There’s practically an entire industry devoted to returning new moms to their “pre-baby shape,” but there’s a good reason why it’s so hard to bounce back from a baby belly. It’s called relaxin, a hormone produced at high levels at the end of pregnancy with a name that’s true to its function. “It relaxes your muscles [and the] connective tissue,” says prenatal and postnatal Pilates instructor Joan Van Geison, who previously walked me through prenatal exercises. Relaxin eases the birth process, but it can make new moms feel “mushy,” like they can’t build muscle tone no matter how hard they try—and the hormone can stick around for months after giving birth. “Oh! Nobody says that! Nobody ever told me that,” is the common refrain Joan hears after delivering this news.
Another common postpartum misconception is the idea that intense, high-impact workouts will spur faster weight loss. In reality, this practice may be harmful for new moms, particularly if they’re breastfeeding. “Vigorous or intense, prolonged exercise is not recommended for mothers who are breastfeeding, as this may increase the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, which in turn may cause breast milk to taste sour,” Joan explains. It can become a cycle where a fussy baby refuses to feed and the mom “gets frustrated and works out more to release their frustrations.”
At Soulistic Studio & Spa, Joan’s low-impact postnatal Pilates classes aren’t as much about regaining a pre-baby body as they are about ensuring a safe and healthy recovery. Because of this, the classes are highly customized to individual needs: “It’s all about what happened, so you listen to the birth story before you do anything,” Joan says. This process involves some highly personal questions, but it’s all so Joan can recommend exercises that don’t aggravate existing conditions. “Yeah, you’re up in people’s business,” she admits.
Most new moms don’t get a doctor’s clearance to begin working out until six to eight weeks after giving birth, and Joan finds that most women are grateful for the break. “They are happy to have some ‘me’ time. It is critical to have that time to focus just on yourself. If you can't keep yourself healthy, then you can't take care of others.”
During my visit, Joan walked me through three common postnatal exercises. Even as a regular Pilates student—and without having had a baby myself—I’ll admit I found them challenging. I walked away slightly sore and with a better appreciation of the challenges of postpartum recovery.
1. MARCHING ON THE BALL
Lying on your back on the reformer, place a small inflatable ball right at your tailbone, then place your feet on the bar and grab a wooden handle with each hand. As you press your pelvis down against the reformer, drawing the hip bones together, bring your arms straight up to the ceiling. Staying steady atop the ball, bring your right leg into the “tabletop” position (knee bent at about a 90-degree angle) and bring your arms forward slightly, moving the carriage about an inch. Bring your left leg up into tabletop as well, keeping the carriage steady, and inhale as you lower the right leg just a few inches. Exhale, and bring the right leg back up; repeat with the left leg. Perform the exercise a total of five times on each leg.
Though this exercise involves the legs and the arms, you should really feel it in your core. The goal here, says Joan, is “re-engaging the abs.” “The abs have done this humongous job by keeping the baby supported, but they have stretched, so a lot of times women lose the connection with the abs.” She’ll often begin postnatal workouts with this exercise because it imparts a valuable muscle memory of how to keep the core engaged during the rest of the session.
2. THE ROLL-DOWN WITH TRAPEZE
Sitting on a Pilates cadillac or tower, place one foot against each pole, keeping your legs straight. From there, grab the trapeze bar with both hands placed about shoulder-width apart. Tucking in the tailbone and keeping your shoulders down, inhale, and as you exhale, engage your abs as you slowly roll down, articulating the spine one vertebra at a time. When you’re lying down, inhale, then exhale as you begin to curl yourself up slowly, keeping your tailbone tucked and your abs engaged. Once you’ve reached the starting position, roll all the way down again and slowly pull the trapeze closer to your chest as you exhale, drawing your elbows away from each other. Pull the trapeze a total of three times, then roll up to finish.
“The roll-down is about shoulder stability and about abs,” Joan says. Women often adopt a hunched-over posture while breastfeeding, which contracts the muscles in their chest. Opening up the shoulders stretches out the chest muscles and allows for a deeper connection with the abs, which work with the shoulders to keep the body steady during the roll-down movement. The chest press with the trapeze further stretches the shoulders as it works the pecs and rotator cuffs.
3. BRIDGE SERIES WITH ONE-LEGGED BRIDGE
Lying on your back on a mat or a flat, cushy surface, bend your knees with your legs hip-distance apart and your arms long by your sides. Press down into the feet, keeping your shoulders down and chest open, inhale, and as you exhale, curl your hips up slowly. Hold the bridge position for an inhale, then exhale as you slowly roll your hips down, one vertebra at a time. Repeat once more. As a progression, you can repeat the bridge exercise beginning with your right leg in tabletop position, making sure not to shift to one side as you raise your hips. Repeat again with your left leg in tabletop; perform the one-legged bridge a total of two times on each side.
Similar to the roll-down, the bridge series is powered by the abs, which control the articulated movements, and it further opens up the shoulders to engage the upper-core muscles. As an extra challenge for the glutes and hamstrings, the one-legged bridge also connects to the abs and “makes you keep yourself centered,” Joan says. She’ll often incorporate progressive exercises into her postnatal routines to gradually build up strength until students feel comfortable returning to regular Pilates classes, usually within two or three months.
Photo: © Michelle Klosinski, Groupon