5 Pelvic Floor Exercises To Strengthen The Forgotten Muscles Of Your Core

May 4, 2021 - 10 minutes read

We’ve all heard the phrase: “I laughed so hard I peed myself,” but for many of us that isn’t actually a joke – it’s exactly what happens when we chuckle with a little too much gusto. And if that’s ever happened to you, you know what it feels like to be dealing with a pelvic floor issue.

Though commonly thought of as a problem that only affects pregnant or postpartum women, pelvic floor dysfunction can occur in anyone, including men, and can lead to incontinence, pelvic pain or low core control at any stage of life. And even though the stigma surrounding pelvic health is slowly dissipating, many people still endure symptoms for years before seeking help. But with a little education and attention, that doesn’t have to be the case.

What is the pelvic floor?

The pelvic floor is the group of muscles and ligaments that are found along the base of your pelvis. Stretching front-to-back from your pubic bone to the base of your spine, and side-to-side between your sits bones, these muscles work like a hammock for your pelvic organs and act as the base of support for the group of muscles we refer to as your “core”.

 

 

What does the pelvic floor do?

The pelvic floor has four main functions:

1. Supporting the pelvic organs

The placement of the pelvic floor means it provides essential support and stability for the organs that sit in the low core. In men this means the bladder and bowels, while in women this also includes the uterus. If the pelvic floor is dysfunctional and fails to properly support these organs, a pelvic organ prolapse – a bulge or protrusion at the vaginal opening – can sometimes occur as a result.

2. Bladder and bowel control

As the pelvic floor contains the exit point for the urethra and anal canal, another main function of these muscles is to prevent the bladder and bowels from emptying. If the pelvic floor is weak, events such as coughing, sneezing, jumping or lifting may lead to involuntary urinary or fecal leaking. This is known as stress incontinence.

On the other side of the spectrum, a pelvic floor that has a hard time relaxing can lead to symptoms that resemble a constant feeling of needing to urinate. It might also be difficult to start the flow of urine while sitting on the toilet or a sensation that you’re unable to fully empty your bladder.

3. Core support

The pelvic floor forms the base of support for the body’s deep core system. Together with the transverse abdominis, multifidus and diaphragm, the pelvic floor aids in stabilizing the midsection to ensure that we have sufficient stability, strength and balance for the different demands, sports and activities we perform throughout the day. Without a functional pelvic floor, movements that require the use of your core can feel much more challenging and can even lead to pain or discomfort through the low back and abdomen.

4. Sexual function

When your pelvic floor is functioning well, these muscles ensure that we experience pleasure with sexual intercourse and can enhance the potential for orgasm. But if the muscles are dysfunctional, sex can lead to dyspareunia (pain associated with intercourse), vulvodynia (pain of the outside tissues of the vagina) or vaginismus (an inability to achieve vaginal penetration).

What causes the pelvic floor muscles to weaken?

There are a number of things that can affect how the pelvic floor is functioning, but the main factors include:

  • General aging
  • Pregnancy and postpartum
  • Menopause
  • Chronic constipation or straining to empty bowels
  • Chronic coughing
  • A weak core
  • Sports or occupations requiring repetitive jumping or heavy lifting
  • An injury or trauma to the pelvic region

How do I strengthen my pelvic floor?

Pelvic floor exercises (sometimes referred to as Kegels) are a great way to keep these muscles healthy and strong. While the idea of Kegels may seem simple, the pelvic floor muscles can be deceptively hard to activate. Oftentimes the abs, glutes and thighs try to contract in place of the pelvic floor, making it very challenging to isolate these muscles to engage on their own. So take your time and be patient with these exercises. If the sensation is very light to start out with, try not to get discouraged and work on progressing little by little each day.

Step 1: Find your pelvic floor muscles

One common method of locating the pelvic floor is to focus on the sensation that would occur if you were to stop the flow of urine when going to the bathroom (the typical “Kegel”). However, this activation can sometimes feel a little too far forward, so another helpful option is to:

  • Start in a comfortable position, lying on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and eyes closed
  • Relax your body then imagine the feeling that would occur if you were to attempt to lift a tampon up toward your abdomen (ladies) or if you were to walk into a cold lake (men)
  • As you do this, focus on keeping your abdomen, glutes and thigh muscles relaxed so as to pinpoint the pelvic floor muscles

Step 2: Contract and hold

Once you’ve learned to activate the right muscles, try and see if you can maintain that contraction.

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and eyes closed
  • Slowly contract the pelvic floor muscles progressively tighter for a count of 3
  • Hold the contraction for 3 seconds
  • Slowly release the activation for a count of 3
  • Slowly increase the length of the hold, up to 10 seconds, as the muscles get stronger

Step 3: Quick on and off

Another important contraction involves the fast twitch muscles.

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and eyes closed
  • Strongly contract then relax the pelvic floor muscles for a count of 1 to contract and 2 to relax
  • Repeat quickly for 10 reps
  • Gradually increase the reps, up to 25, as the muscles get stronger

Step 4: Elevators

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and eyes closed
  • Imagine the pelvic floor muscles were an elevator, with the relaxed state being the “lobby”
  • Contract the pelvic floor muscles to 20% and hold, as if the elevator stopped on the first floor
  • Intensify the contraction to 40% and hold, as if the elevator stopped on the second floor
  • Intensify the contraction to 60% and hold, as if the elevator stopped on the third floor
  • Slowly release back to 0%, as if the elevator returned to the lobby
  • Repeat for 5 reps

Step 5: Apply the activation

Now it’s time to take this activation and add it into other activities. By engaging your pelvic floor during core exercises or incorporating it into your daily routine – like when preparing to lift, laugh, sneeze or couch – you’re cueing the pelvic floor to fire in real-life situations and building a beneficial preventive habit.

What to do if you can’t activate your pelvic floor

If you’re having a hard time activating the pelvic floor muscles or are experiencing any pelvic floor problems such as incontinence, it may be a good option to consult with your physician or to seek out support from a pelvic floor physiotherapist or personal trainer who can assist you in this isolation.

Related: Core Strength And The Transverse Abdominis Muscle