How To Get Back Into Pilates After Pregnancy
If you’ve found yourself Googling something like “how to get back into (fill in the blank) after pregnancy” while actually meaning “how to relearn how to do (fill in the blank) after pregnancy,” I am with you. Growing and sustaining life changes your body—plain and simple—and what once felt easy and second nature can morph into something foreign and confusing—case in point for me: Pilates.
Couple an ever-changing center of gravity with a weakened core—I found that while I used to whir the carriage back and for pre-pregnancy, my postpartum experience was quite different. “Pilates is best known for its unparalleled ability to realign the body and build strength, flexibility, and core stability,” says Melissa Bentivoglio, a celebrity Pilates instructor and founder of the at-home reformer FRAME. “However, it’s important to approach postpartum exercise cautiously and consider the changes your body has undergone. Checking in with your body’s intuition and being mindful of when your body is ready to start to incorporate exercise is critical.”
Pilates is a modality commonly practiced in pregnancy—albeit with modifications—comprised of slow, controlled movements that engage your core while focusing on breathing. But make no mistake, just because it’s not a modality you’d associate with sweat dripping from your body doesn’t mean it isn’t intense. It recruits multiple muscle groups at once, and because of that, it’s wise to keep an eye on when you start and what it feels like.
How soon can you get back into Pilates?
In short, it depends. Giving birth is not chill, and you shouldn’t underestimate the work that your body has just undergone when you’re tabulating how quickly you can return to exercise.
For starters, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists says that if you have an uncomplicated, vaginal delivery, you only need to wait a few days—or as long as it takes for you to feel ready—to exercise. In this case, exercise should mean light stretching, walking, and maybe a kegel or two. No marathons. More commonly, doctors suggest waiting until your six-week check-up to get cleared for exercise, guidance echoed by the National Childbirth Trust, a leading charity for mothers and babies in the UK. “It’s important that any person postpartum gets clearance from their doctor and their health care provider before jumping back into exercise,” says Jordan Galloway, a certified Pilates instructor at Good Day Pilates in New York City.
For those who had a cesarean section, wait until your doctor clears you—which is often 12 weeks after giving birth, according to Tommy’s, a leading UK charity around preventable pregnancy complications. Bentivoglio agrees, adding that “the incision site needs time to heal, and it’s important to avoid activities that could strain the abdominal muscles.”
Of course, those aren’t the only two outcomes. There is a wide range of interventions that happen during childbirth and varying degrees of medical complications that can happen postpartum. “Commonly, after childbirth, a separation of [abdominal] muscles may occur, known as diastasis recti. Women can check for abdominal muscle separation themselves, and if they do have a separation greater than two fingers, traditional abs exercises can worsen the separation,” says Bentivoglio.
All to say: Before you start, the best course of action is to speak with your doctor about your unique circumstances and what type of exercise you hope to do.
What should you remember when you get back to Pilates?
You’ve got the go-ahead: Check. Here’s the play-by-play to get back into your Pilates practice.
Meet your body where it’s at: According to Galloway, as with any exercise, you need to start at the place that agrees with your fitness level and, from there, increase the challenge to continue to get strong. But, she warns, that doesn’t mean upping the tempo or slapping on a bunch of weight just because you can. “One thing that’s important in Pilates is that it’s better to move in slow, controlled motions to maximize the time your muscles remain under tension,” she says.
Take it slow: Maybe you could do the double leg stretch or roll down before pregnancy (largely considered some of the hardest Pilates moves), and now you’re not. That’s okay! Bentivoglio shares that the best thing you can do when returning to Pilates is take it slow. “It’s important to note that individual experiences and recovery timelines can vary as well as muscle memory,” she says. “Pilates enthusiasts will have muscle memory, and reestablishing daily practice will be easier, as opposed to starting Pilates as a beginner postpartum.”
Focus on the mind-body connection: “Doing Pilates, a practice that relies so heavily on the mind-body connection, is a brilliant way to elevate mood and feel good naturally. It can also spark those feelings of ‘feeling like your old self again,’” Bentivoglio says. Galloway agrees, adding, “The more you can think about what muscles you’re activating intentionally, the more likely you are to perform moves with proper form so that you get the most out of every exercise.”
Get back to your breathing: Galloway says breathing is the most important part of a Pilates practice. “The last thing you ever want to do in a class is hold your breath,” she says. “Your inhales and exhales facilitate the work that you’re looking to do in Pilates because you use your breath to help activate and engage your deep core muscles.”
Modify when necessary: “There can often be this kind of mentality that modifications are quote unquote, making things easier or they’re taking the challenge out of an exercise, and that’s not necessarily true,” says Galloway. Instead, she explains that modifications can help you achieve a level of intensity that will help you make the most of any movement. For example, she says that performing a plank with bent knees (aka a bear plank) rather than having your legs fully extended may make it easier for you to keep your core engaged postpartum while you’re still building back abdominal strength. It’ll still be challenging, but reduces your risk of doming or pressing your abs out, which can exacerbate or cause abdominal separation.
What are the best postpartum Pilates exercises to do early on?
According to Bentivoglio, the Frame at-home, connected reformer has five to 50-minute classes, allowing people to “incorporate Pilates into the postpartum journey without overdoing it.” If you don’t have an at-home reformer, here are the at-home exercises she says to try.
Pelvic tilts: “Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Inhale to prepare, and as you exhale, tilt your pelvis upward, engaging your abdominal muscles. Inhale to return to the starting position. Repeat several times, focusing on controlled movements,” she says. “This is a great way to reestablish the mind-body connection with the pelvic floor slowly.”
Modified side planks: “Place forearm on the mat, shoulder stacked over the elbow, slowly lift into a modified plank with legs bent and knees together on the floor focusing on the transverse abdominals [deep core stabilizers], engaging the glutes and the inner thighs,” she says.
Heel slides: “Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Inhale to prepare, and as you exhale, slide one heel forward along the floor, straightening the leg. Inhale to return to the starting position,” she says. “Repeat with the other leg. Focus on engaging your core and maintaining pelvic stability.”
Glute bridges: “Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor hip-width apart. Inhale to prepare, and as you exhale, lift your hips off the floor, creating a straight line from shoulders to knees,” she says. “Inhale to lower your hips back down. Focus on engaging your glutes and core, along with the inner thighs and pelvic floor.”
Seated leg lifts: “Sit on the edge of a sturdy chair with your back straight and shoulders relaxed. Inhale to lift one leg off the floor, extending it straight in front of you,” she says. “Exhale to lower the leg back down. Repeat with the other leg. Maintain good posture and engage your core.”
Pelvic floor exercises (Kegels):” Sit or lie comfortably. Contract your pelvic floor muscles as if you’re stopping the flow of urine,” she says. “Hold for a few seconds, then release. Repeat several times throughout the day to strengthen the pelvic floor.”
Side-lying leg lifts: Lie on your side with your head supported by your arm and legs straight and stacked. Inhale to lift the top leg toward the ceiling. Exhale to lower the leg back down. Repeat on both sides to work on hip and outer thigh strength.
Deep breathing with pelvic floor engagement: Sit or lie comfortably, and focus on deep diaphragmatic breathing. Coordinate the breath with gentle pelvic floor contractions. Inhale to expand the ribcage and exhale to engage the pelvic floor muscles. This helps enhance core stability and pelvic floor strength.
Inner thigh exercises with gliders: Find a low plank on the forearms, place a glider or towel under each foot, and slowly slide your right foot out to the right side as far as you can without changing the position of the rest of your body. Bring your legs back together and repeat on the left side. Brilliant exercise for incorporating adductor muscles (outer thighs), glutes, and pelvic floor.
Modified hundreds: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Curl your head, neck, and shoulders up to look at your thighs, extending your arms long at your sides hovering just above the mat. Begin to pump your arms up and down a few inches as you inhale for five counts and exhale for five counts until you reach 100. Keep the movement controlled, and modify as needed for comfort.
What are the Pilates exercises to avoid postpartum?
Equally important to what you do? What you don’t do. Below, Bentivoglio shares movements to avoid when you’re getting back in the swing of things.
Intense abdominal exercises: “Avoid exercises that place excessive strain on the abdominal muscles, such as full sit-ups, double-leg lifts, and especially placing strain on the lower abdomen, which can further create muscle separation,” she says. “These movements can stress the rectus abdominis and may not be suitable until later in the postpartum recovery.”
Heavy twisting movements: “Twisting movements that put significant strain on the spine and abdominal muscles should be avoided,” she says. “This includes exercises like Russian twists or advanced spinal rotations.”
High-impact movements: “Steer clear of high-impact exercises that involve jumping or sudden, forceful movements,” she says. “Your joints, especially if you had a cesarean section, need time to recover, and high-impact activities can increase the risk of injury.”
Unsupported back extensions: “Avoid exercises that involve unsupported back extensions, as these can strain the lower back,” she says. “Examples include full extension backbends or exercises where you lift your upper body off the ground without proper support.”
Deep flexion movements: “Movements that involve deep flexion of the spine, such as deep forward bends, should be approached with caution,” she says. “These can place stress on the abdominal muscles and may not be suitable during the early postpartum period.”
Heavy resistance training: “Skip heavy resistance training exercises that place a significant load on the muscles,” she says. “It’s important to start with lighter resistance and gradually progress as your strength and endurance improve.”
Excessive stretching: “While gentle stretching is beneficial, avoid excessive stretching or overextending your muscles,” she says. “Hormonal changes during pregnancy and breastfeeding can affect joint laxity, making it easier to overstretch and potentially cause injury. Relaxin, which is a hormone produced during pregnancy, can be found for up to six months postpartum and can create destabilization in the pelvis and joints.”