Postpartum fitness is tough. It’s hard to know when to return to the gym, when to push, and when to rest.
It should go without saying that if you experienced complications during labor and delivery — episiotomy, c-section, etc. — your recovery and return to exercise will be much different than a woman who had an uncomplicated vaginal delivery.
That being said, here are some doctor- and industry official-approved list of do’s and don’ts for postpartum fitness.
Do consider why it is important for you to return to exercise
This is more of a psychological check-in. As a wise woman once told me: you can’t hate yourself into a body that you love.
Really consider why you are wanting to return to the gym, especially if it’s within the first few weeks of having a baby.
Are you freaked out by the weight gain and your new body? Or is being fit and active a central part of your identity that you aim to maintain. It’s okay if the answer is a bit of both. It was for me. But being cognizant of your motives for working out will help in establishing healthy and attainable goals.
Do be sure that exercise feels good
Postpartum fitness is a whole new ballgame. Everything is different. Even if you have experience recovering from an injury, expect progress to be measured and slow during this time. Movement and exercise should feel liberating, physically and emotionally. The adage ‘no pain, no gain,’ does not apply at this point in time.
Do get a good coach or fitness partner
Finding a coach or workout buddy who knows your fitness history is incredibly valuable. Someone who can help you formulate realistic and practical goals and workouts and also tell you when to ease up will only benefit you in the long run. Listen to them. Even if you feel like it’s too easy in the beginning.
Do pay attention to the little things
Whether you’re two weeks postpartum or ten months postpartum, it’s still important to check in with your own body before, during, and after workouts. If you’re in the early stages of postpartum, evaluate how much you’ve been eating and sleeping and how intense any discharge you have may be.
In an interview for the Tim Ferriss podcast, author and genuine rock star Caroline Paul said that she runs through a mental checklist before she begins any activity and that she believes this has helped her avoid serious injury, whether it be driving in her car or when she was the first female firefighter for the San Francisco Fire Department.
We took the guess work out of it and made a printable checklist you can put right into your workout log.
Do be sure to get enough water and sleep
This seems ridiculous — of course a fit person knows that they need to hydrate and get adequate sleep to recover from a tough workout. But mommy brain is a real thing. And if you’re a stubborn gym rat, you may not consciously realize just how little sleep, water, or food you are getting. Keep track in a journal for your own sanity and if you aren’t getting enough, consider whether you may benefit more from an hour-long nap than time in the gym.
Don’t push through pain
Again, this seems so obvious. But many women who are used to a militant mentality in fitness are all too eager to chase the harder, faster, stronger mantra. Especially in the early months, this can be detrimental to your recovery and fitness progress.
Don’t ignore heavy bleeding or urine leakage
Monitoring your discharge is an obvious clue as to whether or not you are overdoing it in the gym. Bladder leakage is a common postpartum issue, but, according to many experts, it should not be a lasting ailment.
Don’t ignore breast pain or discomfort
This is especially true if you are breastfeeding. Pain or discomfort could be indicative of an infection, mastitis, or abscess. If you notice lumps, redness, or discharge, consult your physician. If you can, breastfeed or pump prior to exercising to reduce engorgement.
Don’t start back with crunches or planks
This seems so counterintuitive. All you want after having baby is for your tummy to shrink down and your abs to come back. So ab-strengthening exercises seems like an obvious solution, right? Wrong.
Abdominals are the most vulnerable part of your body (along with your nether region) in the initial postpartum phase. For nine months they’ve been stretched and separated. And then in a matter of hours they performed an amazing feat and pushed a baby out.
You have to give them a break and time to heal. Ever heard of diastasis recti? It’s a nasty kick-you-when-you’re-down symptom of pregnancy that two out of three women experience. It can be exacerbated postpartum by doing crunches and other ab exercises before the abdominals have a chance to come back together.
Don’t go too hard, too fast
As one coach told me, the gym isn’t going anywhere. The barbell isn’t going anywhere. Taking it slow can be difficult for athletes and newbies. Being impatient to see results can turn to frustration. And that frustration can be so overwhelming that you either quit or injure yourself, wasting time and money.
Disclaimer: Andrea Signor is a writer. She does not have any medical background or fitness certifications. She is a former journalist with an interest in weightlifting. Any woman interested in exercising and lifting in her pregnancy should consult with her medical team and fitness coaches.