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How to Return to the Gym Postpartum

July 19, 2021 by

After having a baby, most athletes are eager to return to the gym and their pre-pregnancy fitness levels. Getting the “all clear” from a doctor at your six-week check-up often sends athletes back without a solid plan of how to approach fitness in this new season of their athleticism.

What “all cleared” actually means: Being “cleared” is a reflection of initial birth healing, from bleeding cessation, incision healing, to the cervix being closed.

  • It is not a reflection of exercise readiness, as the system as a whole has still been changed from the inside out.
  • Your body needs time to regulate and respond to more activities of daily living and exercise demands. 

There is a lot happening on the inside that we can’t see. Even when you “feel fine” it's important to give your body the time it needs to heal and then rebuild a solid foundation of strength. 

Be mindful of doing too much too soon: It can be tempting and athletes are especially susceptible to this. We’ve been conditioned to tune out the voice inside our head telling us to slow down or stop. That eagerness is often rooted in several things.

  • Wanting to manage mental health and find some normalcy.
  • Desiring aesthetic change since the body has experienced such a significant transformation.
  • Being in an environment and doing something that feels “normal.”
  • Doing the movements and intensity again that’s been modified for so long.

All of these feelings are valid and experienced by many different postpartum athletes, regardless of ability or fitness level. The athlete’s brain influences so much of our behavior and decisions. Learning how to manage and leverage it for long-term core, pelvic health and performance is key during the postpartum period.

The postpartum body is often more vulnerable than a pregnant body. Pregnancy, delivery (regardless of how the baby came out), and caring for a newborn are significant considerations. Core and pelvic health symptoms (diastasis recti, incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse) can be present and or are more susceptible right now because the body is recovering and needs to rebuild, just like it would after recovering from an orthopedic injury or surgery. “Intention now, for intensity later” is a phrase I use often with my postpartum athletes. 

Here are a few considerations for postpartum athletes that can assist in the mental and physical transition their body and brain is experiencing: 

Get an Assessment

You deserve more context about your body than the generalization of “you’re cleared.” If you can, get an assessment from a local pelvic floor physical therapist even after you’ve been cleared for exercise by your doctor or midwife. Virtual PFPT is also available. A one time assessment of readiness, healing guidance from your unique birth experience, symptom education and management, and overall support during this season in your athleticism is key for your fitness goals.

A Timeline For Your Return Postpartum

I wish I could say do this, don’t do that until you are X months postpartum. It doesn’t work like that though. We do have basic guidelines that can help know your own unique level of readiness based on symptom management and prevention. 

Early Weeks and Months Postpartum 

Your early weeks and months postpartum are not for “normal exercise,” but they are for acclimating and healing from the inside out. Your body has been through a lot, and needs time to heal, acclimate and progress.

Your brain needs to reconnect to your core and pelvic floor (which helps improve symptoms and fitness). Pregnancy, delivery, genetics, exercise and recovery all impact that system. 

Setting a rehab foundation and progressing with your body vs rushing it will make you stronger and more prepared for fitness long-term. We also suggest following a postpartum specific program, like my 8 Week Postpartum Athlete Training Program.

4-6 Months Postpartum

This is typically a rebuilding phase, introducing and building upon the fundamentals. 

For example, adding more load (not maxing out), volume, some intensity, monitoring symptoms and learning your body right now, while patiently progressing to where you want to be. 

Keep in mind, if we injured our back or had knee surgery, we would likely follow rehab protocol, adding load and intensity over time, not just jumping back in and winging it. Birth is no different, and we have to take pregnancy, delivery and lifestyle changes and demands into account when determining our unique readiness. 

6-12 Months Postpartum

This is a time period where many athletes begin to acclimate and progress. They have more familiarity with their body, symptoms, routine and readiness. More intensity can be introduced and mental and physical boundaries can be pushed with intention, patience and quality control. Some movements may be and feel like a green light, while others are more of a yellow (progress with caution), or red, not totally ready for yet. Awareness of this is key and is excellent feedback for exercise progression. 

Your Mental Health Matters

Motherhood is a significant transition and shift in identity for many athletes, especially because routine, aesthetics, and athletic ability has shifted. While exercise is an incredible outlet for managing and optimizing mental health, having additional resources for support and wellness (therapy, support groups, medication when needed, fueling your body with sleep and adequate nutrition), helps make a sustainable difference that translates directly to mental and physical performance.

This process can feel frustrating. One day you may feel great about your progress and the next may feel like a giant setback. This is normal and to be expected. In my career, I’ve coached thousands of postpartum athletes of all different abilities, interests and goals. I’m yet to coach one who regrets taking their time progressing and honoring this temporary season in their lifetime of athleticism. 

Intention now, intensity Later.

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