As a post-natal exercise specialist, I meet so many mums who don’t just want things to look a little more like they used to, but they also want to feel like themselves again. I hear the words “my body just doesn’t feel like mine anymore” from so many new mums. Their knees and backs often ache, the skin on their tummies feels loose and dear god, I remember thinking, “just when did my boobs deflate?!”
Pregnancy takes a huge toll on your body…both physically and mentally. Your muscles and joints will be weaker and more unstable. Your posture is likely to be well out of alignment. Your shoulders rounded and your pelvis tilted too far forwards or backwards. This means that any exercises you attempt to do now, before fixing your posture, are unlikely to be performed correctly. Continue to squat/lunge or press with the wrong alignment and you are likely to run into injury at some point. Your core will be weak and incorrectly functioning. Your abdominal muscles may have separated, resulting in a “mummy tummy” pouch, back ache or increased stress on your pelvic floor. Your pelvic floor might be dysfunctional – you may leak urine when you run, jump or laugh. You may be dreading that sudden sneeze catching you off guard! You may have neck, back, shoulder, hip, or knee pain and you are very likely to have low energy levels. I remember walking round like an absolute zombie for weeks after my first pregnancy!
Taking into consideration this long list of physical changes that new mums face, it’s no wonder that a lot of women feel that their body is broken after pregnancy. That their body just doesn’t feel like theirs anymore.
It’s also painstakingly obvious that a body like this, is just not ready to walk into a high intensity gym class, lift heavy weights at the gym, sprint, jump or burpee at a local, packed-out bootcamp! A body like this, that attempts to do that…will eventually get injured. Attempting to undertake exercise or activities such as these, will break the body down further, when what you want to do is the opposite: build it back up. Sure, there are a few women who may be able to smoothly glide back into their usual fitness routine. This would be a mum who was active and strong before pregnancy and trained gently and consistently throughout pregnancy, maintaining good posture and a strong core. However, for most of the mums that join my post-natal classes, this is often not the case (unless they have trained with me throughout their pregnancy). Every pregnancy is different and many women struggle to continue exercising, especially because there is a huge lack of awareness of the endless benefits of maintaining an activity pregnancy.
Far too often, due to intense pressure from the effects of social media and celebrity magazines, women feel the need to jump head first back in to a generic fitness routine, perform endless amounts of intense HIIT workouts, diet or detox drastically – none of which are good physically or mentally for a sleep-deprived, emotional new mum with a fragile body.
Sure, there are endless group programmes which allow women to attend post-pregnancy and “adapt” general exercises for them. Or allow babies to come along and call themselves a “post-natal” class because of this. But are they safe and specific enough? No. I see them all the time, Women being told to avoid sprinting and just jog, or avoid the squat jump and just squat. But firstly, they haven’t yet re-aligned their pelvis so aren’t even walking correctly. How can they be expected to jog? They probably can’t activate their glutes properly and have muscle imbalances of the hip, so shouldn’t be squatting yet. Due to changes in their posture, they are unlikely to be bending down to pick up their babies in the safest possible way, yet are performing adaptations of heavy lifts with “lighter” weights.
Then this brings me to when exercises aren’t even being adapted for post-natal women, Personal Trainers prescribing unsafe exercises to vulnerable new mums. Sprinting, burpees, jumping lunges, traditional abdominal exercises “to strengthen the core” and “fix up that mummy tummy” – when in fact they are more likely to further split the abdominals and weaken the core and pelvic floor! These poor mums, are performing planks, sit ups and crunches with their negligent trainers. I recently saw a popular group programme, which is specifically aimed at new mums, advertising the classes with photos of mums performing sit ups with their babies! This is one of THE worst exercises for a new mum to perform! I also saw, just yesterday, a celebrity new mum on Instagram, performing a plank on a TRX whilst bringing her knees to the chest (an exercise often used to target the core). Now, I am not saying all new mums couldn’t perform this move, sure a very small percentage who have maintained a strong and fully functioning core might be able to, those without any abdominal separation and a pelvis which is perfectly aligned. But heck, that’s a very small percentage. Most general clients can’t even maintain good form in the traditional plank for 60 secs, let alone get strapped up in a suspension trainer and perform this advanced move. Defo not the average new mum and defo not this particular celeb – as her technique pained me to watch. I felt really bad for her because I am betting she is paying that trainer a lot of money for the session! She may be lucky, she may not do damage in her sessions, but I wouldn’t risk it with any of my clients. It also scared me because I am envisioning lots of new mums at home right now, who follow her and are currently tangled up in a TRX suspension trainer attempting this unsafe exercise, mums who may have done a lot less training than her throughout pregnancy.
A great deal of exercises performed in general fitness classes are NOT safe for post-natal women – one of the top trends currently in the fitness industry, is HIIT training – which is totally inappropriate for most beginners to exercise, let alone women who have just been through pregnancy and childbirth. This means it carries a huge risk of injury now, or later down the line for post-natal clients. Currently, general group exercise instructors and Personal Trainers train pregnant and post-natal women in their classes and even on a 1:1 basis without regulation – they shouldn’t – but go to any local exercise class at the gym and you are highly likely to find someone within that class, who will have had a baby within the last 12 months. If you are attending a class aimed specifically at new mums, or hiring a Personal Trainer, inform them of your post-natal status and ALWAYS check that they a hold a specialist qualification in post-natal exercise (this is an add-on qualification, NOT covered by a Personal Trainer qualification) then question their knowledge if you are unsure of the suitability of any of the exercises which you are instructed to perform.
Sore knees, bad backs, injured shoulders, separated abdominal muscles, damage to caesarean wounds, pelvic floor prolapse, incontinence, sciatica, hernias, collapsed knees, torn calf muscles…. These are real problems that we have seen arise with women who have come to us after doing too much, too soon after pregnancy or even just in general beginners to exercise who “get beasted” before building a solid foundation.
These problems can even arise in women with older children who begin exercising after a long break, without strengthening the areas that have become weak over years first. Just because your baby is older, does not mean you can now throw yourself into an intense, non-specific training programme, if you haven’t yet built a strong foundation for your body.
If you want to get your pre-baby body back, safely, you will need aim to avoid the following specific exercises and activities, until you have properly strengthened your core and whole body:
Full planks (or any variation of the plank)
Full press ups
Mountain climber exercise
Sit ups and crunches (or any variation which involves flexing spine whilst lying on the b)
Straight double leg lifts
All of the traditional ‘ab’ exercises listed above, increase pressure on a weakened core and may increase an abdominal separation.
High impact exercises (eg. Jump squats, jumping lunges, burpees)
The above exercises are either too high impact or require strong muscles and connective tissue around the joints. They can cause a weak pelvic floor to worsen, possibly leading to incontinence and prolapse. The pressure these exercises place on weakened knee and hip joints can also damage cartilage and connective tissue.
Ballistic (bouncy) stretches
These two types of exercises are examples of ones which involve a strong stretch-reflex at the end of the range which can damage your weakened/tight muscles.
If your stabilising muscles are weak, or these are performed incorrectly and/or when your posture is out of alignment (eg. if you have forward head/rounded shoulders) you could put yourself at serious risk of neck injury by performing these exercises right now.
We could go on and on. There seems a lot you shouldn’t be doing when your body is so weak. But trust us, there is also a lot you SHOULD be doing.
So exactly what should you be doing?
Make sure you look out for next week’s blog on exactly what makes a safe, effective post-natal exercise programme and the best exercises to help get your pre-baby bod back.