If you’re here, we probably don’t need to tell you that pregnancy changes much more than just the size of your stomach.
“Your blood volume increases, your hormones shift, you gain weight, and your pelvis widens,” says , NASM- and PROnatal-certified personal trainer and creator of the Butler Method for NeoU Fitness, who has a one-year-old son. And that’s not even getting into things like diastasis recti (separation of the abdominal muscles), C-sections (a major surgery that requires major recovery), and postpartum depression—all of which are extremely common. A third of new moms experience diastasis recti, per a British Journal of Sports Medicine study; another third deliver via C-section, according to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology; and one in nine women battle postpartum depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
All of these things—plus a crazy schedule and lack of sleep—can seriously interfere with your ability to even think about a post-pregnancy workout, nevermind actually do one. But as long as you have the clear from your doc (which will take longer if you had a C-section), there are real benefits to easing back into a fitness routine after birth.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says that postpartum exercise can strengthen your core, boost your energy, help prevent postpartum depression, promote sleep, and relieve stress. (So basically, all the awesome benefits you experienced before giving birth.) That’s why ACOG recommends new moms do some form of moderate intensity cardio for 150 minutes a week (or about 20 minutes each day) and strength train at least twice a week.
Plus, it’s 100 percent natural to want to look and feel better after giving birth—especially if you’ve been a runner or athlete your whole life! Just be sure to be patient and gentle with yourself during this time.
Some words of warning: You may need to shift your mindset (and workouts) if you’re used to training at an intense level. “You may have less strength or endurance during the postpartum period,” says Jill Barnes, Ph.D., an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “This is a time to really listen to your body and how it is recovering.”
And that word—recovering—is key. Think of pregnancy, labor, and delivery as a 40-week training cycle for a marathon—it didn’t happen overnight or even in a few weeks; so it will take time to bounce back. “Your body may feel different, much like when you’re recovering from an injury,” Barnes says. (Because, well, you kinda are.) “There’s no need to perform at pre-pregnancy standards right away.” That’s why Barnes suggests short five to 10 minutes of exercise, spread out throughout the day, instead of full 30-minute workouts. (This might also work better with your new-mom schedule!)
Butler agrees, adding that, much like when you’re rehabbing an injury, certain exercises can help you recover faster. “It’s very important to let diastasis recti heal,” she says. “But doing the correct core exercises—ones that don’t involve crunching and twisting—can help strengthen your core back up.”
That’s where this post-pregnancy workout from Butler comes in. “Strengthening your core and legs is important for both caring for your newborn and easing back into running,” she says.
How to use this list: Each of the postpartum exercises below are demonstrated by Butler so you can see the proper form. Perform each for 30 seconds, then repeat the circuit three times through. Aim to do this workout two or three times a week to regain some of that pre-pregnancy strength—and hit the pavement stronger than ever. You will need a small resistance band and a hand towel. An exercise mat is optional.
Squat With Band
Place a resistance band around both legs, just above your knees. Stand with feet just wider than shoulder-width apart. Send hips back and lower into a squat position, gently pushing on the resistance band with thighs to keep it in place. Keep your chest lifted the entire time. Return to standing position. Repeat.
Start standing with feet hip-width distance apart and arms at sides. Take one big step forward with your right leg and bend both knees to drop into a lunge position. Both legs form 90-degree angles and right knee tracks over toes. Press through right heel to return leg to start. Repeat with left leg, then continue to alternate between legs.
Place a resistance band around both legs at mid-shin. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and send hips back to lower into a mini-squat position with hands clasped in front of chest. Staying in this position, step right foot out to the right. Return foot to start and continue stepping out for 30 seconds. Repeat on left side.
Bent-Over Row With Band
Start standing, step right foot forward, and lower into a lunge in which right knee is directly over right ankle, right elbow rests on right knee, back is long and neck is straight. Step on a resistance band with right foot (or loop it around the foot). You may need to use longer resistance band or a lower weight (easier to stretch) band for this one. Grab the other end of the band with left hand then pull it straight up to ribs. Return to start and continue for 30 seconds. Then repeat on other side.
Assume a comfortable seated position, then inhale through your nose so your stomach expands out. Exhale with intention through pursed lips, pulling belly button in toward spine and tightening your core. Repeat.
Lie faceup with knees bent and feet flat on floor, inhale through your nose until your stomach fills with air. Draw belly button in as you exhale through your mouth, pressing your low back into the floor and curling your hips (pelvis) up closer to your chest. This move is very subtle. Continue to repeat with each breath.
Lie faceup with knees bent, feet flat on floor, and arms resting at sides. Squeeze glutes and hamstrings to lift hips up off floor, keeping core engaged throughout. Lower hips and repeat. To make this move harder, add a resistance band around your legs just above the knees. Continue to press knees out to keep tension on the band.
Modified Forearm Plank
Kneel on floor on all fours. Place forearms and hands are flat on the floor. Walk arms out slowly to lower your hips until you are in a modified forearm plank: core is engaged, shoulders are directly over elbows, and body forms a straight line from knees to shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds.
Modified Side Plank
Lie on your left side so that left forearm is on the floor, left shoulder is stacked over left elbow, and knees are stacked. Press hips up to a side plank and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on other side.
Lie faceup with knees bent, arms resting at sides, and place heels on a towel (or wear socks on a smooth surface). Inhale, then as you exhale, pull your heels back toward your glutes, keeping your lower back glued to the floor. Continue to repeat.