Top trainer Hollie Grant reveals the safest ways to get back into shape after birth
How soon can you begin working out after having a baby? What are the exercises to avoid? We put the most frequently asked questions to London-based personal trainer and founder of the popular ‘The Model Method’ Hollie Grant, revealing the best – and most realistic – exercises for getting back into shape postpartum.*
HOW SOON CAN YOU BEGIN WORKING OUT AFTER GIVING BIRTH?
It really does vary, which I know is unhelpful, as each pregnancy and labour are so different. Really women should focus on how they feel physically, whether their pelvic floor strength has returned and if they feel they have control of their abdominals. There are guidelines for those who had a ‘normal’ pregnancy and a natural labour which recommend walking and pelvic floor exercises as soon as you feel up to it, introducing swimming and gentle abdominal activation if the six week check up goes well and waiting up to six months before adding in any aggressive or ballistic exercise (so no Barry’s Bootcamp). If you had a troubling pregnancy or a caesarean section, these time frames will be much lengthier. Speak with your doctor often, watch for any negative reactions to exercise (darker lochia, extreme fatigue) and listen to your body.
WHAT TYPES OF EXERCISE SHOULD YOU BE DOING?
One of the biggest misconceptions is that new mums should get their core back in order asap. I hear of women who start abdominal crunches a week after giving birth or are running after a month. During pregnancy the abdominal muscles lengthen and relax to provide room for the growing baby. These muscles take a while to ‘knit’ back together after labour and if rushed can increase the risk on them suffering long-term damage. It is far safer to practice abdominal bracing whilst lying supine (on your back, head resting on a pillow) and imagining someone is about to punch you in the tummy. Breath in to prepare and as you exhale brace, hold for five seconds and then gently release. This will activate the abdominal muscles without popping them or creating tension in your neck. If you don’t quite feel yourself after having your baby, have some excess weight you would feel better without, or are feeling the start of baby blues then walking is your best friend. It is safe to start almost immediately, great for baby and encourages you to get out the house. Just stay hydrated, especially if you are breastfeeding, and build up slowly. After three months you could begin Pilates sessions, just make sure your instructor knows your history.
WHAT MUSCLE GROUPS SHOULD YOU BE TARGETING?
As obvious as it is – The Pelvic Floor (PVF). Even if you forgot to do your PVF exercises during your pregnancy, it’s never too late to start. I encourage clients to contract them whenever they are stuck at a red light, changing a nappy, or standing at the hob cooking dinner. During pregnancy there is a real pressure on your back to help support the changing weight of your baby and cope with your centre of gravity altering. The muscles in your back can get tight, sore and weak with the overuse so it is wise to focus on strengthening them back up. Try to focus on your posture as much as possible, practice standing tall and make sure the handlebars on your pushchair are at the correct height to prevent you stooping over. Glutes are also really important for helping bring the pelvis back to its correct position so try to switch those bums on. You could try taking all stairs three at a time (without baby though) and getting out of chairs without using your hands to encourage them to work.
HOW CAN YOU STRENGTHEN YOUR PELVIC FLOOR MUSCLES?
Repetition. It really is just about remembering to do them. There are a few ways to visualise contracting PVF muscles but here are my favourites. Try not to activate glutes or abdominals.
1) Imagine the PVF is a lift. Breathe in to prepare and as you exhale take the lift to the very top floor. Inhale to relax. Exhale to take the lift half way. Inhale to release. Repeat.
2) Imagine the PVF as an open flower with four petals e.g. clitoris, anus and the two labia. Imagine on your exhale closing the flower inwards. Inhale to hold for five seconds and exhale to relax slowly.
3) Imagine you really need to pass wind and on your exhale hold it in, on the inhale relax.
HOW CAN YOU STRENGTHEN YOUR CORE?
Early on after having your baby your best method of strengthening your core is to practice those pelvic floor exercises as you really shouldn’t be doing abdominal crunches. Abdominal bracing is fantastic at encouraging strengthening of the core and safe to do from around three weeks postnatal. You need to make sure your doctor checks you for abdominal separation and if they are happy you haven’t got diastesis (separation of the abdominals) you could start gentle abdominal work at around 12 weeks. Any exercises that activate the core without lifting your head are your best bets. This way you are focusing on bracing the core rather than flexing it. My favourite exercise is single leg extensions. Lie supine (on your back) and find your imprinted spine (your lower back is close to the ground and abs are engaged). Lift one leg at a time up into tabletop position and stay. Breathe in and as you exhale straighten one leg out away from you. As you do so the weight of your leg will mean you have to use your core strength to keep your back still and your lower back close to the floor. Inhale to return the leg to tabletop position and repeat on the other leg.
WHICH WORKOUTS SHOULD YOU AVOID POSTPARTUM?
High impact, aggressive exercise is the enemy. The muscles in your body have changed so significantly over the last 9 months and take almost as long (if not longer) to return to normal. Whilst pregnant (and whilst breastfeeding) our bodies produce the hormone Relaxin which causes a loosening of the joints in the body (to prepare for childbirth). After labour it takes around 6 months to leave the body so we have a very flexible, unstable body during that time. It is wise to be cautious in yoga where the object is to stretch the body as this will be far easier for you but can cause long term joint issues. Running too early on can cause a prolapse, as can heavy weight training. If you were exercising often before and during your pregnancy you are far safer than if you weren’t, so try to be as active as possible if you are trying to get pregnant.
WHAT ARE YOUR TOP 5 TIPS FOR GETTING BACK INTO EXERCISE?
– Research your instructor. It’s really important that you find an instructor who is postnatal trained as there are so many rules and considerations when it comes to new mums.
– Find other new mums. New motherhood can be a very lonely and tiring time and mother and baby exercise groups are a great way to find others in the same boat as you. Plus, the classes will be targeted to post natal women and potentially less intimidating.
– Press your GP. We get lots of new mums at our studio who have been told they are safe to exercise by their doctor but never been tested for Diastesis (abdominal seperation). It takes literally 30 seconds. Make sure you aren’t fobbed off by a GP that thinks “you’ll be fine”.
– Don’t put it as top of your list. It’s all too easy to see these celebrity mums who snap back into their size 6 jeans a month after giving birth. This is not reality I’m afraid and your body will take as long as it takes. Don’t rush it, you will never get this time back with your newborn again.
– Be a frequent exerciser before you get pregnant. I know hindsight is a pain but it will be far easier, and quicker, to get back your fitness if you were fit before you fell pregnant. Don’t worry if that wasn’t you, there’s always next time.
HOW DO YOU HELP WOMEN TRANSFORM THEIR BODIES AND WHAT IS ‘THE MODEL METHOD’?
The Model Method was created from the techniques I had used for many years to keep myself in the best physical fitness possible. At the time I was teaching Reformer Pilates (which is amazing for toning the body, in particular the core) and training to run 8 marathons in 8 consecutive days. I was therefore running between 5-10 miles per day (which was a great fat burner), practicing Yoga to keep me flexible and injury free and using HIIT to improve my endurance. I was starting to realise that the combination of HIIT and Pilates created a body that was not only healthy, strong and functional but also lower in unhealthy body fat and benefited from increased cardiovascular ability. I researched around the area, started experimenting on my clients and created the more formal The Model Method. Word spread, we received huge amounts of press and I moved to my own studio in Parsons Green where we focus on totally private 1:1 sessions using Reformer Pilates, HIIT, weights, treadmill sprints and stretching to create the fittest, strongest, healthiest bodies. The focus is on function, not aesthetics. We don’t judge progress on weight lost, we look more deeply at body fat lost (because that’s the real killer) and strength gained. We teach women to think more about what their bodies can do, than what they look like.
TWO GENTLE WORKOUTS THAT YOU CAN DO IN 10 MINUTES:
Hill climbs – there is no reason you can’t partake in a little HIIT post labour. As long as you aren’t running or jumping then getting your heart rate up is fine. Find a hill, preferably that you can push a buggy up and walk as fast as you can up to the top (you should feel out of breath) and then a slow amble back down to recover. Repeat 5 – 10 times.
Stair challenge – find a set of stairs (preferably over 50 of them) and climb them carefully two or three at a time. As you do so think about your first foot pushing you up, rather than pushing off your back foot. This will encourage you to activate your glutes rather than your hip flexors. At the top come back down and repeat for 10 minutes.
* Please consult your GP before undertaking any exercise after giving birth.
Hollie Grant is an award winning Pilates instructor and Personal Trainer. She is the owner of Tatler award-winning studio PilatesPT in Fulham and the creator of the online fitness plan The Model Method.
Follow her on Instgram @thepilatespt
Follow her on Twitter @pilatespt
Words by Hollie Grant
Edited by Katie Stalker