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5 Essential Training Tips for Working with Postpartum Clients

If you’re a personal trainer or fitness coach of any kind and you work with women, then the chances are you’ve worked with or will work with women who’ve had a baby.  Even if postpartum fitness isn’t your specialist area, you’re going to need to know the essential programming tips to keep your clients safe while helping them to reach their fitness goals. 

Postpartum isn’t just the period immediately following birth. I’d consider women up to 2 or even 3 years postpartum to be postpartum clients in many respects, although you will be able to progress clients a little faster if they gave birth some time ago. Postpartum is forever!

For the purpose of this article I’ll be looking at programming for moms up to 12 months postpartum, assuming they have clearance to get back to exercise already.

1.  Do your background research at the initial consultation 

When a client walks in the door wanting to lose some extra weight after a baby there’s a list of unusual physical weaknesses that she could have, but most likely isn’t aware of.  Unfortunately, when women are released from the hospital and cleared for exercise, there are many times they aren’t given a full check-up that would allow them to find out about things like Diastasis Recti (DR, separation of the rectus abdominal muscles during pregnancy), pelvic organ prolapse or weakened pelvic floor muscles.

The first thing your client might know about these issues is when something goes wrong.

So keep in mind that you might be the first professional who brings up these potential issues and she might be looking at you blankly as you talk about diastasis recti etc. Be prepared to explain and educate!  If your client is a new mom, make sure to ask them if they have been assessed for diastasis-recti and whether or not they have it.  Be prepared to do a simple test for Diastasis Recti, if they’re happy for you to do so, and always refer them out to a physician who is the only person qualified to actually diagnose the condition.

Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions about pelvic floor strength and stress incontinence. You may ask your client and they’ll tell you everything is fine, but if they’re running to the bathroom at the mere mention of cardio, then you can bet that something might not be quite right.

It’s also a great idea to check whether a new mom had a C-section or natural birth, since certain exercises might aggravate a sore scar area and healing of the perianal area can make some exercises uncomfortable. 

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2.  Keep it short and sweet

Moms really don’t have that much time, and if your client is a new mom, then the hour long workout is likely to be too long to start with.  In the early weeks post-birth, aim to keep workouts under 25 or 30 minutes and be prepared to have the baby tag along for the ride too in some cases!  You can work your way up to longer workouts quite quickly. I tend to start my clients on short 30 minute workouts for the first 3 or 4 weeks they are training with me (normally from 6-8 weeks post-birth), and then we increase to 40 or 50 minute sessions from there depending on the clients capabilities.

3.  Get crafty with your core exercises

No prizes for guessing that the core has been stretched and weakened by pregnancy. Whilst most clients are keen to get to crunches in an effort to tone up fast, we need to help them re-learn what an effective core exercise looks like and what they can do to help flatten the abs and get strong again. 

I try and program a large portion of my entire workouts with ‘core exercises in disguise’, while staying away from crunches or forward leaning exercises.

The basic rules for very new moms are:
No forward leaning and no crunches or crunch-mimicking movements, especially for women with DR. I’d also add to that no heavy overhead lifting as this puts a lot of downward pressure on weak core muscles.

No forward leaning and no crunches or crunch-mimicking movements, especially for women with DR. I’d also add to that no heavy overhead lifting as this puts a lot of downward pressure on weak core muscles.

Instead try experimenting with exercises including:

– SIngle arm spllit stance rows and presses

– Anti-rotation exercises, like anti-rotation chops, or holds

– A variety of pallof presses,

– Single Arm seated, incline or supine chest presses (keeping the hips neutral to work the core)

– TVA (transverse abdominis) activation exercises including pelvic tilts, heel slides and single leg toe taps and my favourite, dead bugs.  Programming some of these TVA activation exercises in the warm up and in the ‘rest’ periods of a workout, is a great way to keep the routine time efficient but get essential, safe core work done too.

4.  Keep it low impact

Needless to say, a heap of stress just got put on some very weary pelvic floor muscles. For at least the first 2 months of training (around 6-8 weeks postpartum to 12 weeks postpartum) keep high impact exercises out of the plan.  Keeping things low impact doesn’t mean you can’t challenge your clients, just get creative.  Be mindful of how your client reacts to impact, and be sure to ask about stress incontinence so you can adjust your plan if it’s an issue. Clients might not come out and tell you, so you’ll need to ask.

A lot of clients who’ve had C-sections will think this doesn’t apply to them, but in fact, the pelvic floor bears a lot of stress just from carrying the baby during pregnancy. If a woman has two C-sections it’s considered about the same as one natural birth in terms of pelvic floor stress. The lesson?  Keep one foot on the ground until strength is back and there are no underlying issues presenting. 

5.  Save the heavy weights for later.

Some of your more advanced clients might be dying to get back to strength training with ‘proper’ weights or simply busting out a few burpees. You’ll need to rein them in a bit to prevent injury! 

In the early days (first four weeks postpartum) you’ll simply be encouraging your clients to walk and get moving with some basic core and pelvic floor exercises, working your way up slowly to more intense exercise over a period of 3 or 4 months.  I absolutely recommend strength training for postpartum clients and this is my main focus with my own clients but I don’t recommend jumping in the squat rack and going hard in the first month! Excessive weights can lead to outward pressure on a weak abdominal wall, causing issues like hernia or prolapse. It can also aggravate DR. 

Retrain the core and pelvic floor first, THEN start piling on the plates, always paying attention to form and feedback.

If you are interested to learn more about working with prenatal and postpartum clients click here.

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About Elle
Elle Kealy helps women look and feel fabulous after babies with simple, effective fitness and nutrition coaching for women. She’s also a mom of two and a business coach for other fitness professionals as The Body Business Coach.

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