Getting back in shape after a baby is tough for any new mum – and it’s no different for TV personality Gemma Atkinson.
But former Hollyoaks and Strictly Come Dancing star Gemma’s road back to fitness has been even tougher after undergoing an emergency C-section to deliver her daughter, Mia.
Gemma says the serious operation has put her back to square one with her training.
But now 16 weeks later Gemma is ready to begin slowly rebuilding her strength and fitness, and has put her faith in Ultimate Performance to help get her pre-baby body back.
After completing an impressive 12-week transformation with Ultimate Performance Manchester in the past, Gemma is back working under the expert guidance of her U.P. trainer ‘Evil Steve’ to help her train safely and effectively after her C-section operation.
Gemma has been documenting her post-pregnancy fitness journey with U.P. to her 1.2 million followers and naturally fellow first-time mums are keen to find out about her programme and what she’s doing to get back in shape.
Gemma sat down with Evil Steve to share some advice and answer some of your burning questions – from what foods to eat and what exercises to avoid, to how to deal with ‘mum guilt’ and how personal training at U.P. has helped her take baby steps back to her fittest self as a new mum.
Q: Many mums fear putting on weight while pregnant and how they’re going to lose it after giving birth. With your experience being pregnant, what advice would you give to other mums?
Gemma: I think every woman, every man, every human being fears putting on weight. Obviously, when you’re pregnant, at least for me personally, it wasn’t a fear of putting on weight because of how I looked. It was a case of trying to maintain a level of health throughout my pregnancy because it’s my little baby that’s growing. But it’s inevitable that you are going to gain weight when you’re pregnant because you’re growing a human. So I think you have to try and switch that fear to the realisation of how lucky you are to be able to have a baby.
In terms of food, it’s fuel for your little one. People always used to say to me, “Oh, you’re eating for two. You can eat what you like.” And I was like, “Oh, I’m eating for me and a tiny little thing. There are not two 11-stone people here.” It is difficult though, because you have cravings and stuff, so you do want to eat more. But I was just mindful of whatever I did and ate, it was essentially Mia that it was affecting as well. So I think you have to switch it up and not be scared of piling on the weight, and know that you can get it off afterwards if you put the graft in.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face as a mum?
Gemma: The biggest challenge, I’d say, is the fear of me not being good enough for Mia. Kind of like ‘mum guilt’ when I leave her because I train twice a week with Steve. Even though it’s only two 45-minute sessions a week, yet I still find myself thinking, “Oh gosh, is she okay?”
That in a way makes me want to train even better because I think any time that I spend away from her, I’m going to make it worthwhile. I’m not going to have time away from my daughter and not put in the effort. I’m going to be like, “Right, I’ve got this 45 minutes. Just graft.”
On top of mum guilt, I’d say criticism is pretty challenging too. Every new mum gets a lot of criticism from other mums, I’ve found. Sure, there is a lovely community where loads of mums support each other, but there’s also the kind of, “You shouldn’t do this. You shouldn’t do that. You should breastfeed. You shouldn’t breastfeed.” And it’s like, wow, as long as you and your baby are happy and healthy, it doesn’t matter what other people say.
Q: What advice would you give to new mums who are struggling to get back into training and not feeling up to it, or simply don’t know where to start?
Gemma: I’d say to mums who are struggling that the starting point doesn’t have to be anything extreme. I waited. Well, I had a 6-week check at the doctor’s, and I waited 10 weeks before I actually did anything just because I didn’t feel strong enough physically, and I was tired. Your hormones are all over, so I don’t think you should put the pressure on yourself to say, “Six-weeks check, I’m going to go and do it.”
I started walking with the pram like 10 minutes around the block, and that was enough. I slowly built my way up to half an hour. I think a lot of people assume that you can’t be active just because you can’t get into a gym, but you don’t need to do it in the gym. You can do it at home. I remember once when I wanted to train at home, I just did a few jump squats – nearly wee-ed myself because I just had a baby, but that’s normal! I just did 10 jump squats, waited for a minute, another 10, waited, just to get my heart rate up.
Steve: Yeah, I’ve had this in the past with other clients as well. It’s like even doing something like walking up and down the stairs at home for five minutes, you can do that. Most people have stairs at home, and it’s only five minutes. But it’s about instilling good habits straight after having a baby. It’s about doing something that’s positive, regardless of what it is.
Gemma: Some days I did it in my pyjamas. I stayed in my pyjamas and did a bit of exercise. It’s better than doing nothing.
Q: How did you know you were ready to start training after your C-section? And how did you build up to getting back into it?
Gemma: Yeah, the C-section was awful because it was an emergency one, so it was all quite rough and I was very bruised and sore. I read up on it, I did a lot of research, and it’s seven layers that they actually cut through to get the baby out! So it’s not a case of a little quick keyhole surgery. It’s a major, major operation, and I was walking like a T. Rex for about a month. It was hard because I was feeding Mia at the time, so she was constantly on me. So again, even holding her was difficult. So I knew then that I wasn’t physically strong enough to come in the gym, and it shocked me how much you use your core for everything – even opening the fridge!
I think you just have to listen to your own body. Even the day I did decide to go out for a walk with the pram, I started aching after 10 minutes. Even when I’d been on my feet all day, I could feel a little twinge – and you know, everything’s knitting back together so I get like little electric shocks now and again. It’s a little reminder that you’ve had surgery, so just chill a bit, but I think everyone’s different.
I mean, I have friends who have had a C-section but because it was planned so it was nice, and chilled, and relaxed. Their recovery didn’t seem to take as long, but I’m very conscious the quicker you rush back into it, the more it can have long-term effects. When I had my Mummy MOT, the lady said to me that she gets a lot of women who are going through the change later on in life – menopause – and because they didn’t correct issues after having a baby, they’re now struggling as a result of that. So I’d just say listen to your body, and you will know when the time to start training comes.
Steve: Plus, with your training now, we’re avoiding doing certain things just in case, like no rotation-based movements because, obviously, of your operation. Even things overhead, you have to be slightly careful of. Anything we do is standing. Anything where your trunk has to be rotated or stretched, you’ve got to be very careful at the moment.
Gemma: And that’s what’s a little bit frustrating because like if I’m doing a shoulder press, physically I can do more for my shoulders, but I don’t want to damage my core anymore. So we’re having to adjust a lot.
Steve: Yeah, we’re just having to work around it. Yeah, feet up on a chest press, for example. I hate it, but you have to do it right now. It’s the best way of doing it.
Q: How have you modified training to train safely?
Gemma: We’re doing fewer reps, lighter weights. We’re a lot stricter on tempo. We’re not doing any real rotation-based movement at the moment. Nothing too drastic overhead, no prowlers, and no real jumping either.
My first session back was tough, and Steve said to me, “That was quite easy for your first one back. We went really easy on you.” And I was like, “No, you didn’t.” It was tough.
Q: Can you explain ab separation and whether weights can help to heal it?
Gemma: I was taught that ab separation happens because when you’re growing a baby, your abs have to separate in order to accommodate the baby growing. When you’ve had your baby, if you’re lucky, they’ll go back. If you’re not, they’ll stay.
Last time I had my check, I was told that I had a two-centimetre gap, and I was advised to avoid doing anything like crunches, planks, things like that – otherwise I’d just be working the core, the muscles behind the abs, like the deep, deep, deep ones. A lot of people have messaged me saying, “I’m doing so many crunches,” but when you’re crunching, it’s not doing anything.
Steve: Yeah, if you think about it a little, the main function of the abdominals is to keep the body stable, so you want to train it in that fashion. You don’t want to put too much direct stress given the C-section so far. Something like a lunge or even like a goblet squat is challenging your midsection in more of an indirect manner as opposed to doing a leg raise or a crunch. So you’re still training your midsection, but you’re treating your midsection like what it’s actually designed to do, to keep you more upright.
Gemma: It’s funny because I still look like I’ve got a little bum bag where the abs are still separated. I read that some go back straightaway; some it takes six, eight months; while for others it takes a lot longer. Again, it’s one of those things that’s happening because I’ve had a baby. So, in the grand scheme of things, if it doesn’t go back all the way, I don’t think I’d be too bothered because I know it’s not a case of, “Oh, I’ve let myself go… I’ve got this bum bag.” It’s “No, I grew a little human.”
Q: How has your diet changed post-pregnancy compared to pre-pregnancy?
Gemma: Well, it was Halloween, so I had a bit of cake… No, my diet, I’ve always had a good-ish diet even before I was pregnant.
At the moment I live by 80% of what I need, 20% of what I want. I always have. I used to have a cheat day, which looking back now is just stupid, and I always think telling someone who’s trying to lose weight to have a cheat day to me is like telling an alcoholic, who’s trying to recover, to get drunk once a week. It’s not going to benefit them. I always think one (cheat) meal a week is enough for me, like on a Friday night I’ll have a pizza or if I’m going to the cinema, I’ll have popcorn and pick-n-mix, but I don’t use that one cheat meal as an excuse to go off the rails for the whole day.
Steve: How long ago would you say you stopped having cheat days?
Gemma: Well, since we started training last year.
Steve: The thing is, you’re doing that 80% of like really good stuff and 20% of what you want, it’s sustainable. It’s something you can do all the time, which is what most people need to do. A lot of people go absolute hardcore dieting – they’d go 100% all in on a diet that they just cannot sustain. So something like what you’re doing is more sustainable. You can do that every day because you get a little bit of what you like, which will keep you on track 80% of the time.
Gemma: I hate diets. I said to Steve when we first started training that I’m not going on a diet. It’s got the word die in it. I said, “I’ll change my eating habits long term, and it’s a lifestyle change, but I’m not going to be saying, ‘I’m cutting out carbs, or I’m cutting out this.” Because especially for women, there are certain times of the month, you physically need some things.
I know women who’ve cut everything out apart from meat and veg. Yes, they’ve got in shape, but they’ve been absolutely exhausted. They look like they’re ill, and then the minute they start having carbs again, it’s like Steve says, they have all of them and they go the opposite way.
Q: What dietary challenges have you faced since having a baby, e.g. cravings, hunger, routines, meal prep, etc.?
Gemma: Yeah, it’s more difficult to eat at certain times when you’ve got a newborn. Obviously, because your priorities shift, so it’s no longer about, “Oh, it’s been two hours – I need to eat.” It’s like, “Mia’s crying. She needs food. She needs this.”
I’ve had to be more organised, so I’ve started cooking more in bulk. Cooking things that are convenient, like oats with a bit of whey, or smoothies. I’ve been into smoothies a lot, loads of frozen veg, frozen berries, and almond milk. I love that.
But again, it’s easier for me to say because before I had Mia, I was always doing food prep anyway. It was just part of my life, so it’s nothing new to me now, but it can be hard for somebody who’s not used to doing that.
Steve: Well, you’ve just got to start somewhere. Really, it’s like what I said a second ago, everybody wants to just go all in and expect their diet to be perfect from day one, and it’s just not sustainable.
Gemma: I think it’s down to what the individual chooses as well, because I’ve had people say to me, “It’s easy for you. It’s easy.” But it’s like, “Well, no. I would love to choose a chocolate bar over a banana, but I know I want to feel my best. So looking at those two options, the banana is going to make me feel better, and not going to give me a sugar slump afterwards, and not going to contribute to weight gain.”
So it’s about what you want for yourself. I mean, some days I would go for the chocolate bar, but it’s not easy. I don’t think it’s easy for anybody, especially us new mums. We spend much time at home, and a lot of the time, it’s the convenience – when you’ve not got ‘good’ food at home and the cupboards are filled with chocolate, it’s very convenient to just grab a chocolate bar when you’re busy looking after a little one.
I think everyone should invest in a slow cooker and just whack it. Lentils, broccoli, loads of veg, a bit of stock, chicken if you want, whatever, and just make a massive stew. It will last you at least three days. You can freeze it too. That, with a bit of crusty bread, is a good meal to snack on even when you’re busy.
Q: What advice would you give to other mums who have had a newborn, who are sleep-deprived, dealing with cravings, and struggling to find time for themselves?
Gemma: The best advice I would give to other mums is the advice I was given by my mum. She said to me, “Everything from now on with Mia is a phase. When she’s sleeping through the night, and you think ‘Yes, I’ve cracked it.’ You’ve not, it’s a phase. On the flip side, when she’s not sleeping through the night and you think, “Oh, my God, I can’t cope.’ You will, because it’s a phase.”
It’s the same with how when I had the section, six weeks after my operation if someone said to me, “In four months, you’ll be back with Steve, feeling a lot better, looking physically better,” I would’ve said, “No, I won’t,” because I was crying thinking, “I don’t feel like myself. I’m physically exhausted.” But it was just a phase, and it did pass.
Steve: Yeah, I think my advice on something like that, in somebody in that situation, is deal with one thing at a time. It’s okay, if they wanted to get in better shape, it’s also okay if you wake up one day and you go to train that day but you’re so tired that you can’t do anything.
Just start thinking of things over a weekly period instead of thinking, “Oh, if I don’t train today, the whole week is wasted.” You can make up for it on a day when you feel better. So deal with one thing at a time instead of beating yourself up. If you’re not feeling it today, try again tomorrow.
Gemma: Yeah, you don’t have to be too hard on yourself because your hormones are all over the place anyway, so the slightest thing can set you off. Also, it’s the comparison like sometimes when I see women who have a baby the same age as Mia, and they’re doing all kinds of things, and they’re back at work, and they look fab, and they’re bossing it – and I’m like, “Some days I don’t know whether I’m coming or going,” and I question, “Am I doing it wrong?” But no one’s doing it wrong! We’re all just doing it as best as we can, and some days we’re better than others. But like Steve says, you don’t have to write the whole week off because of one bad day.
Steve: Yeah, and if you’re not feeling up for it that day, it doesn’t mean that’s going to be like that forever. Just deal with it as it comes.
I think, like Gemma now, she’s only here twice a week. It doesn’t really matter what two days of the week you train, as long as you train twice per week. It could be two days in a row. It could be two days at the other end of the week. It doesn’t really matter because you’ve got so many other things going on, but people associate training with, “Oh, no, it’s got to be like this. It’s got to be like that.” It doesn’t really. Give yourself a little bit of a break. As long as you do what you need to do that week then it’s fine to start with. It doesn’t need to be perfect right away, you’ve just got to start somewhere.
Gemma: It’s better than nothing. I’d rather come in and do two sessions a week then do no sessions. It’s not as good as what I was doing before I had Mia but it’s a start. It’s a start. And I’m not doing too bad. I’m down six… No, what am I down?
Steve: You’re .6 since last measurement, which was 2 weeks ago.
Gemma: That’s not bad!
Steve: Yeah, it’s not bad, considering that you had some cake yesterday…
Gemma: It was fruitcake, though, so it did have a bit of fruit in it. One of my five a day, cherries!
Q: What is the one thing that new mums can do right now to take the first step back to fitness?
Gemma: I would say the first thing they need to do is believe that they can do it because no one’s going to do it for you. Also, I would say on days when you feel like you can’t, just remember that you’ve just carried a baby for nine months, and you’ve birthed the baby or you’ve had the baby out of you, that in itself makes you superhuman. If you can get through being eight months pregnant walking up the stairs, waddling, carrying your washing with your swollen ankles, dashing to the toilet because every kind of scent or anything in the house makes you feel sick, then you can walk up and down your stairs for five minutes.
Steve: My advice on that is just do something that’s positive. It doesn’t matter what it is, just do something that will lead to another positive, that will lead to another positive… You’ve just got to start with something. It doesn’t really matter what it is.
Gemma: Even my sister, I remember my sister once said to me, she was dead excited because she’d drank two litres of water in one day. She never does that, ever. She never drinks enough water. She’s always on fizzy pop, so I say to her, “All you need to do is start substituting fizzy pop with water.” And she did that and she lost weight just by making that one simple switch, even though she’s still having one fizzy drink a day…
Steve: Yeah, 80% of what’s good, 20% of what she wants.
Gemma: She texted me and she was like, “You’re never going to believe it.” And she sent me a picture of a two-litre bottle and she’d done it. And that, for her, was her kind of tick point.
Steve: Yeah, It’s just something – isn’t it? Even something so minimal. But everybody expects to go out and hit a two-hour gym session or a 10k run, but it doesn’t need to start that way. You can probably end up there, but you don’t need to start there because it’s just too much.
Gemma: No, no one starts at the top of the game, do they? And I’m a big fan of the hare and the tortoise story. At the minute, I’m the tortoise.
But yeah, thank you for your questions and congrats to all the new mums out there or mums-to-be. Just believe in yourself. Like I said, I never pictured myself doing this four months ago at all, but I am doing it slowly but surely, with not too much pressure and Steve leading the way for me!
If you want to get fit and feel strong again after giving birth, it’s important to do it the right way.
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