and reduce the level of diastasis through your core. Then add in some progressive core exercises that will help you regain your strength.

At this stage, it’s important to avoid forward-flexion exercises (ie. crunches and sit-ups), isolated oblique exercises (ie. side twists) and planking positions as these movements can cause doming in the core and may increase the diastasis separation.

Stage 4: General stability and low-impact activity

Once you begin to feel stronger through your midsection, you can then start expanding into other exercises that help to improve your posture and prep your body to build back towards its pre-pregnancy strength. This stage is all about reintroducing low-impact aerobic activities to get your heart rate up, while also focusing on creating general stability through your shoulders and hips.

When to begin:

A good time to get back into light weight training and low impact exercise is 4 to 6 weeks following vaginal delivery, or 8 weeks following cesarean delivery.

Tips to get started:

Some great low-impact activities to consider in this stage include gentle yoga or pilates, the stationary bike, the elliptical or the stair climber. You may also be able to return to swimming or water aerobics if your doctor has cleared you during your postpartum check-up*.

In the gym, start working on exercises that promote scapular stability and learn to reengage those glute muscles to build strength back up through the hips and pelvis.

*You may need to wait longer if you’ve had a caesarean, stitches or are still experiencing postpartum bleeding.

Stage 5: Controlled movement and light strength work

With a strong core and stable shoulders and hips, you can now ease back into some light strength work. Focus your efforts here on controlling your body throughout basic movement patterns and slowly adding light resistance to simple exercises.

When to begin:

As soon as you feel your energy and stability improving following the steps above, you can then transition into this stage.

Tips to get started:

Try starting with bodyweight exercises, balance work, and general strength with light weights or resistance bands. Some great exercises to add into your routine may include bodyweight squats, bosu bicep curls, horizontal band rows, etc.

Stage 6: Compound movement and moderate strength and impact work

This final stage is all about building upon the foundations you’ve created in the previous sections to progress into more advanced strength work. This may include increasing weights, adding in some moderate impact work and challenging your body with more compound-style movements.

When to begin:

It’s important to wait at least 12 weeks before moving into this stage to allow your pelvic floor and joints to recover.*

*Lifting moderate-to-heavy weights or engaging in overly strenuous or high-impact activities too soon may prolong the healing process and could increase your chance of incontinence, prolapse or injury.

Tips to get started:

A great place to begin is by adding some additional resistance to the bodyweight exercises you’ve been completing in Stage 5. Add a set of dumbbells to your squats, increase the load on your bicep curls, move to a heavier banded row, etc. You can also include more compound movements that challenge your full-body strength and coordination, such as lunges or pushups, and ease back into more moderate impact work, like jogging.