Postpartum Weight Loss


One of the most common inquires I get is from new moms looking to lose that postpartum belly. How is it possible that celebrities like Heidi Klum can drop 30-40 pounds in just 4 months?  Anna Paquin goes from twins to 6-pack abs in 5 months. For new moms, that is frustrating, when you work so hard to lose stubborn body weight. What do they do that you don’t? Trust me, there is no super-secret information or magic formula that only they are privy to. You have the same physiology and weight loss capabilities as Hollywood superstars.

Normal weight gain during pregnancy is 30-35 pounds. Roughly 10 pounds is lost immediately after birth – seven pounds for the baby, plus two-three for blood, amniotic fluid and other. Through the first week your body will flush another 5 pounds of reserved water weight.  Optimal weight loss should be 1-2 pounds per week. If you do the math, you will find that Anna Paquin and Heidi Klum lost about 2 pounds per week.  Suddenly, Heidi and Anna’s weight loss isn’t so dramatic, does it? A loss of 1-2 pounds per week is easily attainable if you are diet compliant and dedicated to exercise.

Phase I: Day 1 (cleared from physician, usually around 6 weeks) – 12 weeks postpartum
In this phase your goal is to increase baseline fitness levels. Depending on your previous fitness level this stage can be progressed through quickly. In order to improve baseline cardiovascular levels it is best to start with steady state training. Steady state exercise is low-intensity exercise that is done for an extended. Walking, jogging, or biking for 30 -60 minutes are good examples. The key in this training is that intensity level stays constant and relatively low. Intensity is low, with target heart rate (THR) of 50-65% of your max heart rate. Target heart rate can be determined using the following equation [(220-your age)*percent]. Bottom line, low and slow will build a base.

Developing and retraining postural and core musculature is vital following pregnancy.  During pregnancy, your postural muscles lengthen and tendons stretch. It is prudent to strengthen these structures as this will reduce injury risk and rebuild the core, the foundation of all movement. Good postural exercises are Kegels, abdominal bracing, and the drawing-in maneuver.  In this phase, you will start slow, but by the end of week 12 you should be exercising 5 days/ week for at least 30 minutes.

Phase II: 12-20 weeks postpartum

In this phase, you are going to increase strength and train your heart to work at higher intensities. This is done through interval training. Take the baseline cardio program from phase one, but add in short bursts of high-intensity exercise. For example, jog for 2 minutes, run at three-quarter speed for 30 seconds. Repeat the cycle of jog, run for a set period of time. The brief bouts of spiked heart rate increase your average heart rate during the workout.

Increasing strength is also very important and with a resistance circuit training program you can increase both cardio and strength. Circuit training is simply a series of exercises that are performed for a set time frame with minimal rest periods in between each exercise. Designing a circuit program is easy. Pick a series of 5-10 exercises. Alternate the exercises between upper body, lower body and total body. Here is sample 30 sec on /30 off program:

  • Push-up (30 seconds)
  • Rest (30 seconds) – Note: during your rest period get ready for the next exercise
  • Ball squat
  • Rest
  • Bent over row
  • Rest
  • Step-up with overhead press
  • Rest
  • Ab crunches
  • Rest
  • Repeat that cycle 5 times. Total workout time would be 25 minutes.

Phase III: 20 weeks – goal weight attainment

A word of caution: You should only workout in this phase if you have the physical ability to do so. The goal here is to perform high-intensity exercise for maximal caloric burn. Target heart rates in this phase are often 85-95%, which may not be suitable for everyone. If you have a history of cardiovascular disease or question your physical abilities seek consultation from a physician.  If you are unable to exercise at this high-intensity, do not worry. An individual can easily exercise in phase II and still meet weight loss goals.

High intensity equals high-calorie burn. You will perform exercises that elevate your heart rate to near maximal levels. Plyometric exercises, boxing, and jump rope are examples. Anna Paquin’s favorite exercise post pregnancy was boxing. Due to the high intensity, your workout time can be significantly reduced. Take a look at this workout comparison for a 30-year-old, 150 lb. female:

  • Exercise Routine A: 40 minutes @ 60% heart rate (115 BPM) = 235 calories burned
  • Exercise Routine B: 20 minutes @ 90% heart rate (170 BPM) = 235 calories burned

However, the caloric burn doesn’t stop there. Following a lower intensity workout your caloric burn will remain elevated for 2-6 hours. Following high-intensity exercise caloric burn can remain elevated for as much as 18-24 hours. This means continued weight loss.

Diet is not to be forgotten about. A common myth is that nursing moms need to eat more, which leads many new moms to over-eating. Nursing moms rarely need to increase diet intake more than 300 calories. Have a diet high in lean protein (fish, poultry, pork, eggs) as it suppresses hunger longer than a diet filled with processed carbohydrates. Fruits and vegetables should be your primary source of carbohydrates.   Following a diet of lean protein, colorful fruits and vegetables ensures you are receiving much-needed vitamins, such as Vitamin A, D, E, K, B-complex and minerals like potassium, copper, zinc, iron, and magnesium. A diet high in vegetables will also provide adequate fiber, which is good for postpartum moms to regain normal gastrointestinal function.

Weight loss is not rocket science. Keep it fun, simple, and stay compliant with your plan. You will get there.

5 thoughts on “Postpartum Weight Loss

  1. Jill

    Breast milk production alone burns about 500 calories a day…it’s pretty incredible. I didn’t exercise at all for the first few months after Annabelle was born, and I lost all my pregnancy weight (25 lbs) plus 5 more pounds on top of that, in only about two months. It was effortless! And, it is important for breastfeeding women to eat the extra calories that they need, otherwise milk production can suffer. I appreciate your post on this, Josh! A lot of people don’t even broach the subject, it’s nice to read!

  2. Anne Keckler

    Before doing abdominal exercises, always check for diastasis recti. Most common abdominal exercises, including crunches, will make this problem worse! Instead, strengthen your transverse abdominis first.

    1. Josh Stone, MA, ATC, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, FNS

      Absolutely spot on Anne. Hormonal changes during pregnancy, specifically the increases in progesterone, soften connective tissues and increase laxity. Performing abdominal exercises during late phase pregnancy or postpartum can tear the linea alba, thus diastasis recti. Until hormonal levels subside isometric contraction of the pelvic floor and strengthening of the transverse abdominis are prudent.
      Not only is the linea alba susceptible to tearing, the ligaments supporting the spine and pelvis are also lax, making these structures unstable and prone to injury. Isometric abdominal exercises will increase muscle tonicity to help support the pelvis and spine. As hormonal levels begin to return to normal levels, tissues become stiffer and resilient. This increased stiffness plus added strength of supporting core musculature will help prevent against injury.

      Appreciate the comment!


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