While structured breathing work may seem simple-even silly- to some, we know that it is a powerful tool for the pregnant and postpartum woman. Deep breaths have the ability to calm the nervous system which can affect muscle tension, heart rate, and blood pressure. Additionally, the respiratory diaphragm can mobilize muscles in the pelvis and back due to anatomical connections. Muscles, including those shown in the photo below, are big players in midline stabilization and support. A great place to start is the 90/90 breathing drill (seen below). Try this out for 10-15 breaths at the end of your day.
Many postpartum women do not know all of the details after birthing their baby. Some have told me they were not aware they had stitches down below until the 6-week check-up when the doctor wanted to make sure they were healing well! The check-up at 6 weeks can be quick so arrive with questions. It is helpful to know about any tearing, episiotomies, tools used during the birth, etc. These factors are all great to bear in mind as you return to exercise and daily functioning.
Another question to ask-- “Is there a pelvic health PT that you would recommend?” They may know someone in the area or have worked with them prior. However, do not become discouraged if they don’t have a name to offer. A Google search for “women’s health PT” or “pelvic PT” should show professionals in the area. Compare websites and reviews to see if the PT would be a good fit for you and your goals!
Pelvic Health Physical Therapy
Once you have been cleared by the doctor for “usual exercise” and intercourse, I highly suggest visiting a pelvic health or women’s health PT. They will be able to further answer any questions about symptoms you may experience immediately postpartum and later.
A pelvic PT is specialized on evaluation and treatment of the pelvic floor musculature. They can perform internal evaluations to test the strength and endurance of your pelvic floor, check for prolapse, address any soft tissue issues, etc.
For the evaluation, the therapist will use a gloved finger to palpate muscles internally. While a great deal of information can be gathered from an internal evaluation, it is not necessary for visiting a pelvic PT. The therapist can then prescribe exercises to help relieve the symptoms and provide hands-on work to hips, back, sacrum and other involved areas. Your PT should be a huge help in getting you back to fitness postpartum! Other areas they can treat and improve are bowel/bladder issues, painful sex, and pelvic pain.
Focus on healing and strength rather than weight loss
Social media and advertising may be all about “getting your body back” and fixing “mummy tummy,” but that is not the focus when you are postpartum. The first step in returning to fitness is addressing foundational strength and continuing to heal from the pregnancy and birth. Your body will go through so many changes in the months following your pregnancy and the timeline is different for every single woman.
Steer clear of programs that say at week 8 you do blank. It should all be self-paced and based on symptoms, your birth story, and prior activity level. Do you need help starting out? This was the number one question I received from women in the clinic. “What can I do? Where do I start?” So I developed programming to recover and rebuild your core after having a baby. Check out the THRIVE: Rebuild Bundle programming HERE.
Find a community for support
Returning to group classes or running groups can be challenging because you will not be jumping right back into the level you were previously exercising. Having a group of women who understand your needs and have been or are currently at the same stage as you is tremendously beneficial. If this sounds like something you would be interested in, please join my Back to Fitness Postpartum Facebook page. We have posts nearly every day and a lot of great discussions- some serious and some silly!
Once you return to group classes, be sure that the trainer knows you are postpartum and if there are any symptoms with movements. If they offer other movement suggestions that still do not feel great, then modify further! Symptoms (leaking, pain, heaviness in the vagina) are a signal to decrease the workload by resting or modifying or both!
Getting back to fitness postpartum can be challenging but it is not impossible! With a holistic plan and support you will be able to recover and rebuild to get back to your favorite activities. If you are looking for help with learning more about postpartum fitness, the pelvic floor and how to reach your goals, then please reach out at Athletes’ Potential.
Thanks for reading,
Dr. Jackie, DPT
Many active women wish to continue their lifestyle even through pregnancy. Aerobic activity and resistance training are fantastic for maintaining fitness while keeping the baby healthy. Of course, always consult your doctor after becoming pregnant to make sure that it is safe to exercise at various intensities.
The general guidelines are to accumulate at least 20 minutes of moderate intensity almost every day of the week. For those of you who look for more intense activity, 3-5 days of vigorous activity is suggested for 20-60 minutes per bout.
Baby Bumps & Barbells guidelines:
As the baby bump grows and the center of mass is moved forward, your posture will be affected. The lumbar lordosis, or curve of the low back, will increase drastically throughout the pregnancy. Often times, your thoracic spine will flatten. Although postural changes are expected and normal, it is important to continue to maintain the best posture possible. Continuing upper body strength training and focusing on proper posture are key.
Another group of muscles that is greatly affected during pregnancy is the posterior chain. I’m talking specifically about the glutes and the hamstrings. Any barbell work to strengthen these areas should be continued throughout, keeping the baby bumps and barbells guidelines in mind. Lunges and squats remain some of the best and most simple workouts to target the posterior chain with little risk.
Birddog- if achieving this position proves to be too difficult, you can keep your knees down and extended just one arm at a time. Then you can progress to extending just one leg at a time before combining for an arm and a leg simultaneously.
As mentioned earlier, pregnant women are inherently more bendy than they were pre-pregnancy so stretching may seem unwarranted. However, most of these stretches are aimed at relieving areas of pain or tension from the growing bump and new posture.
Child’s pose- as the baby bump grows, this can be modified by having your arms and hands out-stretched on a workout ball, chair, or any other elevated surface. A large ball will give you the option of small rotations right and left with your arms to feel the stretch intensified along your sides.
Seated Hamstring Stretch- as the bump grows it may be necessary to use a bed sheet wrapped across the bottom of the foot and held with the hands.
Hip flexor stretch- while standing at the bottom of a staircase, place the lead foot two or three steps up. Keeping the back leg on the bottom with a slight bend in the knee, shift the weight forward to the lead foot to the point that you feel a comfortable stretch in the front of you trailing hip.
Cat Cow- a great way to stretch the lower back and get the thoracic spine moving throughout the entire pregnancy.
Pigeon- if you are unable to achieve or maintain this position, adding a firm pillow under the upper thigh of the back leg and buttock area of the front leg may be more comfortable.
Deep Squat- a great stretch for your hips and pelvic floor during the pregnancy. **Caution – in the third trimester, ask your doctor before trying this stretch as it may induce labor **
Remaining active will lead to a healthier and happier pregnancy. Keeping the posterior chain strong can ward off back pain for mom while exercise activity increases blood flow for the baby. Remember, it is important to always listen to your body and consult healthcare professionals when questions arise.
Thanks for reading!
-Dr. Jackie, DPT
R Artal, M O’Toole. Guidelines of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for exercise during pregnancy and the postpartum period.
Photos: FitPregnancy.com, tfwropestone.com, fusionwellness.com, themusicmommy.com, alimcwilliams.com, momjunction.com
Midline stabilization is heralded as the foundation of safe and successful weightlifting. But have we been ignoring a part of the “core”? The pelvic floor is a topic that tends to be avoided. Most people do not casually discuss urinary frequency over coffee or admit to their coach that they pee every time they perform double-unders. Men- if you think this one is just for the women, stick around!
I only realized the prevalence of leakage after CrossFit HQ posted a video following regionals. All of these women were saying “It’s ok, I pee during workouts too. It’s normal!” Please do not confuse normal and common. Urinary incontinence may be common in certain populations, especially of heavy lifters, but it is absolutely not normal.
The pelvic floor includes a group of muscles that attach from your coccyx (tail bone) and sacrum to your pelvic ring.
These muscles are important for bowel and bladder function, organ support, and stability of the pelvis. Although pelvic floor dysfunction (PFD) was thought to be largely a problem of women, it is becoming apparent that men have similar issues. The pelvic floor may seem very foreign and uncomfortable to discuss, but when it properly functions it can improve your workouts. Here’s how:
I like Mary Massery’s description of the core as a “soda-pop can”. The front of the can is the abs, the back is the multifidi, the pop top is the glottis and the bottom of the can is the pelvic floor. The core pressure is maintained by a functioning glottis and pelvic floor, with the diaphragm acting as a pressure regulator.
When you take a breath in, the diaphragm descends. This requires the pelvic floor muscles to descend and lengthen. When you exhale the diaphragm rises and the pelvic floor rises and tightens.
In fit individuals, (notice I said individuals and not just women), a common pelvic floor problem is overactive muscles. Very strong back or abdominal muscles can cause increased inward pressure. It’s been shown that when your deep abdominals contract, so does your pelvic floor.
Imagine squeezing the can from both sides with the pressure maintained. The bottom and top will have to withstand more pressure and bulge. If your abdominals are always squeezing in then your pelvic floor is always pushing up to withstand the pressure. It’s overworked! The diaphragm is pretty darn good at its job. If it does not work, we have a bigger issue on our hands.
So often, when something’s ‘gotta give’- it’s the pelvic floor. When all of these muscles work in concert, your canister and the force it can produce is maximized. Thus, your workout improves.
A conversation about breathing techniques regarding the glottis and diaphragm is essential to training the entire core. Here I am simply touching on one contribution but remember it does not work alone.
Keep in mind, PFD can also manifest in ways such as pelvic pain, painful intercourse, low back pain, urinary frequency or even the dreaded butt wink. It is not just urinary incontinence.
“ Pelvic floor pain is only caused by pregnancy, right?”
Wrong. There has been no correlation shown between PFD and post-partum women. Sure, some moms experience issues but again, it is not normal for any population. Weakness and/or tightness of the pelvic floor can be caused by poor postural habits, extended periods of sitting, over training of the abdominals and pregnancy. Excluding pregnancy of course, men are susceptible to all of the other risk factors.
“Ok, so I pee on myself at the gym and it’s not normal. What do I do to stop it?”
Thanks for reading!
-Dr. Jackie, DPT
Sapsford, Ruth R, Hodges, Paul W. Contraction of the Pelvic Floor Muscles during Abdominal Maneuvers. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 2001, Vol.82(8), pp.1081-1088.
Presentation at CSM 2016 by Mary Massery: referencing Massery 2005 & 2006.
Dr. Danny and Dr. Jackie's views on performance improvement, injury prevention and sometimes other random thoughts.