Pregnancy can create a very particular physical stance: a big belly, rounded shoulders, and a curved back. And despite your best efforts, you too may develop just such a stance. But you’re not alone. Many women find it difficult to escape the strain of a belly’s added weight and suffer from that recognizable pregnancy posture. These changes, along with internal changes, don’t allow the body to just snap back after giving birth. So after delivery, in addition to having a new baby—you’ll have a new body. One that you’ll need to retrain to breathe, stand, and sit. However, with some work, you may be able to bring your body back to its prepregnancy shape—or even surpass it.
BabyZone talked with some of the leading Body Sculpting, Pilates, and the Tupler Technique fitness experts to find a variety of exercise options safe enough to begin shortly after delivery. The following exercises will help to retrain and gently rebuild your body, especially those trouble spots that suffer during pregnancy—the chest, thighs, and tummy.
Each of these exercise routines is specifically designed for target spots and should be done in conjunction with cardiovascular work—something as simple as going on a long walk.
As with any exercise routine, you should get your doctor’s approval before beginning these exercises, especially if you have had a C-section or complications with childbirth.
Body Sculpting with Weights
Brad Schoenfeld, author of Sculpting Her Body Perfect and the best-selling book Look Great Naked, believes that many women short-change the benefits of weight training, thinking that it will leave them looking bulky and masculine. “First of all, it’s virtually impossible for a woman to bulk up like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” says Schoenfeld. Instead, he contends that weight training helps a woman be in charge of how she wants to sculpt her body. Weight exercises not only define muscles, but they also increase a woman’s metabolism, meaning that you’ll be burning fat and shedding pounds long after your workout.
When to begin: With a doctor’s permission, beginners can start weight training with 3- to 5-pound weights, four to six weeks after delivery.
How Often: Weight train three days a week with a rest day in between and two recuperation days. For each of these exercises, strive for three sets of 15 to 20 repetitions and take a 30-second to one-minute rest period between each set. Complete this group of sets before moving on to the next exercise.
Chest: Seated Row
For this exercise, you’ll need strength bands. You can purchase strength bands at sports stores and health clubs. The exercise may also be done without bands or, when you become more comfortable, with minimal weights such as one to 3 pounds.
Sit with your back straight and your legs together in front of you, so that your body forms a 90-degree angle. Position the middle of the band across the bottoms of your feet (at the arches) and grasp the handles with your hands. Start the exercise with both arms extended straight forward, toward your feet and parallel to your legs and the floor. While holding the band handles, pull both arms back in a smooth motion towards your chest. Focus on your shoulder blades coming together. Gradually return your arms to the starting position. For modifications, you can place your back against a wall or bend your knees.
Stand with your right foot forward and in front of your body, just as if you’ve taken a big step. Bend your right knee, bringing your body towards the floor, allowing your left foot to flex as you keep your left leg straight and parallel to the floor (your left knee should almost touch the floor). Push away from the floor with your right foot and return to the starting position. Remember to keep your front knee in line with your foot as you bring it forward. Complete the three sets of 15 to 20 repetitions before alternating to the other side. If this is too difficult, complete as many repetitions as you can, working up to three sets of 15. For added intensity, grasp a weight in each of your hands while your arms hang at your sides.
Abdominal: Side Twist
Grab a broomstick or similar object and hold it behind your neck with your arms comfortably holding it up, elbows bent. Keep both your lower and upper body strong and straight, looking forward throughout the exercise. Begin by twisting your body using your arms to bring the broom end forward, but striving to have the motion powered by your side abdominals (obliques). Gently twist to the other side, again using your abdominal strength as the driving force. Your head should not move with the bar. This exercise not only opens the chest but also trims your waistline.
Nancy Trap has been a Pilates instructor with Peak Pilates, a world leader in quality Pilates equipment, for over 10 years. She also has a master’s degree in exercise science, and at the age of 40 she won a national body-building competition. Although Trap enjoys weight training, she points out that weights train muscles and Pilates trains movements. The heart of Pilates is reaching and exercising the “powerhouse,” or core muscles, at the center of the body. Each Pilates maneuver strengthens these core muscles and increases your mind-body awareness. “Pilates looks deceptively simple,” says Trap. “But you must concentrate on your powerhouse muscles and activating them to achieve the maximum results.”
When to Begin: With your doctor’s approval, a day or two after delivery.
How Often: Daily.
Chest: Power Circle
With the added weight of pregnancy, you may have assumed the habit of slouching forward. This exercise will help you retrain your body to hold your shoulders straight, opening up your chest and allowing you to breathe more deeply. Begin by standing in the Pilates stance: your heels together with your toes pointed outward. Lean forward as if the wind is slightly pushing you. Bring your belly in and up, straightening the spine. Grasp a Pilates Circle in the palms of your hands, or any ball about the size of a soccer ball. (Pilates balls are available for purchase at www.peakpilates.com.) Squeeze the ball with your hands as you constrict your deepest abdominal muscles (visualize squeezing your abdominal muscles just as your hands are squeezing the ball). Breathe regularly as you complete four to eight repetitions.
Thighs: Wall “Squat”
Stand straight with your back against a wall and your arms at your sides. Use the wall as a yardstick to straighten your spine. Slowly slide your body down the wall, bending your knees and keeping your feet planted, until you reach a seated position. Hold this posture for three to five seconds and then slide your body back up to the starting position. Do three repetitions.
Here’s a good exercise to practice correct breathing and simultaneously strengthen your abdominals. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Put your hands in a diamond shape and place the diamond over your lower abdomen with your thumbs at your bellybutton and your index fingers pointing toward your pubic bone. Imagine three buttons, one below thumbs, one below index fingers, and one in between. Gradually breathe in drawing breath first to the lowest button, then to the middle, then to the highest. Exhale, bringing in breath to the lowest button, middle, and then the highest. Do this exercise as often as you like throughout the day.
The Tupler Technique
On her road to developing the Tupler Technique, Julie Tupler gleaned knowledge from her background as a nurse, a certified personal trainer, and childbirth educator. With her extensive background, Tupler developed exercise techniques to best help women regain their prepregnancy form.
Tupler’s book Lose Your Mummy Tummy explains how to get what clients from her New York City studio have been enjoying for years—flatter tummies and stronger bodies. Tupler’s discovered that many exercise routines miss isolating one of the deepest abdominal muscles—the transverse muscle. This muscle draws in the other abdominal muscles and prevents a “mummy tummy,” or a poochy belly. For this reason, Tupler says you should envision your transverse muscle and try to isolate it in each of these exercises. She equates the transverse muscle to an elevator that runs laterally from your bellybutton to your spine with six floors, the first floor being at the belly button and the sixth floor close to the spine.
When to Begin: With your doctor’s approval, a day or two after delivery.
How Often: Daily.
Chest: Seated Military Press
Sit on the floor with your legs crossed and a strength band under your bottom. With your arms hanging at your sides, hold the handles or ends of the bands, one in each hand. Keep your elbows bent and tight against your body. Gradually bring your hands up to your shoulders, with your elbows still pressed against your body. Keep your forearms and wrists straight throughout the motion. During the exercise, bring your transverse muscle to the fifth floor by drawing your abdominals in to your spine. Contract your transverse to the sixth floor as you raise your arms. Return your transverse to the fifth floor as your arms come back down to the start position. Work up to two sets of 12 repetitions.
Thighs: Inner Thigh Press
For the start position, sit on the floor with your legs outstretched in front of you comfortably, your legs forming a “v” shape. Draw your knees up toward your upper body until you can rest your elbows just inside your knees. Place your elbows on your knees with the palms of your hands together. As with the military press, bring your belly from the fifth to the sixth floor as you squeeze your arms together with your knees. Return to the fifth floor to begin another repetition. Do two sets of 10 repetitions.
Abdominal: Seated Transverse
Tupler warns that many exercises meant to flatten the tummy can actually make it bulge by drawing apart abdominal muscles, a condition known as diastasis. Ninety-eight percent of women have this condition postpartum. For that reason, she advises against exercises that bring the shoulders off the floor while contracting the abdominal muscles, such as in the traditional sit-up or crossover-type abdominal work, both of which can draw the abdominal muscles apart further. Tupler suggests moms do the transverse anytime, anywhere—you can easily fit this exercise in each time you feed your baby.
While sitting on a chair, point your elbows out and place your hands, one on top of the other, on your belly. Your top hand should cover your lower ribs with your fingers pointing down and over your bellybutton. Your lower hand should cover the lower abdomen near the public bone. Begin the exercise by drawing in your tummy to the fourth floor, toward your spine. Then bring your tummy to the fifth floor, holding it for a moment before returning to the start position. Repeat these contractions 100 times. Tupler suggests doing five sets a day.
Remember that it took you nine months to gain your pregnancy shape; regaining your shape will take some time too. These exercises offer a gentle beginning to your road back to your prepregnancy figure.