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Postpartum Pilates

When you're a new mom, trying to squeeze in a shower between feedings and diaper changes can seem daunting -- never mind trying to fit in a trip to the gym. But mat-based Pilates exercises are easy to do at home and are a great way to get back into shape. Developed in the 1920s by Joseph H. Pilates, this muscle-strengthening exercise regimen is especially good for a post-baby body because it works the muscles affected by pregnancy. "All of the exercises focus on strengthening the abdominals, the pelvic floor muscles, and the back," explains Elizabeth Larkam, director of Pilates and Beyond at Western Athletic Clubs. "And since deep breathing is central to all of the exercises, it's very relaxing as well." Larkam is also the guru behind The Balanced Body Pilates Mat Video ($25; 800/745-2837).

You can do the following Pilates workout, designed by Larkam, in about 20 minutes. Because the workout focuses on muscle control, the moves should be done at a slow to moderate pace. Don't worry if you feel like you're not accomplishing much at first; these exercises take practice to perfect. You'll need an exercise mat or a soft surface to lie on and you should wear comfortable clothing, like leggings and a T-shirt. Check with your doctor before beginning any post-delivery workout routines.

1. Breathing Technique

This exercise is the basis of all Pilates moves. Focus on breathing this way throughout each exercise -- it will help you concentrate on the muscles you're working. Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor. Place your palms on your lower abdominals with the heels of your hands resting on your hip bones. Inhale deeply, letting your belly rise, and imagine filling your lungs completely. Then exhale, contracting your abs and pulling your navel towards your spine, and contracting your pelvic muscles as if you were trying to stop urine flow. Repeat eight times. (This exercise can be performed lying on your side during pregnancy.)

2. Swimming

This move strengthens the back muscles. Lie on your stomach with your legs straight and your arms extended over your head. Inhale and then as you exhale, contract your abs and stretch your right arm and left leg away from your body without raising them. Then inhale, releasing the stretch but keeping your abs contracted. Repeat on the other side. To make this move tougher, lift your limbs two inches off the floor as you stretch, quickening the pace as you switch sides, in a swimming motion. Do three sets of eight repetitions.

3. Side Kicks

This exercise works the legs, hips, and abdominal muscles. Lie on your left side, head resting on your left arm. Bend your right arm and rest it in front of your torso to keep your weight supported. Bend your knees so that your body's in the position of a chair on its side. On the inhale, pull your right leg forward (keeping your knee bent). Then exhale, moving your right leg behind you (knee still bent), stretching your hip flexors. Do eight times, then repeat with the other leg. (This can be done during pregnancy.)

4. Leg Circles

This move strengthens abs. Lie on your back, knees bent to your chest, and hold your shins. Inhale and use your hands to guide your knees open toward your shoulders. Exhale, contract abs and move knees outward and down (as though along the edges of a circle) until they meet. Do two sets of eight circles.

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