We’ve all heard about kegels and pelvic floor work, but do you really know what muscles you’re targeting or even why they’re so important?
The pelvic floor is a much neglected, but very important group of muscles and by giving that area some love and attention, you can substantially improve far more than just your pilates practice.
What is the pelvic floor?
The pelvic floor is the group of muscles and ligaments that are found along the base of your pelvis. Running from your pubic bone to the base of your spine, these muscles work like a hammock to hold your bladder, uterus (men, disregard this one), and bowels in place. As each of these organs have an opening that travels through the pelvic floor, the contracting and relaxing of these muscles controls the sphincters around your bladder and anus, allowing you to “hold it in” when you feel the urge to pee (or otherwise).
Why do you need a strong pelvic floor?
Ever had one of those “uh oh” moments where you’ve jumped or coughed or laughed and suddenly you’re looking for the nearest washroom? Enter: pelvic floor weakness.
Strengthening the muscles of the pelvic floor can help prevent these bladder and bowel leaks, reducing the incidences of incontinence, especially in women who have had children. Additionally, these muscles work in conjunction with the deep core muscles to help support the spinal column, lift pressure within the abdomen, flatten the stomach for a strong deep muscle layer, and can even enhance sexual sensations (for both of you).
What causes these muscles to weaken?
Because they’re such an important group of muscles, you would think that they would be active on a regular basis; however, the amount of support you get from them completely depends on you.
If you hold yourself in good posture, your pelvic floor muscles should naturally engage; however, factors such as slouching, aging, obesity, pregnancy, and child birth can all contribute to a weakening of those muscles, leading to problems such as:
- Urinary or stool incontinence (stress incontinence is the most common type where small amounts of urine leak out during an activity)
- Constipation or incomplete bowel emptying
- Diminished sexual satisfaction, pain, or inability to reach orgasm
- Sagging or prolapse of the uterus bladder or rectum
- Low back or lower abdominal pain due to a weak core
What can I do to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles?
To keep yourself working towards a Depends-free future, there are plenty of simple and effective exercises you can do to get your pelvic floor healthy and strong – and don’t think this only applies to older women! Both men and women of all ages can benefit from the ability to transfer these exercises into their everyday lives and will notice an improvement in a short time.
Before you start, do not get discouraged if it seems difficult at first to get used to these exercises; the key element to doing them correctly is in learning how to fire the correct muscles without the larger surrounding muscles taking over.
Finding the pelvic floor:
- Find the correct muscles.
To feel the muscles in action, try stopping your urine mid-stream. As you do this, focus on keeping your abdomen, buttocks and thigh muscles relaxed so as to pinpoint which muscles are actually responsible for this motion.
IMPORTANT: Do not make a habit of stopping your urine mid-stream as this can in fact weaken the pelvic floor muscles. Be sure to empty your bladder fully once you’re comfortable that you’ve identified the correct muscles.
- Perfect your technique.
Lay on your back and close your eyes. Focus on the muscles you just identified and practice contracting and holding them for 3 seconds then relax. Try this four or five times in a row.
- Practice makes perfect.
When you feel like you can do this comfortably, build up to holding the contraction for longer (you should aim to complete 10 reps 2-3x daily or until your muscles fatigue). You can do this sitting, standing, laying down or on you hands and knees (resisting against gravity). Mix it up by doing some sets faster for shorter hold periods.
- Mix it up.
Once you’ve mastered these muscles on their own, add in some transverse abdominal activation at the same time. Take a deep inhale and as you exhale lift the pelvic floor up and away from the ground, thinking about those deep muscles tightening around the spine/belly like a corset (cue pulling your hip bones together in the front). Make sure your spine stays long and the belly pulls flat and in and not down or pushing out. Hold for up to 8 seconds.
Integrating this skill into your abdominal exercises:
If your legs are off the ground when in a back laying position, activate your pelvic floor to hold the transverse abdominis tighter and support the spine and belly. When doing a leg lowering exercise hold in your pelvic floor to stop your abdominals from popping up (losing the connection). If this is difficult, don’t drop the legs as far-only take them to the point where the abdominals stay pulled in and the back connected with the floor. You can build up to bringing them all they way down correctly and safely.
So, wear those light coloured pants, drink another glass of punch and laugh your pants off without the fear of having to change them after.