Five things no one tells you about postpartum exercise

All about postpartum exercise. The real stuff.

I was having a conversation with a friend/gym member the other day about working out during the postpartum phase, and she was surprised by something she had encountered. It dawned on me that no one talks about what it’s really like or about some of the things that may happen to you. Your doctor certainly isn’t talking about it. I feel like perhaps it’s time to get some info out there, so more of us women don’t feel alone. And if you are easily squeamish — you may want to close this window and come back another day. The truth hurts, my friends. (Side note, for some background: I’m a pre- and postnatal certified personal trainer, 17-months postpartum, still getting back to my fighting strength and currently teaching group fitness classes and doing solo workouts as well.)

Let’s begin this by saying that getting pregnant, going through pregnancy and having a baby is the biggest physical accomplishment a woman could ever have. But, it’s a HUGE event and a massive disruption on the body — both the outside, inside and mental aspects as well — it’s literally like a trauma on your insides, so you cannot treat it lightly. You cannot expect to jump back into your old workout routine after your doctor gives you your six-week check-up okay, because even if you look good as new on the outside, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. In fact, you shouldn’t just jump back into your old routine. And I know there a lot of women out there who immediately resume running, jumping, planking and going hardcore as soon as possible, and they are proud of that. I am not one of those people, and I know that in the long run, that has been a great choice for me. You’ll see why below.

However, I’d like to say this: PROPS to all my mommas out there who have children and are just trying to get back to exercise to feel strong. You are amazing, and I know you have nothing but the best of intentions with everything that you do. But let’s get to the reality of what working out after having a baby is really like …

Five things no one tells you about postpartum exercise

Five things no one tells you about postpartum exercise by A Lady Goes West

1. Your core is wrecked and that will affect everything.

When you exercise for the first few months, maybe the first year (yes, I mean it), your core is NOTHING like it used to be, and that means everything feels different. You won’t be able to do upper-body work you could do before. Your ability to hold a plank or hover will basically be gone. Push-ups? Fat chance. Balance? Nope. Your squats will feel hard too. Your movement will be entirely altered. And this won’t go away in a few weeks. It will take a LONG time. You may feel discouraged. (I know I did, especially as a fitness professional who should’ve rebounded a lot faster than I did.)

Know that your core is the foundation of nearly every exercise move that you do, so when you come back from having a baby, you will find that almost everything feels harder and more awkward. You have to work smartly and know that eventually you will regain your strength.

And while normally planks and hovers are the best core exercises, when you are freshly postpartum, those are not the best choices — they are too intense and require too much strength on a healing core and could cause ab separation (diastasis recti or “DR”) or make it worse if you already have it. I’m very happy to say I did not get DR during my pregnancy or after, because I was incredibly careful not to do the wrong workout moves during pregnancy or immediately postpartum. (And I know I got some side-eyes, when I chose to stop teaching BODYPUMP at only 27 weeks pregnant. However, I felt some strain on my core during push-ups and didn’t want to modify the workout too much — just to teach a little longer into my pregnancy and prove that I could do it.)

One of my very smart Pilates friends told me no planks until 16-weeks postpartum, and I trusted her on this one. I researched and I agreed, and I held off until around 12-13 weeks to do a full plank. So what can you do? Deep breathing on your back, pulling your belly in, kegels, heel marches and heel drops are smarter core exercises for those first few months. When in doubt, find a postnatal certified personal trainer, and do your own modifications during the core section of tough workout classes designed for the general public.

You are rehabbing those first few months, and don’t forget that. Time and patience are key.

What you should know about postpartum exercise by A Lady Goes West

2. Your bust will need to be contained a lot more, in a very supportive way.

Having never been a busty girl my entire life, you can imagine my surprise when I went to do a workout postpartum and felt that perhaps my sports bra did not in fact provide enough support. I had major discomfort, and felt like couldn’t jump or bounce, and this was around 6-months postpartum — I was floored. I’m not sure whether this applies to both breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding women, but I’m guessing it does, because we all know that your bust changes throughout pregnancy quite a bit.

You need a good bra. And there’s a chance you may need two good bras at the same time. Do NOT wear some light-impact cheaply-made sports bra and think you’ll be okay. I highly recommend this sports bra and otherwise, look for high-impact versions, which offer a lot more containment and support. And over time, it gets better, certainly once you stop nursing, if you ever started that in the first place. Just another something to be mindful of and prepared for.

3. There is something called exercise leakage, and it’s very common.

Well this one was not a nice surprise to discover. But let me tell you, you can work through it and fix it! I was shocked to hear that a lot of women have leakage at all — like when laughing or playing or anything at all. I did not deal with this, thank goodness — and I lived in fear of it and think I was able to avoid it with the right exercises during pregnancy and after.

I’m not a doctor, but here’s what I know — if you do too much jumping, running and impact during pregnancy, you are putting too much strain on your pelvic floor and will be more prone to urine leakage during exercise or other activities. Then, if you go back to jumping, running and impact too soon, you will put too much strain on a healing pelvic floor and be more prone to leakage as well. And if you do no exercising at all, then you aren’t giving your body a chance to build up the right core strength either to avoid leakage. So what’s a girl to do? 

Here’s what I did, and here’s how I have a handle on this issue: I only did safe core work during pregnancy — I stopped running and jumping, because I knew those things would put too much pressure on my pelvic floor. I waited for five months after having Brady to do any running, and then I waited until six months to do any jumping. I worked on my core first, I did a lot of barre and strength work, and I also did my kegels. This set a strong foundation to keep all my organs functioning and in place firmly — so that then, when I was ready to get back to jumping, my insides were more ready for it. In addition to this, I ALWAYS fully empty my bladder right before a class or high-impact workout. And doing that has made it so I don’t have any major problems.

Now that I’m back to teaching BODYATTACK and going really hard with tuck jumps and whatnot, I have to be extra careful to empty the bladder, brace my core ALWAYS during impact and then do my kegels throughout the day. It’s a lot to think about, but it’s necessary. 

If you return to exercise and find yourself peeing yourself (so gross, I know — but this is what happens to SO many women, and we have to get it out there), then you should focus on strengthening your core, bolstering your pelvic floor, wearing a panty liner, choosing dark leggings and making sure you hit the potty before your workout, every single time. Don’t be embarrassed, and if it happens, just move on with your life. And perhaps you can ask your doctor to refer to you to a pelvic floor therapist as well, which is a great way to get tailored advice and rehab you can do to fix your issue.

Oh, and you don’t have to tell anyone you are going through this. Just handle it and carry on like the fabulous strong momma you are.

The truth about postpartum exercise by A Lady Goes West

4. Being a mom is already very physical, so your workouts will need to be modified. But you should still do them, even if it’s hard to fit them in, and a little goes a long way.

I think what can be surprising to many women is that once it’s time to work out again, you may not have the energy, time or motivation to do so. Taking care of a newborn is SO much work. It’s exhausting. Throw in the hormones, the lack of sleep, the constant diaper changes and the chaos of introducing a new life into the world — you’re basically running around like a mad woman all the time. Things definitely start to get better, and once they do, it’s time to spend some time exercising.

But here’s the deal: Walking is plenty of exercise for the first few weeks or months. It really is! And you can take your baby with you on the walk, of course. For the first six months (well, after the first six weeks), I took Brady on a 30-minute walk every single day. Many days, I did about 20 minutes of other exercise too … usually some bodyweight strength, barre or yoga, but on other days, all I did was walk. Those walks cleared my mind, got my heart-rate up and helped my body to get more fit. 

I often thought about going to classes on nights or weekends when Dave was home (this was before Brady could go with me to gym daycare, which is the best thing ever now), but I was too wrapped up in baby stuff, house stuff and life stuff to devote a full hour here and there to workouts — it seemed too overwhelming, for as much as I missed it. So I didn’t go. And that’s okay.

Once again, you do NOT have to get back into your old workout routine, you just need to move. A 15-minute dance cardio video and a few hip bridges may be all you can fit in, and that’s fine. Try your best to get those sessions done a few times a week, and your body and overall wellness will be much improved. Plus, exercising sets a great example for your little one too, and we know how important that is.

Things you need to know about postpartum exercise by A Lady Goes West

5. As a nursing mom, you are more prone to injury during exercise.

What? Yes. If all of the rest of this isn’t enough, you come to find out that nursing mommas who are just trying to do their best and return to exercise are more susceptible to getting hurt. I developed a stress fracture on the ball of my foot while teaching barre about four-months postpartum. I went back to teaching only once a week at that time, and all the pressure on the ball of my feet with the extra weight on my body was too much. My body was already compromised from being sleep deprived, caring for a child and creating all the nutrition for a child too — as Brady was still exclusively breastfed at that point. I took a couple weeks off, and then I ended up wearing sneakers for a few months while it was healing instead of doing barre barefoot, and eventually it went away.

Once I got injured, I decided to do some research and found out it’s common for women during this time to get hurt. When you breastfeed, it requires a lot of your body’s calcium stores to create and fill the milk, and that means your bone density can be lower than normal. In addition to that, the hormone relaxin is still present, which means your joints can be a bit more mobile than they safely should — so you could unintentionally overextend yourself.

Overall, this is not the time to start doing anything crazy or risky, and if you feel anything is off, rest, pull back and be extra careful.

Postpartum exercise by A Lady Goes West

(P.S. This workout outfit can be found here.)

Just a few honorable or “dishonorable” mentions on postpartum exercise …

  • If your feet grew during pregnancy, you may need new sneakers. Get supportive ones. Preferably cushier ones for cardio and flatter ones for weightlifting.
  • Your sweat may smell more than before, as your hormones are still going crazy. And you may sweat a lot more — especially if you are breastfeeding — it’s no joke.
  • You need to eat enough to get you through your workouts, especially if you are tired or nursing. Postpartum is NOT the time to do fasted cardio or try to eat less to get in shape. Your body needs fuel, and it needs more than usual. 
  • You will bleed for quite a while after childbirth. If you start a postpartum exercise program and notice an increase of bleeding, that’s a tell-tale sign you are doing too much, too soon. Be very careful!
  • If you are accustomed to holding your baby on one side of your body, you will start to develop strength imbalances, which have to be corrected so you don’t end up getting injured during a workout. Try to be ambidextrous with your baby holding!

And THAT concludes our spill session. I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope I didn’t scare you off.

Exercise is such an important thing for everyone, but during the very challenging postpartum phase you need to be armed with knowledge on how and when to take it easy — so you can safely move and feel confident about your choices too.

Sending you lots of love, you hard-working mommas or hard-working mommas-to-be!

More talk about postpartum and pregnancy fitness

Here are a few more posts you may like …

Questions of the day

Do you have any burning pregnancy or postpartum exercise questions?

What’s been the most surprising thing for you during the postpartum period?

How was your weekend?

What’s your favorite kind of supportive sports bra?

Do you know anyone who needs to read this post? Help a sister out and send along!

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  1. Great post Ashley and very timely for me at 6 days post partum. I ran and biked throughout my pregnancy and felt strong which I think has immensely helped my recovery so far. I agree with all the points you made but am a bit surprised you didn’t mention post partum bleeding related to exercise. During my first post partum experience I returned to exercise wayyyyy too soon and it took a long time for bleeding to stop. It’s definitely important for mommas to keep in mind how important rest is for healing up.

    1. Hi Erin! Yess — I didn’t mention bleeding because I feel like you should stop bleeding before you attempt anything — most certainly whatever you are doing is too much if it causes bleeding — I wish doctors told more people that! Good point. I hope you are feeling okay postpartum right now, lady! And I know you will take it easier this time around! 🙂 Rest up!! And thanks for reading, momma.

      1. I completely agree, doctors really don’t make as big a deal about the bleeding as they should. I’m feeling good this time around and am resting much more than I did the first time! Thanks again for putting out great and relevant content!

        1. It was a good point you brought up, so I went back into the post an added a bullet — thanks for that. Also, CONGRATS on baby number two!! 🙂

  2. I’m 16 weeks postpartum and I’ve been back to exercising about 2 times a week, with a goal of one of those times being at the gym to make my membership worthwhile! I’ve actually been going to GRIT most Sundays when both my husband and I are off work so it’s easier to get out of the house. It’s nice that it’s only a 30 minute time commitment and I just make a lot of adjustments and am still avoiding jumping/anything super intense. Also sometimes I find myself just laying there during the core section because I’m so unsure of what I should and shouldn’t be doing. But overall I feel okay doing most moves, although pushups are SO HARD now. Not that they were ever easy!

    I think I’m going to buy that sports bra. I only have one high impact bra and I didn’t wear it to GRIT yesterday because it was dirty and I regretted it every second.

    Oh and I can’t forget to mention – I agree soooo much with your comment about the extra sweatyness/smellyness!

    1. Hi Julie! I’m so glad to hear you are making your own modifications — way smart! No need to rush back into things. And so gross about some of the things that happen, like the sweat — ahhh ahah! Keep up the great work, and hope you like the sports bra! 🙂

  3. I don’t have any kiddos but I commend all of the strong mommas that get back out there after having kiddos! I’ve heard a few of these things and I’m seriously so glad you shared. I wish more women talked about this because it’s so good to learn beforehand instead of possibly doing too much when I do have a kid. I’ve heard a few fitness instructors talk about massive amounts of sweating but I guess I assumed they didn’t deal with the rest of the issues you mentioned because they didn’t talk about it. Either way, I’m glad you shared and I will definitely keep this in mind!

    1. Hi Virjinia — thank you SO much for reading. It’s a great idea to get some of this information into your brain before you even consider having kids — so it’s not a shock heheh. There’s so much to think about with pregnancy and postpartum times, so I’m glad I can shed light on even just a bit of it! 🙂 Hope you had a great weekend!

  4. This is so great! I did gentle exercise all pregnancy and Did drop all my weight very very quickly, just from nursing I think, who knows. But OHMYGOSH when I did my 1st very gentle post partum yoga youtube video I was completely floored at how weak my core was. The weight is deceiving. And I so appreciate your comment about energy because yes. In the early months I could’ve found a way to get to the gym but was so damn tired and drained, 30 min home work outs were all I could imagine. Happy to be back at the gym now! Took me until 6-7 months to go, and was very humbling. I’m 15 months out now and still experience joint pains during weight lifting I never did before, and have heard that my bones could still be depleted from nursing.

    1. Hi Rose! I am so glad you were smart with your pregnancy workouts and postpartum too! It can be very frustrating to see how much strength you’ve lost — but it was a worthy endeavor to have that baby heheh! 🙂 I’m with you on this! Keep up the great work, momma!

  5. Great post Ashley! Post partum fitness can definitely be, ahem, surprising! In addition to some other stuff, #2 also speaks to me. I’ve never had to be concerned about my top half until now! Our bodies are so amazing to have babies but they really do need TLC in the process!

    1. Thanks, Nicole! 🙂 I know you are in the thick of the getting back to movement and finding out how awkward it all can be — be patient with your body and be thankful you grew a sweet little man! Hope to see you soon! 🙂

  6. Love this post! I did not know that about breastfeeding and injury, but that makes total sense. This hasn’t happened (so far) after my second baby, but with my first, I had the worst stomach pain / digestive issues after running, every time. It was awful. Is this a thing, or just me lol? Thanks for all of the info!

    1. Hi Christina! I would DEFINITELY guess that the stomach pain you felt had something to do with your hormones and change of digestion too. So many weird things go on in the body. And I’m glad you haven’t had it happen this second time around. Hope you are taking it easy, friend! 🙂 Keep up the great work!

  7. AWWW love this post! I just had this weird wrist/thumb injury that occurred the day after a workout (I’m 5 months PP) I bet it’s the nursing thing! I did not know that BF moms were still more likely to get injured! BOOOO good to know though, I’ll pull back and I’m sure it will heal itself!

    1. Hi Kelli! You are in the thick of it with postpartum healing and fitness, so YES, please be kind to your body and take it easy. The wrist thing is DEFINITELY relaxin and your body being more sensitive — it’s very common in new moms — a lot of baby holding and awkward positions makes it worse. Hope you heal up soon and thanks for reading!

  8. Hi Ashley, I loved your write up. So honest & open. It really lived up to the title. I never knew so much would happen with becoming a Momma, but I don’t regret anything. Just looking to understand what’s happening. The sweat thing! phew.

    I am still nursing my 19 month old and just planning to return to exercising postpartum. Yes, I took a reeeaaally long break and allowed my body to heal, plus having to return to work left me with little or no energy to even think – exercise. I did evening walks and a little pelvic exercises to control leaks. I used to have severe pain while turning in bed, it’s a lot better now. Leaks still occur. I take my prescribed supplements and eat wholesome meals.

    At this stage, is there anything I need to keep in mind/know before starting my workout? Is it too late to repair certain things now?

    1. Hi there! I would recommend trying to see a pelvic floor therapist if you can get a referral from your regular doctor to help with the leak problems! As far as getting back to workouts, go slowly, mostly bodyweight work, not a lot of jumping or running or crunching, but focus on stabilizing your core, power walks, maybe some yoga, cycling or even barre classes — stick to 30 minute workouts maybe 5 days a week, take some rest days and don’t go too hard until you’re starting to feel more mobile and ready to do it after a few weeks! Good luck! 🙂

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