November 13, 2019

Returning to HIIT After Childbirth

How do I return to HIIT after having a baby? How much time do I take off before starting back up? The answers are not one-size-fits-all. What’s important is that you understand the principles for safe and effective progression.

HIIT = High Intensity Interval Training

This is exercise consisting of bursts of high intensity activity alternating with short rests or low intensity activity. Tabata workouts are a classic example, but almost anything can be made into a HIIT workout. You can do bursts of high intensity on a bike, treadmill, or rower, with bodyweight exercises like burpees, squat jumps, and boxing, and using weights, kettlebells, or resistance bands. Some of my favorite online HIIT resources include Body Building and Stack.

The difference vs. cardio and weight training

HIIT differs from other styles of cardio training in that it specifically refers to very high intensity (think all-out effort) for short periods followed by rest, as compared to steady state low-to-moderate intensity cardio like jogging and aerobics. HIIT differs from weight training in that the duration of activity and rest intervals and the effect on heart rate are not the same, even when super-setting or performing explosive weight lifting movements.

I’ve had a baby. Now what?

How do I return to HIIT after having a baby? How much time do I take off before starting back up? How quickly do I progress? How do I know how to safely push the limits? What if I leak when I workout? How do I know if all of this is ok?

It’s not one size fits all

The answers are not one-size-fits-all. What’s important is that you understand the principles for safe and effective progression. For tailored answers, please see a pelvic health physical therapist in person. Information provided here does not constitute personalized medical advice. Now, let’s break this down into two keywords: windows and strategy.

Wait at least three months

A good general rule is to wait at least three months before returning to anything high intensity. Even better, give yourself a window, not a drop-dead date. Three to six months is an appropriate window to first consider adding HIIT back into your routine. And maybe longer if you are experiencing signs and symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction or other disability during that time. Pelvic floor dysfunction is a potential indicator that your body requires more healing and activity modifications before performing high intensity activity, in order to avoid injury or worsening symptoms. If you have such signs and symptoms beyond the first 6-8 weeks postpartum, get them checked out by a pelvic health professional.

Don’t set unrealistic expectations

The concept of a window versus a specific date can be used as a motivational tactic especially helpful during early postpartum. A window accounts for variations in your personal needs and lifestyle that will affect your performance, and avoids unnecessary disappointment when you feel like you have failed to meet a deadline. It also helps takes the pressure off of unrealistic expectations and comparisons to others. Physical fitness and health are usually not well measured by deadlines and comparisons, but rather by gradual and incremental individual changes. And it can be unhealthy to compare postpartum journeys. So use time windows to allow needed flexibility for your personal considerations with new baby and changing body.

Manage your exercise

A general strategy for all is to start by increasing the volume and duration of activity, followed by the intensity. This will allow your body to improve cardiovascular endurance, muscle mass, and neuromuscular coordination first, then to improve the automatic coordination of pelvic floor and core response to increasingly higher intensity demands, so that you don’t leak or hurt during or after exercise. It’s generally okay to advance to the next level progression when the current level of activity feels very manageable and pelvic floor symptoms are not present during or after the activity. Each example below starts at the lowest intensity option and progresses to the full HIIT style expression.

Example 1: Jump Rope

  • Alternating hops x 1 min intervals – work up to 10 min

  • Single unders x 1 min intervals – work up to 5 min

  • Double unders x 10 sec intervals – work up to 1 min

Example 2: Box Jumps

  • Step ups x 1 min – work up to 10 rounds

  • Explosive step ups x 1 min – work up to 10 rounds

  • Small box jumps x 1 min – work up to 10 rounds

  • Medium box jumps x 1 min – work up to 5 rounds

  • Tall box jumps x 30 sec – work up to 5 rounds

  • Box jumps (med to tall height) as fast as possible x 30 sec – work up to 5 rounds

Example 3: Tabata Workout

  • Non-impact (toe-ups instead of jumps, walk in/out of the burpee, etc.)

  • Full impact with pause between each repetition

  • Full impact normal timing, but moderate the pace (steady pace, but not AMRAP)

  • Full impact with longer rest phases

  • Normal workout (full impact, normal timing, AMRAP)

  • ** AMRAP = as many reps as possible

Modify to progress

Included in the concept of strategy is how to modify if you are having any trouble with the activity. Feeling pain and leaking urine does not mean that you are objectively weak or broken; it does mean that something needs to change so that your body can handle the task. Although sometimes it will be appropriate to stop or hold off on the task, you may not need to completely stop or regress. Try modifications first. Do it differently. This is where working with a qualified healthcare or fitness professional will come in handy. This person can assess you and help you find the right modifications to keep you active and progressing.

Are you breastfeeding? Education is key

The hormones associated with breastfeeding also contribute to ligamentous laxity, decreased fat metabolism, and suppression of ovulation and menstruation. These things are NORMAL during regular frequent breastfeeding, and are not necessarily effects of high intensity exercise. It’s good to factor this into your mindset and understanding of your experience within the first year postpartum, in order to avoid unrealistic expectations regarding fat content, speed of return to HIIT, and menstrual cycling. You may seek to work with a physical therapist specializing in prenatal and postpartum fitness, because they will have advanced training and education to work with you.

Signs and Symptoms of Possible Pelvic Floor Dysfunction

  • Leaking pee or poop

  • Difficulty pooping

  • Painful sex

  • Pelvic and/or low back pain

  • Heaviness, pressure, bulging in the low pelvis

Other Risk Factors

  • Breastfeeding

  • Obesity

  • Scar (cesarean or perineal)

  • Pre-existing pelvic floor issues

  • Pre-existing hyper-mobility condition

  • Postpartum depression

Also check out my guide on returning to running postpartum. The advice is similar for returning to HIIT, yet there are key differences. If you need personalized guidance on returning to exercise postpartum, we’re always here to help. Book a session via the button below.

Melissa Stendahl, PT is a pelvic health physical therapist with specialty certificates in the areas of prenatal and postpartum physical therapy. She has a unique approach with clients by promoting preventative care, active participation, education and understanding of their diagnosis and treatment plan so they feel empowered in their ability to achieve wellness. Melissa is a lifelong athlete, military veteran, and mom. She is the owner of Stendahl PT. Follow along on her Instagram.

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