The Right Way To Ramp Up Your Fitness Post-Baby

You see these sorts of headlines all over the Internet: “Beyoncé wears a crop top and short shorts less than two months after welcoming twins.” And here you are eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at 11 p.m. because you just realized you hadn’t eaten all day.

Even though you’re not Beyoncé, the pressure to whip yourself back into pre-baby shape is real—and it can be overwhelming and a little scary. “It’s easy to forget that celebrities have an entire team of people to help them lose weight as quickly as possible,” says Gina Harney, C.P.T., creator of The Fitnessista’s Post-Baby Bod Plan. (Not to mention, unlike many of us, they can afford childcare, which means more gym time).

Thankfully, social media has made it easier than ever to connect with real images of mothers—and their postpartum bodies, serving as a necessary reminder that bouncing back takes time. It’s true—once you’ve had a baby, your body is changed forever, but that’s not a bad thing. “You can increase your speed, strength, energy, and crush your fitness game after having babies,” Harney says.

Here’s everything you need to know in order to craft a good-for-you fitness schedule postpartum:

Your Post-Baby Fitness Plan

First thing’s first: No matter what anyone says, there is no concrete timeline for when you should be “back in shape.” Every woman is different, and your bounce-back depends on your fitness level before and during the pregnancy, says OB/GYN Shyama Matthews, M.D. “The important thing is for exercise to be stress-relieving, not stress-provoking,” she says. Taking care of a baby is hard enough without putting intense demands on your fitness and body.

Most doctors recommend—or at least give you the green light—to resume gentle exercise six weeks after giving birth, barring there have been no complications. “It takes about this long for our bodies to return to the normal pre-pregnancy physiologic state, [and] it allows incisions to heal before starting any activity,” Matthews says.

But where do you even start? If you’ve hit that six-week mark and have been cleared by your doc to start moving, this guide will help you navigate the first six months of exercising post-baby.

Rules For The Road

Choose sleep over exercise. If you had a horrible night of sleep (or, more realistically, a string of horrible nights), try to snooze when the baby’s sleeping during the day, suggests Harney. Even if it means skipping exercise. “Chances are that you won’t have the energy to get in a strong workout anyway, so bank that sleep when you can,” she says. Why? Missing out on sleep can leave you with elevated cortisol levels, which signal your body to hold onto fat.

Eat more protein. You know getting enough protein is important no matter what fitness level you’re at, but it’s especially important to load up on postpartum. That’s because protein not only helps take care of your tissues and organs, but helps you build muscle, which revs your metabolism and supports fat-shedding. “Make sure that you have a serving of protein at each meal and snack to encourage lean muscle building,” says Harney. (Think a palm-sized piece of meat or poultry, or a scoop of protein powder.)

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Down that H2O. “For new moms, it’s crucial to stay hydrated,” says Taylor Merritt, C.P.T., C.H.E.S., general manager at TITLE Boxing Club San Diego. That’s especially true if you’re breastfeeding, and hoping to exercise on top of that. Merritt suggests keeping a water bottle with you at all times, and setting reminders on your phone to drink up throughout the day.

Related: 8 Fun Ways To Drink More Water When You Hate Water

Months 1 and 2

Walk, walk, walk. The first order of business is building up your cardiorespiratory fitness, says Matthews. “The number one thing every woman should do in the first month is to get out of the house and walk,” says Merritt. “Load the baby up in the stroller, carrier, or wrap, take it at your own pace, and stop if you feel any discomfort,” she says. Try to walk at least five days a week, for just 10 minutes at a time at first. As you feel stronger, you can start adding minutes to your walks, she says.

Skip the heavy weights. When it comes to strength training, patience is key. For now, big movements are off the table. “Squatting and lifting heavy put too much pressure on your pelvic floor and can cause bleeding to worsen or your stitches to tear,” says Merritt. Also, because your joints are still loose from the hormones that help them relax during pregnancy and childbirth, you’ll want to avoid any exercise that involves jumping or quick movements.

Instead, focus on your postural muscles (like your back and glutes), since the added weight on your front side during pregnancy can wreak havoc and throw off your posture, says Harney. It’s important to show those postural muscles some love, especially since you’ll rely on them when you’re lifting and carrying your babe. Her go-to moves: bent-over wide rows, hip bridges, hip extensions, and cat-cow pose.

And don’t worry, you don’t have to lay off the weights entirely. As a general rule of thumb, Harney recommends starting with bodyweight-only for lower body moves, but it’s okay to incorporate light weights for upper body work (think five or 10-pound dumbbells for exercises like bicep curls, tricep extensions, and shoulder presses). Start with one or two days of strength training per week and build up to two or three days per week, she says.

No core work, though. Moves that work your rectus abdominis (six-pack muscles) put a lot of pressure in your abdomen, which you’ll want to avoid as your body heals from childbirth, says Harney. Stay away from traditional core exercises like crunches, planks, situps, and leg raises—even pushups will put too much pressure on your abs.

Plus, for many women, diastasis recti—a condition in which the large abdominal muscles separate—is a concern after childbirth. It happens when the connective tissue (called the linea alba) that runs down the middle of your core becomes weakened or stretched out. “It can make you look pregnant when you’re not, and because the core muscles are weak, it can throw a lot of other things out of whack,” says Harney. (Women with diastasis recti might deal with back pain and pelvic floor-related issues, like incontinence.) Two fingers-width of separation between your abs muscles is considered normal post-pregnancy, but having more than that requires being extra careful, she says.

To help heal diastasis recti, you basically need to re-teach your abdominal muscles how to work together, so you’ll need to avoid all crunching motions and extreme oblique training. “If you overtrain your obliques, they will continue to pull your abs apart,” says Harney. The general strength-training moves you are allowed to do will still work your abdominal muscles without putting you in harm’s way.

Do your Kegels. Ah, the beloved Kegel exercise. We’ve all been told to do it—but after you have a kid, it’s really time to get to work. “Many woman complain of urine leakage or frequent urination after delivering, and that’s because the pelvic floor muscles have just worked extra hard to carry the pregnancy, and can be stretched during vaginal delivery,” says Matthews. Kegel exercises help to strengthen the pelvic floor and help retain control of the bladder and urethra, she says.

Don’t remember how to do one? Contract your pelvic floor muscles for five seconds, then relax for five seconds. Focus on tightening those pelvic floor muscles, not your abs or glutes, says The Mayo Clinic. Build up to tightening your muscles for intervals of 10 seconds. Matthews recommends doing 15 to 20 reps several times a day—you can even knock ‘em out while brushing your teeth or doing the dishes, so that you actually remember to get them done, she says.

Another option: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, says Harney. Place one hand on your belly. Inhale to fill your belly (you want your belly to open up like an umbrella instead of your chest rising). As you exhale, pull your belly in and contract your pelvic floor.

Months 3 and 4

Pick up the pace. Now that your body has gotten used to daily walks, it’s time to up the ante. Increase your speed and pump your arms to help, or incorporate a light jog, suggests Merritt. You can even try intervals of fast walking or jogging for 30 seconds, followed by a minute of walking, she says. “This helps get your heart rate up and burn more calories.”

Check in on abdominal separation. If you have diastasis recti, now’s a good time to check your progress. While you can check it on your own, you do need to be super-careful and only touch the area very gently, because you’re likely touching organs in that space between your muscles, says Harney. If the idea makes you nervous or queasy, though, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor, midwife, or physical therapist to check for you.

At this point, if the separation is still two fingers-width or greater, continue modifying your exercises and stay away from more intense moves like planks and crunches. You could also try exercises like cat-cow pose, hip raises, and heel slides to mix things up, Harney suggests.

Go compound. If making time to work out before a baby was hard, it’s definitely a challenge now. That’s why Harney suggests using compound movements—which involve more than one exercise—to make the most of your strength-training time once you get used to exercising again.

At this point, it’s also okay to start adding bigger movements, like squats, back into your routine, says Harney. “You will likely feel more comfortable with basic strength training at this point, and ready to add in the challenge of a compound exercise.” Just be sure to maintain good form, and stay away from heavy weights until your doc gives you the go-ahead—again, you don’t want to put too much pressure on your pelvic floor.

Not sure which moves to do? Harney suggests a squat to upright row, bent-over row to triceps extension, and lunge to leg lift.

Months 5 and 6

Add in more weights. If you’ve been keeping up with light strength training up until this point, you’re likely ready for more of a challenge. Maintain your two to three strength-training sessions per week, and start to focus on lifting heavier (as long as your doc says it’s okay). If you can perform 10 reps of a given exercise with perfect form, it’s time to slowly up your weight, says Harney.

Start to jump. Now you can also consider incorporating plyometric exercises—think jump lunges and burpees—back into your workout rotation. If you’re breastfeeding, though, you might want to avoid stacking plyo moves back-to-back. Your chest is likely to be more tender and prone to leakage, and moves that involve a lot of bouncing for extended periods of time could make you feel extra sore or cause you to leak. Harney also recommends breastfeeding or pumping before working out and investing in a good sports bra to keep the girls as comfy as possible.

Check for diastasis rectiagain. Yep, this is something you’re going to want to keep improving on. If you’ve got less than two fingers-width of separation, you’re in the clear to resume any exercises you were previously modifying or skipping altogether, like full push-ups or planks, says Harney. But don’t feel like you have to push it just because you’ve hit the six-month mark. “It’s smarter to take it slowly,” she says. You can always add them back in later—and pushing yourself too hard may hinder your recovery.