Why we need more than just “core and pelvic floor” strength to return to postpartum exercise safely…

If you’re postpartum, chances are you (hopefully) have been exposed to the idea that your core and pelvic floor muscles are important in your postpartum recovery. And seeking guidance from a pelvic floor physical therapist is crucial in getting individualized assessments and treatments in order to get you back to your desired exercise activity as soon as it’s safe. The core and pelvic floor muscles are becoming hot topics on social media and are almost becoming, dare I say, glamour muscles (rightfully so).

As a pelvic PT specialist, the #1 reason why postpartum women seek my services is to be able to return to exercise safely…without peeing their pants, or aggravating their hip, or making their abdominal separation worse. These women come into the clinic with excellent questions. And they are so motivated, and I applaud their willingness to be vulnerable in front of a medical provider whom they just met. It ain’t easy being a postpartum mom, folks!

For those of you who know me personally, you know that I am a HUGE fan of movement, exercise, and the pelvic floor (well, the whole pelvis and its contents really). And I want nothing more than to help women get back to their desired exercise safely, efficiently, and sustainably (after all – exercise and movement keep ME sane, so I can commiserate on their need for exercise to remain sane if nothing else).

That being said, what lies underneath the surface is actually another conversation that unfolds surrounding their actual amount of energy they can give to the bout of exercise itself. And exercise could include anything: running, jogging, biking, swimming, Pelton-ing, Pilates, yoga, Barre class, weight training, hiking, skiing, you name it. The problem with social media and our society, though, is that there is a heavy emphasis on burning calories, ramping up the intensity, “getting your body back”, getting those glutes and abs going again, and facilitating an increased pressure (even if out of good intention) for Mom to get it all back ASAP. In other words, women come in hot to trot and ready to rumble seeking the fastest way to dial up the intensity in order to “get their body (or booty) back”…all to find out that unfortunately, her body and energy stores are still in recovery mode and exercise just ain’t happening.

It’s especially a bummer for her when she really craves that exercise for her mental health…

A postpartum woman can have the best abdominals, glutes, and pelvic floor muscles (side note: read prior blog posts parts 1 and 2 as to why kegals aren’t the answer), but if she doesn’t have a foundation that supports her body’s energy demands required for exercise, then exercise will be difficult. Here’s what I mean: our body uses the vast majority (70%) of its energy on essential requirements (brain function, vital organs, muscle requirements during the day, functioning of other bodily systems, etc). The other energy amount (30%): leftovers for increased daily demands and work capacity, including exercise and performance-based needs. If we exceed more than this 30% of the total body energy on a consistent basis (ie, we keep going for those runs when we really don’t feel like it), it results in tissue breakdown, delayed recovery, fatigue, and/or increased risk of injury. (eek!)

So, back to you postpartum mums out there – what are ways that you can move and groove your body without depleting its energy stores, especially if you’re coasting of fumes but still need to move? What are ways you can fill your tank in order to keep getting your muscles as strong as possible, your energy as high as possible, and keep your motivation where it needs to be in order to exercise and reap the benefits accordingly?

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Exercises that are great for lower energy days/weeks/seasons: walking, physical therapy exercises, yoga, Pilates, light spinning/bike riding. Think: lower intensity, shorter duration, and just enough to warm the body up. Never underestimate the power of prolonged lower intensity work during the postpartum phases, especially in the first 3-4 months but sometimes even within the 1st year.
  2. If you don’t feel like doing something >>> don’t! There are other options to choose from (see above). No need to torture yourself.
  3. Movement is so crucial for all body systems to function and function well. Light exercise (again, never underestimate the power of low and slow) can help stimulate all sorts of good stuff in the body (digestion, blood flow, circulation, oxygen, etc). And so while you may feel like being a couch potato some days, that’s fine, but don’t let that be your only mode. But also don’t get over-fixated on caloric burn…
  4. Build gradually. Don’t start with that level 3 class if you haven’t done levels 1 and 2 for a while… That seems obvious, but we all know those super high motivated & high energy days can lead to an ambitious round of squats that can then lead to flare ups and bladder issues. Go with your flow, but do it with good perspective.
  5. Variety is the spice of life. Move, move well, and move in all planes of motion. This is why yoga, Pilates, and PT exercises are so good…they take you out of the forward plane and tap into your side body much more often (where all of our little stabilizing muscles live).
  6. Nourish with healthy, whole, nutritionally-dense foods. It’s beyond my scope and the scope of this blog post to discuss what foods are right for you (and, truthfully, the correct foods vary depending on the person – one should seek counsel from a clinical nutritionist, naturopathic doctor, or functional medicine provider), but we can’t forget that if we aren’t consuming whole, nutritionally-dense foods, then we can’t strengthen our muscles and other body tissues nor can we build the energy stores required for exercise. In brief, typical bonuses in the food department: grass-fed bone broth for easy protein absorption and live/raw foods for support of the healthy bugs that live in our gut (ie, the gut microbiome – which is so super important).
  7. Sleep/rest/play. One bullet point at the bottom of a list does NOT do this point justice. All beings need sleep and enough of it to function. Postpartum women are typically sleep/rest/play-deprived. So as a reminder: if you’re getting less than 5 hours a sleep at night and you’re not able to catch a few moments of quality rest/down time during the day, then you’ll want to consider very light, low impact exercise only. You’ll likely need more recovery time. And patience. Sometimes postpartum mums just can’t do it all. But in time, and through the seasons, things get better. Doing what you can is enough, even if it’s simple belly breathing at the very least. Let me also remind you: you can and should receive support in this department. Your body and mind (and exercise routine) will thank you.

This list of 7 items hardly does the process of postpartum return to exercise justice. Discussing the energy supply and demand of a postpartum mom is a large topic and one that deserves some serious attention. Furthering the complexity, the postpartum years are unique to each woman, for her support system changes, her life circumstances change, her body changes, and her mind and spirit change. Not to mention, everyone’s baselines are different. No two postpartum journeys (and, therefore, recovery needs) are the same.

If you’re postpartum and you’re interested in understanding more about the individualized ways that can get YOU back to your exercise routine safely and sustainably…without urinary leakage or pain or energy depletion or any of those unpleasant byproducts…then schedule a free consult. I’d be happy to help guide you, as YOU lead the way into YOUR version of your best postpartum self.


Kelsea Cannon, PT, DPT, PRPC, WHC

Pliability Health Coaching, LLC


Published by kacannon

Kelsea Cannon, PT, DPT, PRPC is a physical therapist, pelvic health specialist, and integrative women's health coach who feels passionate about helping women restore wellness and balance in their lives. Her dedication lies in merging her comprehensive orthopedic, pelvic health, Pilates, and health coaching expertise to manage pregnancy-related concerns, such as pelvic & low back pain, pelvic organ prolapse, urinary incontinence, diastasis recti, c-section scars, painful intercourse, bowel dysfunction, and hormone rebalancing. She promotes an interdisciplinary approach and is a believer in helping women establish their ‘dream team’ of care providers. Her main goal is to support and inspire women using an integrative approach to help them be successful in reaching their personal health and wellness goals.

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