Getting your body back to its pre-pregnancy state isn’t an easy thing to do. In fact, many women never manage it. It’s not just a case of losing weight, the postnatal exercise program needs to address various changes that have happened during pregnancy. Common physical changes include:
Weak, stretched abdominal muscles
The abs have to stretch as the baby grows. It takes time and work to get them back to their previous length and strength.
Separation of the top layer of abdominal muscles
Diastasis recti is the stretching of the connective tissue between the two sets of “6 pack” muscles. A wide separation is a common problem. The gap usually closes up as the body returns to normal, but while there is still a separation you need to be careful about how you work your abs. Crunches could do more harm than good at this time. Starting to work the core stabilising muscles, however, is safe.
This is a problem that postnatal exercise programs often don’t address. As the baby grows, our centre of gravity changes and we have to alter our posture. The weight of the baby and the increasing weakness of the abdominal muscles tend to pull the pelvis into a forward tilt. In the upper back, balancing out this problem, combined with increased breast weight can result in rounded shoulders.
Both these alterations can become permanent, because after the baby is born there’s nothing forcing them back to how they were. This is why you need to work at it. You won’t get your abs flat while you have a forward tilting pelvis. You’ll also be at risk of lower back pain and injury. Fixing these postural problems needs a program that strengthens the shoulder stabilisers and all the core muscles.
Pelvic floor weakness
The pelvic floor is a set of muscles that supports the bowel, bladder and uterus. Pregnancy and childbirth put enormous strain on these muscles and pelvic floor problems can become permanent if they’re not addressed. You should do a range of pelvic floor exercises every day. Any exercises which involves impact – running, jumping etc. should be avoided until the pelvic floor has strengthened up. When doing core strengthening exercises, you should learn to pull up your pelvic floor muscles at the same time as engaging your stabilising muscles. This is what is meant by the phrase “zip up and hollow”.
General loss of muscle tone due to being less active during pregnancy
Unless you were very inactive before getting pregnant, you will have had to take it a bit easier in the last few months of pregnancy. Muscles soon lose their strength and tone, so once your body is ready, some strength training will help to lift and tone your muscles. Again, a core strengthening program is important to ensure you are able to stabilise your spine while doing other strength exercises.
For the first few months, unstable joints
The pregnancy hormone relaxin relaxes the pelvic ligaments to make it easier for the baby to be born. Unfortunately, it acts on all ligaments and so joints don’t have their usual stability in the later stages of pregnancy. This will correct itself once the baby is born and relaxin stops being produced. However, your joints won’t return to normal until new collagen has been formed, which will take a few months. This is an important point to remember when planning a postnatal exercise program. You shouldn’t put too much stress on joints or stretch further than you would normally be able to in these first few months.
Increased breast size while breast feeding
This is another reason why high impact exercise isn’t good in the months following birth. Breasts can be heavy and uncomfortable and anything which involves impact is only going to make it worse. Also, high impact exercise will put more strain on the ligaments that support the breasts, risking permanent stretching of the ligaments.
Starting a postnatal exercise program
Not only do new mums need to find an exercise plan to address all this, they also need to find the time and energy for exercise. It’s best to start slowly, gradually improving core abdominal/pelvic strength and realigning your body before starting strenuous exercise. Going straight into strenuous exercise, even if you wait several months, isn’t a good idea. Exercising with poor posture and weak pelvic floor and core muscles won’t give you good results and is likely to make these problems worse. The first steps should be correcting posture problems, strengthening the pelvic floor and basic core exercises.