One of the most natural things in this world is to raise a family. For women, having children is both an amazing experience and a challenging physical event. The female body transforms while pregnant, undergoing a myriad of hormonal and postural changes. After being pregnant for nine months, many mothers are anxious to get their bodies back into shape. It is very important to do this correctly, as a new mother’s body has gone through many changes that leave them venerable to injuries.
Hormones to Understand
Before discussing how to get back in shape it is important to understand what the basic changes are that have happened to your body, which relate to exercise and physical activity. There are a large number of hormonal changes that are essential for a successful pregnancy but they also make exercise both during and after pregnancy more difficult.
A large amount of oestrogen is released (during one pregnancy more oestrogen is produced than an entire lifetime when not pregnant) along with progesterone, which makes most things become bigger. It quickly becomes uncomfortable to move, as weight increases, breasts become bigger, and posture, along with the centre of gravity, changes. The posture changes affect the joint positions and length-tension relations of the musculature surrounding the pelvis, lumbar and thoracic spine (lower and upper back) as well as the neck. When joints are out of alignment the surrounding musculature is placed under greater strain leading to a higher rise of injury.
These joint positions (posture) and muscle length-tension relationship must be returned to normal to minimise risk of injury, avoid aches and pains and to function correctly.
The diagram shows the major muscles that become stiff and tight and their counterparts that become lengthened and weak. Restoring the length (tighten loosened muscles and loosen muscles that have become stiff) and tension (strengthen muscles that have become weak) relationship is the key to restoring posture and protecting against potential future injuries.
It is not just the muscles that get affected during pregnancy. The biggest concerns for exercise after giving birth are due to the increased levels of the hormone relaxin. Relaxin causes loosening of the ligaments. Ligaments are what connect the joints (bone to bone) and hold them in place. When ligaments are loosened, joints are very vulnerable to injury.
Focus on Posture
The weight of the baby, the changing centre of gravity, the loosening and stiffening of joints and muscles means a woman’s body after giving birth can feel and operate quite differently than before. The diagram highlights the main areas to focus on for correcting your posture and function. You need to perform exercises that do the following:
— Stretch and lengthen the following muscles — calves, hip flexors, lower back, pectorals (chest), intercostals (ribs) and upper traps (back of neck)
— The muscles that need strengthening are the: quadriceps, glutes (buttocks), abdominals (particularly the transversus abdominis or TVA, upper back muscles (rhomboids, lower traps, posterior deltoid and external rotator cuffs) as well as the neck flexors (longus capitis, longus colli)
There are a large number of exercises available to stretch the short and strengthen the weak muscles. To reduce or avoid pain and limit your risk of injury selecting exercises that focus on the above outcomes are the best to choose.
It is also extremely important that the exercises you use are low impact with moderate resistance/weight to ensure the safety of your joints. Bodyweight movements (or callisthenics) are the best option because there is no external load to control. Bodyweight exercises improve coordination, proprio-perception (self body awareness), balance, proper function and full range of movement.
However, before you do anything, work closely with your doctor, or a qualified post-natal exercise professional, to make sure everything is safe and to determine a proper workout plan. A general rule is to not return to exercise or conduct strenuous physical activity until six weeks after a normal birth. If you have a caesarean delivery (C-Section) you would be advised to wait 12 weeks before beginning an exercise routine.
Next month I will explain how to rehabilitate your core after giving birth.
- Tightness through neck and upper back
- Upper/mid back muscles get weak and loose
- Chest muscles get tight, intercostal muscles get tight
- Stiff lower back, pain may occur
- Transverse abdominal (TVA) is overstretched and weak
- Weakened glutes and overactive hamstrings
- Very tight hip flexors, weak quadriceps
- Calves get very tight