Postpartum Exercise Timeline: A Comprehensive Guide by Week

When and how to return to exercise postpartum is one of the most common questions I get as a pelvic floor physical therapist. Typically, women are eager to return to what they were doing pre-pregnancy, but it can be confusing and challenging to figure out how to navigate exercise after baby. While everyone is certainly different, and everyone's birth experience is different, there are general timelines to consider when returning to exercise. This post will serve as a comprehensive postpartum exercise timeline. We'll break it down by week and give ideas of exercises to focus on.

Why postpartum exercise can be different

What your body just did

  • Organs were squished. While you were pregnant, organs were pushed and pressed on by baby. In many cases, organs were moved out of their normal positions
  • Diaphragm and ribs were pushed up and out. In order to make room for baby, your diaphragm (the main muscle that helps you breathe!) was pushed up and out of the way. Your ribcage widened to make more room for baby
  • Abs were stretched. Your abdominal muscles were stretched. While this is totally normal, it affects how well your abdominal muscles can work. By 21 weeks of pregnancy, 32% of women already experience diastasis recti. Diastasis recti is when the abdominal muscles (think your "6 pack ab muscles") separate.
  • Back muscles worked harder. In order to counter-act the increased weight of belly and baby, your back muscles had to work a lot harder to keep you from toppling over (thanks center of gravity!).
  • Posture changed. Due to all the changes mentioned above as well as the rapid growth of baby, your posture changes dramatically. Typically, our shoulders round forward more. Our upper back rounds forward more, our lower back curve increases as our pelvis tilts forward. Our base of support, how wide our feet are, gets bigger.
  • Pelvic floor is under a lot of stress. Your pelvic floor is under a lot more stress than it's typically used to. The weight of baby and extra fluid weight that's gained during pregnancy makes the pelvic floor have to also work harder than it usually does.

Why is safe postpartum exercise important?

  • Prevent injury
  • Lessen symptoms related to pelvic floor issues like urinary leakage or prolapse
  • Improve muscular imbalances caused by pregnancy
  • Improve mental and emotional well-being
  • Restore strength and mobility

Goals of Postpartum Exercise

  • Get diaphragm working correctly and back into place
  • Get abs contracting
    • Strengthen core, hips
    • Decrease back tension
    • Decrease rib flare
    • Strengthen hips
    • Return pelvic floor to normal
    • Work on posture

 

Your Postpartum Exercise Timeline

Full postpartum recovery can take up to a year. However, a lot of progress is typically seen in the first 3 months postpartum. The goal of the first 3 months of postpartum recovery is to establish a base of strength and the the pelvic floor and core working together. With that being said, one good thing to keep in mind is, "Just because I can do something, doesn't mean I should." It's important, now more than ever, to really listen to your body. I liked how Laura Jawad described listening to your body, "No peeing, no pain, no pressure, no peaking (doming)." There is a lot to consider when starting a postpartum exercise program, so read on for more guidance.

 

Avoid these during Initial Postpartum Exercise

  • Hard, plyometric exercise
    • burpees, jumping jacks, running up stairs
  • Running, hard biking, hard swimming
  • Front ab exercises
    • sit-ups, v-sits, roll downs, leg lifts
    • Anything that makes the abs bulge

Safe Cardio Postpartum

  • Intensity 25-50% of what you feel is really intense or hard
  • Elliptical, biking, swimming
  • 10-30 minutes per session
  • Start with 5-10 minutes

Signs of Over-Doing it

  • Heaviness or pressure in the pelvis or lower abdomen
  • Worsening diastasis during or after exercise (peaking or doming)
  • Increased cramping, vaginal bleeding in the very immediate postpartum period
  • Pain (in any location)
  • Peeing or leaking urine (or stool)
  • Soreness that lasts more than 24 hours

 

Postpartum Exercise Timeline Phase 1: Weeks 1-3

Exercise
Side-lying breathing
Angel Wings
Hip Flexor Stretch
Hands and Knees Cat/ Cow
Transverse Abdominis Activation
If the sets and repetitions mentioned are too much, feel free to decrease this!

 

Postpartum Exercise Timeline Phase 2: Weeks 4-8

Exercise
Child’s Pose Back body breathing
90-90 breathing
Side-lying Mid back rotation
Stationary ½ lunge
Rows in half kneeling
Angel Wings in sitting
Serratus Towel Wall Slide

 

Postpartum Exercise Timeline Phase 3: Weeks 6-10

Exercise
90/90 breathing
Hands/ knees breathing
Opposite arm/ leg lift
Lunges
Reverse flies
Facedown glut squeeze
Foam roller up wall

 

Phase 4 Postpartum Exercise Timeline: Weeks 8-12

Exercise
Hands/ Knees breathing
Hands/ knees mid back rotation
lunges
Reverse Flies
Planks
Hip Thrusts
Foam roller up wall

 

How to Implement

Now that you have the plan, it's time to get started. The benefits of exercise postpartum are numerous, but finding time for it can be hard. Be gentle with yourself when setting expectations. As you adjust to life with a new baby and body, jumping right back into an old program likely won't be realistic. Start with a goal of 5-10 minutes of just walking. Second, focus on returning to your breath and overall awareness of your body. This will help you immensely as you start to build your foundation postpartum.

If you need help getting started or are having trouble navigating postpartum exercise, you are not alone. Please reach out to a pelvic floor therapist or make an appointment with Simpli Whole to get professional guidance on your postpartum journey.

 

For a guided workout program, check out Expecting and Empowered and use code SIMPLI for your $5 monthly discount or $20 annual discount. 

For guidance on your recovery after vaginal birth, check out our postpartum guide

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