3 Things I Learned From Postpartum Exercise Training

I took my first pre- and postpartum corrective exercise course six years after I became a certified personal trainer. I began the course thinking I would learn valuable information in case clients wanted to work with me to move safely during and after pregnancy. I didn’t anticipate learning more about what I needed — and what the general population needs — during those four months than I had in all my prior training. 

I instantly started to apply some (read: a lot!) of what I learned about breath, core, posture, and creating balance in the body to my own movement practice. I started programming exercises for my clients in the gym who had back pain, SI joint instability, trouble connecting to and getting stronger in their core, chest tightness, and weak mid-back and posture stabilizing muscles.

Whether I want to feel strong for any type of training modality I explore —  running, swimming, biking, Crossfit, yoga, or weightlifting — or I want my clients and members to feel more balanced and ready to tackle their big goals, these are three things to keep in mind.

person doing postpartum exercise

1. Breathwork is the best core work.

I stand behind this so firmly (I even wrote another post all about it). Our core muscles are a lot more than the muscles we think of when someone says “six-pack.”

The transversus abdominis (some refer to it as the “corset” muscle or the TVA) wraps all the way around our trunk from front to back and is one of the main stabilizing muscles for our pelvis and our trunk.

It’s an anticipatory muscle, meaning it fires in anticipation of movement. That means it should ideally be working in conjunction with the breath, creating the rhythm for the rest of the muscles to fire in accordance with the demand placed on our bodies. 

You can tap into how this muscle feels when it’s firing by lying on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor. Relax your head, neck, shoulders, thighs, and glutes. Take an inhale, and when you exhale, place your hands gently inside your frontal hip bones.

Note what you feel. Do you notice a slight tensing of the space between the hip bones as you exhale? That’s your TVA (it’s working all around your center but most easily felt here).

When it comes to core work for pre- and postpartum clients, it makes sense that we wouldn’t want to be doing crunches for obvious reasons. But maintaining a strong TVA connection is helpful throughout and after pregnancy because it helps support the lumbopelvic region of the body. 

It wasn’t until I learned in working with this specific population that I didn’t have a sense of varying degrees of core engagement in my own body. I was either gripping my abs or totally relaxed. And, I was afraid that relaxing was bad…so I never let my abs go.

Can you relate? Notice right now if you feel any amount of contraction anywhere in your core, especially around your belly button or around the rib cage.

Practicing breathing in a dedicated way, by cueing the TVA like in the above description, the internal obliques and external obliques, and the diaphragm and pelvic floor (more on that in a minute!) taught me what it meant to engage all the muscles properly as a UNIT, and I learned to let go.

And just remember, if we’re holding a bicep curl all day every day, our bicep is going to fatigue and we’re going to weaken. Muscles will take over to help hold that bicep curl up as long as we can, but eventually, something will give out. 

It’s the truth with all our muscles. They have jobs to do, but they can’t work ALL the time — or else they’ll weaken, cause other muscles to have to step in (that’s compensation), and eventually give out.

If we can learn to relax our core, we’re going to be able to get better core engagement in the long run when we can learn balanced use of all the muscles that make it up. Breathing drills are the BEST way I’ve found to feel that and then translate it to other training.

2. We all need back- and side-body expansion.

To get the best use of our core, we want to be able to breathe into all 360 degrees of our rib cage to allow for as full diaphragmatic expansion as possible. This is very true for pregnant individuals, which makes sense.

When someone is carrying a baby, naturally there’s much more pressure forward where the baby is being carried. Our breath has to move somewhere in our body, so it’s natural to think about it moving more forward into the belly. Therefore, focusing more on side-body and back-body breathing to promote balanced contraction and lengthening of the diaphragm muscle is big for pre- and postpartum clients. 

But here’s the thing — I never did any kind of dedicated breathing until I learned about the importance of it for this population. And when I did, I found out how overworked the muscles in my back were. I couldn’t get any expansion in my back no matter how hard I tried. The more I looked at classes and clients, the more I realized how so many more individuals could benefit from breathing drills to enhance side-body and back-body expansion. 

Just think about it — we can’t move where we can’t move. We can’t send breath to places that our bodies aren’t adjusted to receiving. In yoga, I was taught “deep belly breaths” in every class and training, but I almost never heard about the need to breathe into my back.

Give this a shot and notice what you feel: Take a seat on a yoga block and move around in your seat until you feel your sitting bones evenly underneath you. Give yourself a big hug, wrapping your arms around yourself. This compresses the front of your body against your legs.

Relax your head on your knees (or place a towel roll on top of your knees to bring the floor up to you). Try not to effort through this breath — simply take a long, slow inhale and feel your breath travel down and into your back. Can you feel the breath go all the way down, even into the back of your pelvis? 

If that felt super strange to you, know that it also did for me for a very long time. Once I was able to access breath into my back and sides of my rib cage more freely, I gained a lot more control in strength movements that involved the upper body and even things like deadlifts and front rack squats.

3. Connecting to our pelvic floors is key to attaining more overall core strength.

To double down on the idea that things can feel strange at first, I thought I had pretty good body awareness — but I learned really quickly that I actually had zero connection to my pelvic floor, and that connection matched my level of knowledge about the bottom of our core. (It basically stopped at “I heard Kegels are important after having a baby.”) 

I love the analogy that our pelvic floor is like a rudder of a ship. It’s the bottom of our core, and it’s connected to so many other muscles in the pelvis. When other muscles in the hip are tight, weak, overworked, underutilized, or out of balance, the pelvic floor can pick up the slack and hold pressure to keep us going and doing what we need to do. It keeps the ship afloat…until it can’t anymore. 

I could go into a lot more detail about the importance and nuances of pelvic floor connection and training, but I’ll leave it at this: How often do we overwork our bodies? How often do you find yourself holding tension in your jaw, your core (that gripping/bearing down feeling?), or even clenching your glutes?

I encourage you to just take note of when it happens throughout your week — I bet you’ll be surprised by how much more tension you hold onto than you may realize. When that’s happening, there’s a pretty good chance our pelvic floor is also holding onto tension, too. And remember, if we can’t relax, we’re ultimately hindering our capacity to build strength.

It’s a fundamental component of our entire core. Just like connecting to the TVA and diaphragm can help us create more balance overall, the same can be said for connecting to the pelvic floor. 

Do yourself a favor and don’t wait to think about breath, diaphragmatic expansion, and pelvic floor connection. Start small by growing your awareness — and with time (maybe before you know it), you’ll be tapping into new space and strength that will help you in whatever type of training and movement you love.

Move Recovery & Mobility

About Maggie Umberger

Maggie moved to Chicago from North Carolina in 2014 with a degree in Journalism and Spanish, a 200-hour yoga certification, a group fitness cert and a passion to teach and to sweat. It wasn't until she found aSweatLife that she really started to feel at home. Here, she's incorporated her passion for health and wellness into her career as she helps to build the network of Ambassadors, trainers and fitness enthusiasts that exist within the aSweatLife ecosystem. You can also find her coaching at CrossTown Fitness and teaching yoga classes at Bare Feet Power Yoga, Yoga Six and exhale.