Incorporating gentle exercise in the postpartum period can help speed up the healing process by repairing and strengthening the muscles used in labor and birth—but it’s important to make sure you’re doing the right exercises. Starting with too much, too soon can do more harm than good.
Pilates, which encompasses deep core work, focused breathwork and gentle movement, can be especially helpful to boost circulation and promote healing, no matter what type of birth you had. And the best part is that you can do a full Pilates mat circuit at home, concentrated into one 20-minute session, or broken out into smaller sessions throughout the day, between your infant’s feeding and nap schedule.
But the most important thing to remember, even after getting the OK from your doctor? “Really listen to your body and only do what feels right for you,” says Laura Wilson, celebrity Pilates instructor and owner of Natural Pilates in Los Angeles. “In postpartum, every woman needs to be mindful about what their body has just been through: from the lack of sleep to fatigue to pelvic floor dysfunctions.”
Here, Wilson shares her insight on how to get back into fitness after birth and five of her favorite exercises to help strengthen the muscles supporting your pelvic organs.
Get medical clearance before exercising postpartum
Check in with your birth provider for the go-ahead on when you can start incorporating more movement into your routine. This assessment usually happens at the 6-week postpartum check-up.
“Every woman and every situation can be so different, it's hard to say exactly when it’s safe for women to start exercising postpartum,” says Wilson.
The timing may depend on the type of birth you had and your recovery process. Some people may be ready to introduce more gentle exercise around 6 weeks, but for others, it may be longer.
Consider taking prenatal classes
Once you get that approval, a good place to start is by taking prenatal classes, no matter if you’re going into a studio or logging on virtually from home.
“A lot of our postpartum clients at Natural Pilates actually start getting back into the exercise routine by taking pregnancy classes, as it can be more gentle on the core contraction and can give them the ability to slowly start working out again without feeling like they can't keep up with the rest of the class,” Wilson notes.
If you do go into a studio, communicate with the instructor before class to share that you recently gave birth and don’t be afraid to speak up during class if something doesn’t feel right.
Be mindful of injury-based diastasis recti
Diastasis recti (DR) is a natural separation of the abdominal muscles along the linea alba after pregnancy, which may commonly close up after birth in many cases. But some cases of DR may take longer to heal or even progress to an injury-based case of DR. The exercises below are safe for people who may have or think they may have DR, Wilson says.
But start by taking things slowly. “I would recommend starting with 25% abdominal engagement in the first couple weeks, then move to 50% in the first 3 to 6 months and finally progress to 100% as you get stronger and more confident,” she notes. “If the separation is bigger than two fingers, I would recommend working closely with a pelvic floor physical therapist for best results.”
A pelvic floor PT can recommend more specific movements unique to you to help close the gap and strengthen your core muscles and pelvic floor.
5 Pilates exercises that are safe for postpartum
What you’ll need:
A floor mat (like a yoga mat)
A mini stability ball (aka Pilates Ball) is optional but works the muscles even more deeply and adds support to Side Bends
- Bridge with the Ball
Lay on your back with feet close to your hips and the ball between your knees.
Exhale: Flatten your back, then roll spine off mat into bridge position
Inhale: Hold at the top
Exhale: Squeeze the ball 5-10x
Inhale: Hold the squeeze
Exhale: Slowly articulate your spine back down to the mat, one vertebra at a time
*Repeat 5x. Be sure not to arch your spine at the top of the bridge. You should feel your glutes engaging, not your lower back.
- Half Roll Back with Ball
Start seated tall on your sit-bones, ball between your knees. If your lower back is rounded, sit on a cushion. Reach your arms forward or place them on your knees or backs of the thighs.
Exhale: Keeping your feet flat, tuck your pelvis under and roll halfway down to the mat. Squeeze the ball when you reach the end range
Inhale: Return to start position
Repeat 10 to 20x with a single squeeze or add progressive squeezes each time you roll back to increase the challenge on the abs, inner thighs and pelvic floor.
- Leg Taps
Start on your back, spine flat with legs in tabletop position (90-degree bend at hips and knees).
Inhale: Keeping your knee bent at a 90-degree angle, lower one foot towards the mat
Exhale: Using your abs, pull the leg back up to tabletop. Remember to keep your back flat. Only go as low in the range of motion as your spine stays flat.
Repeat 10x each side. Then do another set of 10, lowering both legs together. To increase the challenge, perform the same sequence with straight legs.
*Note: This exercise can also be performed with the ball under your tailbone. This adds a balance challenge but also can help stretch the lower back.
- Side Bends on the Ball
Lay on your side with the ball under your ribcage. Stagger your legs mat-distance apart with top leg straight and bottom leg bent. Hands can go behind your ahead or across your chest.
Exhale: Side bend, squeezing your top rib toward your hip
Inhale: Lengthen back to start position
Repeat 10-20x. This exercise has a small range of motion. Keep your bottom ribs heavy on the ball as you do a small side crunch.
- Squats with the Ball
Start with legs parallel hip- or shoulder-distance apart, ball between your upper inner thighs.
Exhale: Bend your knees, only as low as your back stays straight
Inhale: Return vertical, squeezing the ball as you lengthen
Repeat 10-20x. Think of sending your tailbone back and chest forward. Bring your weight back toward your heels as you squat, then to the mid-foot as you stand.
Laura Wilson is a celebrity Pilates instructor and owner of Natural Pilates in Los Angeles.