Runner typing shoes next to a photo of a pile of dumbbells

Postpartum exercise is a hot topic and it can be hard to decide which type of workout will give you the best results.

Will cardio or weight training yield better results?

Which should you do first?

Here we’ll discuss what each has to offer and how they impact the body post-pregnancy, as well as helpful tips for getting back into shape after having a baby.

What Are Your Goals?

People come back to exercise with a lot of different goals postpartum. What are yours?

Do you want to get back to your sports? Feel stronger and more confident in your post-pregnancy body? Get back to pre-pregnancy fitness levels? Do you have an aesthetic goal?

Whatever your goal, rehabbing your core and pelvic floor and building full-body strength underpin all of them.

Cardio vs Weight Training: Does It Really Matter?

Cardiovascular exercise, or cardio, includes any type of activity that raises your heart rate. This could include things like running, biking, or swimming. Or even, lifting lighter weights faster (think HIIT). Cardio has many benefits, including improving heart health and reducing stress.

Weight training, on the other hand, involves lifting weights to build muscle mass. This can help you improve strength and posture, reduce your risk of injuries and even improve bone density.

Cardio and weight training are two very different types of stimulus to the body. And different stimuli elicit different muscular adaptations and performance outcomes.

Resistance training stimulates proteins necessary for muscle hypertrophy (growth) and optimizes for maximum strength. Steady-state cardio (like running, cycling) stimulates cellular systems associated with respiratory capacity and optimizes muscular endurance.

One is not “better” than the other, but each may serve you better during different chapters of your life.

What is the best postpartum exercise for people who are returning to fitness after pregnancy?

Short answer: Weight training.

Let’s talk about why:

Pregnancy Throws A Major Kink In Your Core Function

Cardio involves dynamic movement that leverages a strong, stable platform. That platform is your deep core system.

Your deep core system consists of the diaphragm, the transverse abdominals, the multifidus and the pelvic floor. Permission to use copyright image from Pelvic Guru, LLC

When your deep core is firing reflexively and in a coordinated manner, it is your body’s powerhouse– the stable platform off of which your body creates its powerful movements.

If the core isn’t firing reflexively, it’s not creating stability, and all of your movements will be compromised. It would be like trying to fire a cannon off of a canoe.

Consider this: The deep core is the muscular system most impacted by pregnancy and childbirth.

After pregnancy, your core will be stretched and strained (like a deflated balloon). It will not (initially) be firing optimally or offering the support and stability you remember.

It’s the canoe.

Get In Shape For Cardio, Not The Other Way Around

Strength training is your portal to your deep core system.

Progressive strength training provides a laboratory in which you can get re-acquainted with your post-baby body.  It will allow you to tap into your deep core. It will help you re-train it’s reflexive function. It will enable you to build full body strength from the inside out.

Start with the platform. Your foundation. Then progress to the dynamic, higher impact stuff.

If you skip steps… like, reconnecting to your inner core, rehabbing your breathing patterns, building a foundation of core strength and stability, you are more likely to encounter different speedbumps on your journey:

Leaking. Weakness. Orthopedic injuries (the ankles, the knees, the shoulders). Prolapse. Persistent abdominal separation.⁠⁠

Strength training may feel like an extra detour on your path to recovery, but I’d like you to think of it as a shortcut in the long run.

It’s your key to minimizing or preventing injury.

You’ll be able to make continuous forward progress rather than having to sit out and regress when you encounter those speedbumps. ⁠⁠

So what about Cardio then?

I hope I don’t sound like a hater. I’m a half-marathon junkie. It’s lots of fun.

Just let it play second fiddle for a little while and get in shape for it.

postpartum mother holding two dumbbells and wearing her baby in a front carrier

Postpartum Strength Training Tips

When you return to strength training after pregnancy, start by building a solid foundation of core and pelvic floor strength and function and then progress to more traditional weight training exercises. Here are a few tips and resources to guide you:

Let your body recover

Before beginning any kind of postnatal exercise program, it is important to give your body time to recover. During this time, you should avoid strenuous exercise and allow your body to heal. In fact, I recommend full rest (except for very short walks as tolerated) during the first two weeks postpartum.

You can resume light exercise after a few weeks (typically 6 weeks postpartum, but this varies person-to-person), but be sure to listen to your body and take it easy. Consult with your doctor before starting any new fitness routine or exercise program.

Start with your core and pelvic floor

Your first exercises should be some basic core and pelvic floor exercises. These muscles have taken a beating during pregnancy and post-pregnancy, so they need some time to recover before you start doing more intense workouts. A few basic core and pelvic floor exercises can help you get started:

1) Begin with the Connection Breath exercise

The gold standard strategy to rehab these muscles after giving birth is a breathing exercise known as the Connection Breath. I share this strategy in detail in a FREE guidebook: The No B.S. Guide to a Stronger, Drier Pregnancy and Postpartum.

2) Apply the Connection Breath to full body exercises

Once you’ve mastered the Connection Breath, begin practicing this breath in coordination with movement. Your workouts are an excellent laboratory to practice this skill.

Check out this early postpartum workout that contains 6 exercises appropriate for someone dipping their toes back into exercise after having a baby.

Take it slow and work back up to weighted exercises

If you used to do intense weight training before pregnancy, don’t expect yourself to do the same workouts right after labor. It’s essential to take time off from intense exercise and start adding it back in slowly.

Begin with bodyweight light resistance band exercises. Slowly build volume and then add load. This process should happen over months, not days or weeks.

As you return to more traditional workouts, consider your whole body (you are more than a core and pelvic floor!). Address all of your major muscle groups with special attention to posterior chain strength (upper back muscles, glutes, hamstrings) and improving mobility in the front body (upper body, hip flexors). Practice functional movements like squats, deadlifts, getting up and down from the floor, carrying stuff and lifting overhead.

Wear a good bra!

Your breasts may still be sensitive or feel heavy when you start exercising again. Invest in a good quality sports bra that fits well and is comfortable. It’s important to find a supportive bra that doesn’t restrict your ribcage mobility (an important postpartum recovery consideration). You may also want to look for front closure sports bras or bras with a drop-down hook that allows easy access for pumping or nursing.

A variety of different styles of supportive, nursing sports bras laid out on a yoga mat

Check out this resource for specific recommendations and additional considerations:

5 Great Mid- to High-Impact Nursing Sports Bras

Listen to Your Body

If I had a nickel for every time a provider told me this. Amirite?? \’|p/:”{

In your newly postpartum body, “listening” means paying attention to signs and symptoms that you might be overtaxing your core and pelvic floor. Specifically, be on the lookout for the ‘4 Ps’:

  • Peeing, or leaking of anything else, during exercise
  • Pain in your pelvic floor or elsewhere (tailbone, lower back, etc)
  • Pressure through your pelvic floor
  • Peaking, doming or coning through your abdominal midline.

For more information about doming and coning visit this post: The Real Deal With Diastasis Recti: What It Is, Why It’s a Problem and What You Can Do About It

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, I urge you to consult with an experienced postnatal personal trainer or pelvic floor physical therapist to help you troubleshoot your symptoms.

It’s okay not to work out.

You heard me right. If you don’t feel like exercising, listen to your body and give yourself a break.

This is a short blip, a quick chapter in the story of your life. If you don’t feel like exercising, please listen. Please rest. Please take care of yourself now in the interest of your long-term health and strength.

🏋🏽‍♀️ Action Items

So, what is the best postpartum exercise for people who are returning to fitness after pregnancy?

Strength training.

What’s the process?

  • Rest and Recover.
  • Start by building a solid foundation of core and pelvic floor strength before progressing to more traditional weight training exercises
  • Get in shape for cardio, not the other way around
  • Listen to your body
  • Ask for help if you need it
  • Take a break when you need it.

👋🏼 Before you go: I want to hear from you!

What exercise or sport are you gunning to return to postpartum? And will you get back in shape with a strength training program?

Please comment at the bottom of this page!

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Redmond, WA-based Seattle birth doula Laura Jawad, headshot

My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things.

Contact me if you have questions about exercise or pelvic health pertaining to pregnancy or postpartum. I also offer personal training services and consultations to folks locally (Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland) and online.

Certified Prenatal & Postnatal Coach, Pregnancy & Postpartum Athleticism Coach and Postnatal Fitnesses Specialist.

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