I’ve been a personal trainer for over 15 years and a mom for just over 10 years. I can tell you firsthand that being pregnant is tough and having a newborn baby is exhausting.
You’ll hear lots of reasons why your postpartum clients can’t make it to their sessions. Some are real barriers that are difficult to overcome, such as healing from the physical traumas of pregnancy or delivery, some are excuses that you’ll be able to help them move past.
This article will help you better understand your postpartum clients and guide them through the first year after having baby. It isn’t easy for a new mom (or 2nd or 3rd time mom) to find the time or motivation, but it is critical for a woman to lose the excess body weight gained during pregnancy and to establish, or re-establish healthy lifestyle habits.
Whether you are a mom or not, as a trainer, you can help these women lose the baby weight and get fit.
Before You Begin
It first needs to be stated that pregnancy and the postpartum journey are vastly different from one woman to another.
Each client you meet with will have a different story.
One mom may have been very fit before pregnancy while another mom was slightly overweight to start. Some women have issues with fertility and have suffered great emotional duress trying to get pregnant.
Each woman will encounter different set-backs during pregnancy. I had gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) during my first pregnancy, for no apparent reason. Some women will develop pre-eclampsia, others will suffer rectus diastasis (abdominal separation), and others will be placed on total bed rest for other conditions.
Your clients will all have a different delivery story, too. My first delivery was a nightmare, my second was an emergency c-section, my third was a dream delivery.
As you can see, there is a range of what constitutes “normal” pregnancy, delivery, and recovery. Work alongside your client’s obstetrician. Get the support of her partner or spouse.
Be her biggest fan and cheerleader, not her drill instructor. A little compassion will go a long way. Now let’s get into the best practices for training new moms!
Postpartum fitness should ideally start before the baby is born, but it’s easier said than done.
Ask any pregnant woman if she wants to join you for an hour long Zumba class and, with few exceptions, she’ll pass.
Why? The symptoms that accompany pregnancy often include nausea, vomiting, lower back pain, hip pain, constipation, diarrhea, headaches, swollen extremities, and fatigue, not to mention a large and protruding midsection, which consequently makes it nearly impossible to do certain fitness movements.
With all these aches, pains, and inconveniences, it’s no wonder that in pregnancy we often see women:
- make poor dietary choices. “I’m eating for two now.”
- work out less. “My back/hips hurt.”
- be more sedentary. “I need a nap, I was up all night peeing!”
You’ll hear every one of these excuses from your prenatal clients, but it is your job to encourage your client and help her realize the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle during pregnancy.
The consensus on exercising while pregnant is that a woman should aim to maintain her current fitness level, rather than try to become a pregnant bikini model.
If she doesn’t, she is at risk of gaining too much weight. Women are supposed to gain some weight during pregnancy, but excessive weight gain is dangerous.
Fitness during pregnancy is very different for every woman. As stated above, some women were fit to start and so maintaining their high intensity workouts may be suitable for them (so long as their doctor doesn’t advise otherwise).
Whatever level of fitness your client was at before they became pregnant, they should strive to maintain that level.
However, if your client was sedentary, it is best to coach them through a general fitness routine with all the components of a good program: cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, and flexibility.
Finding the motivation to work out while pregnant is tough. Finding the time to work out once you have the 24-hour demands of a new baby is nearly impossible, or so your postpartum clients will tell you.
Feeding every two hours, changing dirty diapers, rocking a colicky baby at all hours of the day and night, and just keeping up with day-to-day life is exhausting work.
Believe me when I say that I know this first hand. I have three kids in elementary school and a brand new baby. I don’t exercise as often as I should, because it truly is a logistical nightmare.
On top of meeting the baby’s demands, I need to:
- make breakfast
- pack lunches
- grocery shop
- do laundry and dishes
- tend to my work
- shower (occasionally)
- help with homework
- hang out with my husband
- cook dinner
- and manage the bedtime routine.
That’s just the short to-do list.
And yet, exercise is extremely important and should be made a priority in every mom’s busy schedule.
You can help by sharing some ideas for including fitness in mom's busy schedule:
- Multitasking play dates: Suggest that your client get some social and fitness time! Meet up with other moms, let the older kids play on the playground while the moms walk around the playground with baby in a stroller or carrier. Your client won’t even notice she’s been walking for 30 minutes!
- Family gym memberships: Many gyms have a childcare center so parents can get their much needed exercise time in. Encourage your client to take advantage of these caring environments so they can get some “me time”.
- Mommy and me classes: Consider starting a class in which baby is the resistance! These classes are great fun for baby, provide a time for mother-baby bonding, and help mommy get her swagger back.
New moms who want to work out, often don’t know how to go about it, what works best, or where to start. For women struggling to get into a fitness routine post-baby, simply walking every day is a great start and something everyone can do because it is low-impact and can be done with baby.
Based on a meta-analysis of weight-loss interventions for postpartum women, a group of researchers found that the most successful fitness programs for new mothers used objectively defined goals AND intensive dietary coaching.5
The most successful programs consisted of four to five days per week of activity and lasted between 10 and 16 weeks. These programs were very closely monitored with at least one session per week supervised.5
Objective goals included the use of either a heart rate monitor (HRM) or pedometer. Women using a HRM were supervised to ensure they reached between 60 and 80 percent of their heart rate reserve (HRR). Women using a pedometer were encouraged to achieve 10,000 walking steps or 3,000 aerobic steps each day. 5
Eating a healthy diet is the most difficult part of fitness for many people, not just for postpartum moms.
For new moms who choose to breastfeed, one concern they may have is how restricting calories and exercising will impact their milk supply.
Studies have found that exercise programs designed as suggested above, “had no adverse effect on the volume or composition of the breast milk, infant’s weight gain or maternal prolactin* levels.” 5
Experts do say, though, that nursing mothers should eat between 400 to 500 extra calories per day.2
This is not an excuse to eat a donut a day, although your client would love for you to give her the green light for that kind of diet! Extra calories should come from whole grains, protein, and lots of colorful fruits and vegetables.
Help your new mom clients by calculating their calorie needs for them. Find their basal metabolic rate (BMR) and multiply it by the anticipated energy expenditure: 1.55 if exercising 3 to 5 days per week.
Do NOT subtract 500 calories per day for weight loss, since the mother will already be expending that on milk production. If the mother is not breastfeeding, subtract up to 500 calories per day to create a calorie deficit equal to a weight-loss of one pound per week.
Also important for new moms is proper hydration. Before your training sessions, make sure that your client is adequately hydrated. If her urine isn’t clear, she needs to drink more water! It helped me to drink a glass of water after every time I nursed my son. This might also work for your clients.
Society has placed a rather heavy burden on moms to be fit, sexy, thin, glamorous, and youthful looking. 4 It’s a tall order for anyone, let alone someone with a newborn to take care of.
Motivating new moms to work out and lose baby weight is a delicate topic. It should be addressed skillfully and tactfully.
When you design programs for postpartum moms, include a group component so that your clients can keep each other motivated and accountable and be sure to set reasonable expectations and specific guidelines for group conduct4:
- Make yourself a priority. Teach moms about the importance of fitness and how crucial it is to set aside time for it. Ask your postpartum clients to set a time each day to commit to their workouts and meal preparation. Let them know it’s okay to be flexible with this plan of action. Babies aren’t exactly predictable, after all.
- Be aware. Don’t compare. Talk to moms about their unique body type and nutritional and exercise needs. Encourage them to strive for the best version of THEIR body, rather than covet the best version of another person’s body.
- Give yourself praise. Even on tough days, there is something to be thankful for. Encourage your clients to express gratitude or to praise themselves for hard work, or for not giving up or giving in to temptations.
- Healthy rewards. When your clients achieve their goals, encourage them to reward themselves with something healthy: an hour of yoga or meditation, a nice hot bubble bath, or a coffee date with friends (sans the donut).
Keep Your Eyes & Ears Open for These Warning Signs:
Many moms enter into the postpartum “fourth trimester” slightly sleep deprived and a little nervous about the responsibility of caring for a small human, but otherwise happy and ready for the task of being a mom.
But just as many new moms suffer from the “baby blues” or a more serious condition called postpartum depression. If you notice any of these warning signs 7, please send your client to her doctor to receive the appropriate treatment:
- Depressed mood or severe mood swings
- Excessive crying
- Difficulty bonding with baby
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Loss of appetite or eating much more than usual
- Inability to sleep (insomnia) or sleeping too much
- Overwhelming fatigue or loss of energy
- Reduced interest and pleasure in activities she used to enjoy
- Intense irritability and anger
- Fear that she is not a good mother
- Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt or inadequacy
- Diminished ability to think clearly, concentrate or make decisions
- Severe anxiety and panic attacks
- Thoughts of harming herself or baby
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
Designing a Postpartum Fitness Program for Your New Mom Clients
A very popular method of reaching new clients is via technology-based programming. Using special apps or live-streaming video, trainers can connect with clients around the world.
Postpartum moms are especially open to these types of programs since they don’t have to shower, put on makeup, pack the diaper bag, or pay for childcare.
Now that you have a better understanding of the postpartum lifestyle, you can create an appealing and successful program to help new moms in your community.
Here are some things to keep in mind while designing your postpartum fitness program5:
- Make it autonomous. Allow the client to choose her own method of monitoring – HRM, a pedometer, or an app. Encourage her to track daily sleep, water intake, meals, and exercise with a journal or app.
- Communicate and motivate regularly. As the trainer and group coach, send daily encouraging notes and be available for one-on-one coaching. Hold weekly question and answer sessions with the group.
- Encourage social support. Groups work best. Create a MeetUp or Facebook group for your clients. Monitor sessions for negative self-talk and nip it in the bud. Reinforce the “be aware, don’t compare,” rule.
- Create a structured program. Map out exactly what your moms will be doing over the course of the program. Set short-term and long-term goals.
- Make individual adjustments. Include some flexibility in your program for moms with special health considerations and be willing to modify as necessary to meet their needs.
When it comes to postpartum fitness, the recipe for success is much the same as for any fitness program. It all comes down to three main factors4:
- Attitude “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” Colin Powell
- Appetite “Don't compare yourself with someone else's version of happy or thin. Accepting yourself burns the most calories.” Caroline Rhea
- Activity “Eating right and exercising is more important than what you put on your face.” Bobbi Brown
Remember that the most successful weight-loss programs include working with a professional fitness trainer and a nutritionist, so team up with a nutritionist or registered dietitian, or take ISSA’s Fitness Nutrition certification.
*Prolactin is a protein that stimulates lactation.