Pregnancy is undoubtedly one of the most demanding experiences a woman's body can go through. Spanning approximately 9 months, this journey is not only life-changing but also physically challenging in numerous ways. From weight gain to back pain, postpartum (after childbirth) recovery commonly leaves new mothers grappling with the changes their bodies have undergone.
In this blog, we'll explore how cardiovascular and muscular training can be used to help solve the physical changes caused by pregnancy and reclaim a healthier body composition.
Postpartum physical challenges and solutions
The first 6 weeks postpartum are often considered the initial recovery period when the body is healing from childbirth. During this time, a woman will likely become increasingly aware of the physical challenges left over by the adaptations their body went through to bear the fetus. Let's look at some of these physical challenges, the effects they cause, and how fitness can help to resolve them.
Challenges: Women commonly gain 11–16 kg (25–35 lbs) during a healthy pregnancy. This will vary based on weight and overall health before pregnancy.
Effects: Extra weight increases the amount of effort required to do even the most basic of activities. As the fetus grows, it shifts a woman's centre of gravity upward and forward, which can impact a woman's posture and balance, and lead to pain or discomfort.
Solutions: A combination of regular exercise and good nutrition can aid in gradual, healthy weight loss. Start with low-to-moderate intensity exercise, aiming for at least 150 minutes over a minimum of 3 days per week.
Loss of muscle mass
Challenges: Pregnancy often leads to the loss of muscle mass caused by a more sedentary lifestyle during pregnancy.
Effects: This inactivity can contribute to muscle weakness and wastage, as well as feelings of incompetence and dependence. This can have a sizeable impact on a woman's perception of and motivation to perform exercise.
Solutions: If you want to gain muscle mass, you should first seek medical advice and, if approval is received, slowly introduce muscular training into your routine. Focus on posterior chain muscles, such as the hamstrings, glutes, back, and some muscles of the core, to promote better posture and improved balance. As you spend more time in exercise environments or with a personal trainer, feelings of competency and autonomy will likely develop over time.
Challenges: Almost all women experience diastasis recti, a separation of the abdominal muscles during pregnancy, to some degree.
Effects: This condition postpartum can lead to weakened and unstable core muscles, leading to back pain, and a visible belly bulge.
Solutions: Targeted core exercises can help strengthen abdominal muscles, improve posture, and reduce back pain. If performing muscular training, it's recommended that a woman initially focus on exercises that provide a good base of support, for example, switching back squats for sumo squats.
Pelvic floor issues
Challenges: A growing fetus and childbirth can put immense pressure on the pelvic floor muscles. This is worsened by procedures that may occur during childbirth, such as an episiotomy, which can lead to further trauma and damage to these muscles.
Effects: Weakened pelvic floor muscles can lead to a multitude of issues, including urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, and bowel dysfunction. These can drastically reduce a woman's quality of life and cause discomfort and pain during exercise.
Solutions: Pelvic floor exercises (Kegels) postpartum can help regain control and strength of the pelvic floor muscles.
Programming for postpartum clients
First things first, it's essential to recognise that every postpartum journey is unique. Just as no two pregnancies are the same, different bodies will recover and respond differently to exercise. A personal trainer must connect with a client's healthcare professional to discuss health considerations before beginning any new programme.
Listening to and addressing concerns
Postpartum clients are likely eager to reclaim a healthier body composition but anxious to begin exercise again. The primary fear is whether their body will hold up to exercise and what potential issues it might cause.
Fear can be a significant roadblock when trying to regain strength, so it's crucial to listen to and take concerns seriously. A personal trainer must reassure a client, encourage them to openly discuss concerns, energy levels, aches and pains, and clearly state what the plan is moving forward.
Building a foundation
It's important to assess a postpartum client's current health condition and programme accordingly. From there, a personal trainer should proceed to create a programme factoring in frequency, intensity, time, and type of exercise. The following are general guidelines and my suggestions for how an initial programme may be built.
If a postpartum client's goal is to improve their aerobic performance or lose fat to improve body composition, cardiovascular training can be programmed for 3–5 days per week (alongside recommending good nutrition).
Low-to-moderate training is recommended, depending on what's tolerable by the client. Women who were more active before pregnancy will likely be able to progress to higher intensities faster than others.
Start with shorter sessions, especially for novice exercisers, of approximately 30 minutes per day. Aim for at least 150 minutes over a minimum of 3 days per week. The volume of training can increase as competency and fitness levels increase.
Training should be kept to activities that are well-tolerated by the client and that they find enjoyable to cause less stress and increase motivation. Initially prioritise activities that don't cause too much trauma to the body and leave a client feeling sore and fatigued.
If a postpartum client's goal is to gain or regain muscle mass, muscular training can be programmed for 2–3 non-consecutive days per week.
Moderate intensity is recommended. This should be a weight that is tolerable by the client but brings them to a point of moderate fatigue. A progressive overload is a good approach, starting with lighter weights and increasing resistance over time. Focus on a controlled tempo and resistance in the 20–70% of 1-rep maximum (1-RM) range for 1–3 sets of 8–15 repetitions.
Training should be kept to activities that are well-tolerated by the client. A postpartum programme will likely focus on strengthening a client's core and pelvic floor muscles. This process could occur in phases, beginning with Kegel exercises, progressing to more challenging exercises, and then building to more functional and challenging exercises. For example:
Phase 1: Kegel exercises.
Phase 2: Strengthening exercises, such as pelvic tilts, planks, and bridges.
Phase 3: Functional exercises, such as squats, lunges, and farmer's walk.
Phase 4: Gradual progression into load-bearing exercises and more challenging movements.
A gradual but rewarding process
While the first 6 weeks postpartum should be dedicated to recovery from childbirth, it's safe and desirable to slowly begin incorporating exercise back into your routine once you've received medical clearance to do so. As I've outlined above, doing so has manifold physical benefits and can help reduce the severity of several negative postpartum conditions.
If you're looking for personal training in Singapore, book a free 30-minute consultation to discuss postpartum training. If you'd just like to receive a steady stream of free weekly advice, tips, and guides about fitness, consider subscribing to Root Fitness and following me on Instagram.