5 Mistakes Trainers Make When Coaching Postnatal Clients

By Jessie Mundell

Exercise is incredibly beneficial after pregnancy, though your client’s workouts will look quite different from what she might have been used to doing before the baby’s arrival.

Coaching postnatal fitness clients, when done well, supports all the transitions happening in a new mom’s body as well as her life. Good postnatal fitness coaching is thorough, purposeful, and strategic. There are so many more to it than simply putting exercises together in a program.

If you haven’t had much experience working with new moms, despite having the best intentions and doing some reading, you may find yourself making some mistakes, likely without realizing it.

The following are five common mistakes to avoid when coaching postnatal clients.

1. Not understanding the intensity of pregnancy, birth, and caring for an infant.

Pregnancy, birth, and caring for an infant are incredibly stressful on a woman’s body. There is no way around it, even if she had an “easy” pregnancy, birth, and baby (if those things even exist!).

It is hard work to carry a baby in your body for months. The abdominal wall stretches to new lengths, the body alignment shifts, and the pelvic floor support structures stretch with the weight of the baby. However the birthing process occurs, it adds many new layers of stress on the body. Perhaps even some trauma (physically, mentally, and emotionally).

Pregnancy and birth require a lot of healing afterward.

Despite that, the new mom is immediately thrown into the most demanding role she’s ever experienced. Most women go into parenthood exhausted, whether this is from difficulty sleeping during pregnancy or after the birth process. The sleep deprivation compounds from there with an infant who likely sleeps in painfully short chunks of time.

Mom is likely over stressed, under slept, and achy.

She needs to move her body to help rebuild the connection to the core and pelvic floor, but in a way that doesn’t require too much physical or mental energy.

2. Placing too much emphasis on body composition change and fat loss.

The primary focus of good postnatal fitness coaching should be in helping your client get her body function back to normal.

Is your client pain-free? Is her diastasis recti healing well? Are her pelvic organs staying in her body? Is she continent during exercise and in her life in general?

Fat loss isn’t a bad goal if that is something your client is truly interested in. Simply put, however, there are things that take higher priority postpartum, and those are all about the body’s function. 

You cannot skip this step. This is imperative for healthy short-term and long-term function.

If your client wants to be physically active and get back to more intense exercise eventually, the emphasis must be on supporting her body’s health.

This includes restoring function to the core, pelvic floor, eating plentiful calories, resting when possible, and being cognizant of stress management. 

What tends to happen if fat loss or body composition change is the most important postpartum goal is that the exercise volume becomes more intense than her body might be able to handle, her sleep becomes more compromised, and her nutrition restricted.

These things pile more stress on the body and there is no chance for recovery. Especially in the early months postpartum, it best to avoid focusing on fat loss, “getting her body back,” six-pack abs, and fitting into the pre-baby jeans. 
Encourage self-care, increasing body comfort, prioritizing health, and trusting the process.

3. Neglect restoring function to the core and pelvic floor because your client has been active throughout pregnancy.

It’s impossible to out-train the effects of pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. It does not matter how hard your client exercised during her pregnancy, how fit she was, how much weight she can lift, or how many miles she can run. She still needs to restore function to her core and pelvic floor.

Every body is different, and this will be a faster process for some women. For other women, the process will be slower.

The post-pregnancy restoration process still needs to happen for every body. Even extremely fit women.

This is a very common scenario: A woman gives birth and refrains from doing any exercise until the six-week check up with her healthcare provider. The doctor clears her to exercise, and she tries to resume an exercise routine that looked exactly as it did during pregnancy or even prior to pregnancy.

However, things have changed. The woman’s pelvic floor was under great stress during pregnancy and birth. Perhaps she had a C-section delivery. Plus, the new mom is now working on little sleep, which can further impact pelvic floor fatigue.

Going back to her previous workouts could do more harm than good both in the short and long term. What she needs at this point is a core and pelvic floor restoration program, which includes education on proper alignment (especially when caring for a baby), good breathing practices, and beneficial exercises and stretches for learning how to strengthen and relax the core and pelvic floor muscles.

The bottom line is that thinking that someone doesn’t need to rehab and restore function to the core and pelvic floor because she exercised throughout her pregnancy is short-sighted.

4. Not paying enough attention to your client’s body alignment and breathing during exercise.

When coaching a postnatal fitness client be highly aware of her body alignment and breathing during every rep.

Being attentive to breathing and alignment will help your client get better function back in her core and pelvic floor and help her gain better stability — two primary factors that almost always need improvement in postpartum.

You will likely see your client’s ribcage thrusting upwards or her bum and tailbone tucked under, or a combination of both. (Bum tucking is particularly common among moms who are often carrying their babies in their arms.)

Make sure your client “stacks” her ribcage over her pelvis especially with weighted exercises. This alignment is equally optimal in strength training exercises, interval training, and basic core work.

Use these three cues with your clients to encourage better body alignment:

  1. Drop your ribs
  2. Untuck your bum/tail bone
  3. Get your bum behind your body

Breathing is equally important. First ensure that your client actually is breathing while performing an exercise. Watch that she is not holding her breath, especially when under load and while lifting. Get your moms to notice this in their daily tasks and activities outside of the gym, too.

Instead of holding her breath, cue your client to exhale on exertion. This means that she will exhale as she does the toughest part of the exercise. For example, cue her to start her exhale breath before she begins to stand up from her squat and continue it through the top of the squat. Similarly, when performing a cable rowing exercise, she should start her exhale before she pulls the cable toward her, and continue until her elbows are tucked in at their side.

Encourage your client to exhale on exertion when lifting her baby, too! For example, if she’s lifting the baby out of the crib, she should bend over, start her exhale breath and continue exhaling as she lifts the baby up and out of the crib.

This breathing technique can help to support the pelvic floor and abdominal wall when under load.

5. You are not confident in using rehabilitative elements with more physically demanding exercises.

It is not enough to simply understand what diastasis recti and pelvic floor dysfunction are. It’s important to also know how to program exercise in a way that supports the healing process, while also integrating appropriately challenging fitness activities.

Understanding the ins and outs of the core and pelvic floor is imperative if you’re working with moms, but you need to also understand how to put the pieces together.

Only then can you design a training program that can rebuild strength, endurance, and fitness, if those are your client’s goals. For example, it’s imperative to foster healing of the diastasis recti and pelvic floor, but also important to help your client be pain-free when holding her baby in her arms for hours each day.

For the general post pregnancy fitness client who wants to get rid of aches and pains, feel stronger for the demands of life, increase her energy, and build or maintain muscle mass, we have to be spot-on in creating the right blend of rehabilitative elements and more physically challenging exercises.

There are a lot of programs out there that are unnecessarily leisurely, with a full 60 minutes of breathing, stretching, and “dead bug” type exercises. Please note that this is completely fine. However, if your client wants to be strength training, this isn’t going to suit her for very long.

There are also a lot of programs that are far too metabolically intense, with little rest periods, lots of plyometric exercises, advanced abdominal focused movements. They’re also usually high-volume.

Your client will likely need something in the middle of those two examples for many postpartum months. Find the balance with the necessary rehab-focused work which help heal and support the body well, and the strength training elements that help her increase her muscular strength and endurance.

Effective and safe pre- and postnatal fitness training requires attentive coaching, smart program design, an understanding of the stress that woman’s body undergoes in pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Avoid these mistakes and you will help your clients have more comfortable pregnancies and strong postpartum recoveries.

Keep your pregnant and postpartum clients safe, healthy, and strong.

85% of women will have a baby at some point in their life. If you work with women, you work with pre- and postnatal women.

Whether your clients are currently pregnant or have already had their baby, they’ll have questions about everything — how to exercise safely in each trimester, which foods they should and shouldn’t eat, how to exercise the right way post-pregnancy.

And they’ll look to you for the answers.

That’s why we created our Pre- & Postnatal Coaching Certification: So current and aspiring professionals have the tools, knowledge, and confidence they need to help their pre- and postnatal clients navigate their health and fitness — both during and after pregnancy.

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About the author:  Jessie Mundell

Jessie Mundell is a certified kinesiologist and a Precision Nutrition Level 1 coach, as well as an author and mother. She specializes in pre- and postnatal exercise and corrective exercise. Learn more about Jessie on her website and connect with her on Twitter.

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