New mum postnatal exercise: can you include kettlebell training?

I’ll lay my cards on the table: I LOVE training with kettlebells and have been doing so for many years. Why do I love them? Because they really work. So what do I mean by that? Well basically, they are a fantastic fitness tool that just about zaps everything in one fell swoop: cardio, resistance, core stability, stamina, the lot! So this makes them super time efficient, and guess what? As a mum of three, I’m not exactly wallowing in spare time and so anything fitness-wise which saves me time gets a big thumbs up from me, and anyway, I find them exhilarating.


Are kettlebells the right tool for the post pregnancy tummy?

But would I suggest kettlebell training for new mums? Well, the first thing to say is that there’s not much point in making a sweeping generalisation about all postnatal women and how they should or should not exercise. Although there is one generalisation that I really can legitimately make here and it is this: if you haven’t ever used kettlebells prior to pregnancy then when you have just given birth is most definitely NOT the time to give them a go. So there’s your #1 rule: never done kettlebells before? Then don’t in the first few months after pregnancy.

So what about those of you who have been enjoying the wonders of kettlebell training prior to falling pregnant? Well the picture isn’t black and white and I would suggest that you ask yourself the following questions and then answer them as truthfully as possible, in the interests of your safety:

  • Have you been given excellent instruction on using kettlebells and if so, is your technique spot on? So, for example, when you do your kettlebell swings, is your posture perfect with your back in a strong neutral position? In general, I would say that it is quite hard to acquire perfect technique within the format of a group exercise class but if you have had 1-2-1 instruction then the likelihood is that you are well on the way to having top notch technique, although this is not always the case.
  • What are your current fitness levels? Low, medium, high? How often do you train, at what intensity and did you keep up your fitness throughout pregnancy? The answers to these questions will govern how hard you can work postpartum. One person’s “low” intensity exercise will, quite literally, be another person’s “high” intensity. So are you a Jessica Ennis or perhaps a mere mortal like the rest of us?
  • Coming to the nitty gritty: how is your back feeling now that you have a baby to lift, carry and feed? Any aches and pains? And what about the pelvic area? Any twinges? If you are experiencing back pain – especially lower back pain – then swinging a kettlebell is most definitely off the cards, in my view.


How to exercise safely for the post pregnancy tummy and body

So let’s assume that you have good technique, you used kettlebells for a good while prior to pregnancy and all is going really well on the postnatal front. Well, here’s what I would advise:

  • During the early postnatal period – and as a cautious person who wants you to be safe I mean 5-6 months postpartum – I would NOT be swinging a kettlebell around. By all means, start using your kettlebell to do resisted squats and lunges – just so long as you have no pelvic pain – bicep curls and bent over rows, as long as your back feels 100%. This will protect you from the aches and pains which tend to come hand in hand with early motherhood. Having said this, you might as well use dumbbells which tend to go up in smaller increments, weight-wise, thus allowing greater flexibility.
  • But swings? Not worth the risk during the first 5-6 months postpartum, in my opinion. Some people will tell you that swings are great because you have to stabilise through the core and pelvis as you perform the movement. Well yes, of course this is true but the way I see it is this: the abdominals have been stretched, lengthened and weakened during pregnancy, which makes it mighty hard to fully stabilise yourself against the force of a cast iron ball swinging on the end of a handle. Now is the time to focus on tightening up your deep abdominals using exercise such as postnatal Pilates. Get the foundations right first and then you can bring in those kettlebell swings.
  • So when to bring in those swings? Well, I would tentatively suggest starting at around 6 months postpartum with a light kettlebell and see how it goes. Be vigilant when you start: does your back feel strong and stable or is everything a little wobbly when you swing the kettlebell? I ask this because the effects from pregnancy of the high levels of relaxin in the body are still there, making your joints less stable and more vulnerable to injury. In particular, the sacroiliac joint is prone to instability and if that “goes”, my goodness, you will know about it and regret it. So beware of this and never swing a kettlebell if you get the sensation of “wobbliness” though your lower back and pelvis. It’s not exactly a technical term but that’s how it feels, and I say that from personal experience.
  • Let’s not forget all those special exercises that can be done with a kettlebell and which are just so beautiful when done properly – the Windmill and the Turkish Get-Up, for example. The former is a tough one on the pelvis and I’d be wary and start off very gently. As for the Turkish Get-Up, this is hugely tough on the abdominals and if you have an abdominal separation then this exercise is 100% out of bounds.
  • Finally, let’s throw common sense into the equation: you might be super-fit, and a supermum but if you are generally feeling exhausted by everything that motherhood throws at you, then don’t force yourself to start up a rigorous exercise regime. Do what makes you feel really good, not what makes you feel like you’ve had a killer workout. Listen to your body – corny but true – and listen to me too! Remember this: you’ll be able to gradually build up your fitness levels – when the time is right. That’s the great thing about fitness: it is always always achievable.  

So whatever your fitness levels, just make sure that you do the sort of exercise which is right for you - not for the annoyingly fit celebs that you see in the media, nor for the couch potato mum who lives two doors down the road!