Whether you were a devoted lifter pre-pregnancy or just starting a fitness routine, wondering about a safe postpartum weight lifting timeline is a common question.
After growing a beautiful, tiny human, your body has gone through massive changes and it’s smart to do your research before jumping in full force at the gym.
Strength training is one of the best healthy habits you can practice. But it’s also taxing on your body and various factors will play into how this affects each woman individually.
In this article, we feature expert advice on when to start weightlifting after pregnancy and how to do it the safe way.
What is postpartum weight lifting?
Postpartum is a period of time just after a woman has been pregnant. The postpartum period lasts about 6 months after birth. The most sensitive and vulnerable stage of postpartum is the first 6 weeks after birth.
Weight lifting is an exercise referred to as strength training where exercises are performed in sets of repetitions.
Postpartum weight lifting would be performing strength training during the 6 months you are considered postpartum. Some women still feel they are in the postpartum stage well beyond 6 months and even up to a year or 2 years following the birth of a child.
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When can you start lifting weights after pregnancy?
This will depend on multiple factors, mainly:
- How active you were during pregnancy AND
- If that activity included weight lifting
- If you had a c-section or vaginal delivery
- How you are coping with your new life change
- If you had any complications with delivery/postpartum
- If your doctor gives you the green light
After 6 weeks, if your doctor clears you to exercise, it may be okay to begin a weight lifting regime. However, your doctor may still limit your movements. The bottom line is to listen to your doctor on whether you can exercise and when you can start.
Do not jump into a workout at the same intensity and level that you may have been doing prior to getting pregnant.
By starting slow, we re-introduce our bodies to strength training and can avoid injuries.
This fascinating study showed that, while an elite athlete lost strength and endurance during pregnancy and showed higher body fat and lower muscle markers, she was able to re-gain her pre-pregnancy markers during a postpartum period of just over 1-year.
Honestly, I’ve found that a lot can depend on your mindset and phycological wellness as a postpartum mom. Some women seem to feel better mentally when they squeeze in a quick workout. Other moms feel overwhelmed and stressed simply by the idea of working out (especially after that first baby!).
This is the most senstive time in a woman’s life. Once your doctor gives you the go ahead, it’s up to you to decide if you can fit a workout in during your crazy busy day of caring for a newborn.
However, once you pass that 6-month postpartum mark and you don’t suspect you have postpartum depression, I would recommend aiming to start a strength training regime. Your body and mind will thank you after you’ve recoved from childbirth.
Many women are so eager to drop some extra baby weight after pregnancy. If you’re interested in how I lost 30 pounds with strength training and diet, check out my 50 tips from my postpartum weight loss journey.
How much weight can you safely lift postpartum?
For your first postpartum weight lifting session (after your doctor has cleared you), you might consider trying bodyweight exercises to see how much strength you lost during pregnancy and postpartum.
From there, add small amounts of weight each week. Go slowly.
From there, you may be more comfortable working with resistance bands or very light dumbbells. Remember that even if you stayed active in pregnancy, your body is still weaker and in recovery mode.
One promising study of 60 healthy postpartum women found the women had a strength increase of between 30 to nearly 230 percent over a period of 18 weeks when they started a strength training routine during their postpartum period.
Therefore, although you are healing postpartum and a new mom, you can still add valuable, strong muscles to your frame postpartum. Something is better than nothing!
Postpartum Workout: The Postpartum Cure Review
If you’re looking for a workout program designed specifically for postpartum fitness, check out The Postpartum Cure.
I have reviewed this program personally and it’s great for beginners who want to get back in shape postpartum.
- Includes workouts and nutrition information
- Chock-full of postpartum fitness information and tips
- Developed by a Pre/Post Natal Exercise Specialist with a PN1 Nutrition certification
- 60 recipes
- 20-day grocery list
- Custom workouts
- Hundreds of moms have lost their baby weight from this course
- A pelvic floor rehab action plan course is also offered
- The amount of information may be overwhelming for some
- May be more geared for people who need help losing weight rather than those who are already advanced in fitness and nutrition
The creator, Katie, is a Pre/Post Natal Exercise Specialist and battled diastasis recti herself after her first baby so she knows first hand what postpartum moms need during this time.
The exercises she includes in her workouts are cutting edge exercises for moms to save their abs postpartum!
Should ab exercises be avoided postpartum?
A popular rule of thumb is to avoid crunches during and shortly after pregnancy to avoid a condition called diastasis recti. Diastasis recti is the separation of the abdominal muscles.
While we do recommend consulting a doctor or a physical therapist if you have any specific questions, there is some new research that supports a theory that postpartum women may not need to avoid these exercises after they’ve been cleared by their doctor for exercise.
In particular, this 2015 study showed no difference in abdominal wall separation between vaginal and Caesarean birthing moms. Additionally, it showed that abdominal crunches reduce separation significantly rather than simply ‘pulling in’ exercises.
In addition, this April 2018 study showed that a regular pelvic floor exercise routine did not reduce the prevalence of diastasis recti.
Again, this should be discussed with your doctor, but research is beginning to show that exercise alone cannot hurt or heal an abdominal wall separation. It seems that there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that genetics and time are bigger influences in diastasis recti.
Weight Training after C Section
Similar to a vaginal birth, you’ll have a typically recommended rest and recovery period of at least 6 weeks. Your doctor could extend that to 8 weeks. However, these are just minimum guidelines and are a basis for beginning an exercise regime. Easing in slowly is key. Remember, c-sections are major abdominal surgery and should be treated as such!
A cesarean section involves cutting the abdominal wall — something that is obviously not present in a vaginal delivery. To that end, crunches and abdominal ‘coning’ exercises should be avoided during postpartum weight lifting sessions. Avoid these exercises until the abdominal muscles are completely healed. This could take several months.
From there, you’ll want to start with bodyweight exercises and avoid exercises that put too much pressure on your pelvic floor. This would include back squats, shoulder presses, and crunching moves (source).
It’s really important to practice extreme safety during weight training after pregnancy, so you definitely want the right equipment. I strongly recommend investing in the right pair of weightlifting shoes before you get serious about strength training postpartum.
What has changed between pre-pregnancy and postpartum?
By far, the biggest change will be in your pelvic floor muscles.
A huge benefit to weight lifting is that nearly every exercise strengthens your pelvic floor inherently. This is due to the stabilization during the exercise. Most notably, push exercises like shoulder press and military press and squat exercises will indirectly strengthen your pelvic floor muscles.
As Ina May famously put it:
She was implying that those mothers that perform exercises such as squats will have a strong pelvic floor. Therefore, they would be able to push during labor more effectively.
Still, after birth, your pelvic floor will have lost strength and stretched out due to the weight of baby. But, you can re-gain most, if not all of, this strength back through strength training.
This May 2018 study found that Bird-dog, Plank, and leg lifts were superior to pelvic floor contractions than a Kegel exercise! That’s wonderful news for weightlifting mamas who want to regain strength in their pelvic floor!
Even better, this brand new study from February 2019 shows that hip external rotation exercises (bodyweight or banded lying clams, bodyweight or banded leg raises, bodyweight or banded seated hip opener) can increase the strength of the pelvic floor muscles which help with incontinence and pelvic floor dysfunction.
In addition, many of your muscles have weakened during pregnancy and recovery, especially your glutes. Check out this program which is specifically designed to strengthen and lift that all important backside so you can avoid a flat and unstable backside (what some have sadly named ‘mom butt‘).
Can I lift weights while I’m breastfeeding?
Unless otherwise directed by your doctor, lifting weights should not interfere with breastfeeding.
KellyMom, a renowned breastfeeding resource, states that lifting weights and exercising will have no impact on milk or milk supply.
That said, you may need to take special precautions and wear the proper sports bra when you are a nursing mom.
In addition, in those early months of breastfeeding, you may experience engorgement. This may be uncomfortable during some weight training exercises.
You might be more prone to clogged milk ducts during the early months of breastfeeding. A tight sports bra worn for long periods of time may promote more clogs. Aim to wear your sports bras just during your lifting sessions.
Your baby may or may not like the taste of salt on your skin post-workout. I found that my children never minded and I’ve not heard of many babies that do. However, you may still want to wash your skin off with a warm washcloth to remove that salty sweat.
12 Tips for Safe Postpartum Weight Lifting Programs
Returning to lifting postpartum may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Follow your body’s cues and take it slow.
- Start slow. Consider bodyweight or very light weights (2-5 pound dumbbells or resistance bands) for your first few workouts.
- Listen to your doctor. Don’t exercise until you’ve been given the green light by your physician.
- Listen to your whole body. Physically, if something doesn’t feel right, causes pain, or causes an increase in bleeding, stop immediately and consult your doctor.
- Try a trainer. Consider working with a certified strength specialist or personal trainer during your first few weeks back in the weight room.
- Don’t aim for personal bests. You have not only lost strength during pregnancy, your ligaments are also still tightening postpartum. Ease your body back into exercise while its still adjusting.
- Considering avoiding very heavy squatting, deadlifting, lunging, or overhead press moves. They put considerable weight strain on your pelvic floor. You should practice these moves after you’re cleared for exercise, but aim to use lighter weights or bodyweight in the beginning.
- Stay hydrated! No matter if you’re breastfeeding or not, your postpartum body needs fluids. Don’t skimp on water, especially when you start working out.
- Listen to your gut. When just the thought of working out is stressful, just wait. Being a new mom is overwhelming. There is no rush. I had 2 very different postpartum experiences. So, I can tell you that, if you’re suffering postpartum, over time it does get better. If you’re really struggling, please do not wait to seek professional help. It could be a matter of feeling better next week or next year.
- Do not push through pain or heavy bleeding. If you’re still experiencing lochia when you return to the weights, take note of how much lochia is being passed. If the amount increases or becomes dark red and heavy, stop lifting and seek medical attention immediately.
- Don’t start working the ab muscles directly at first. The ab muscles will be targeting indirectly as you stabilize during strength training. Give you ab muscles plenty of time come back to their original size, shape, and length before targeting them.
- Sleep trumps exercise. Focus on sleep rather than exercise, especially if you’ve been seriously sleep-deprived (less than 4-5 hours per night for several nights on end). Even if you’re not seriously sleep-deprived, your body is healing from pregnancy and childbirth. If you feel overtired, rest!
- Try this progression with your equipment: bodyweight > resistance bands > ankle/wrist weights > dumbbells > barbells and plates
The Bottom Line on Postpartum Weight Lifting
Safety should be the first priority when it comes to strength training in those tender postpartum months.
Heed the tips above and you should be back your normal weight lifting routine in just a matter of time.
Don’t push yourself but if strength training is a part of your self-care routine, you should aim to incorporate it in a safe manner.
Happy lifting, mama!