You do bicep curls to keep your guns pumped and crunches to keep your core strong. But there’s another muscle group that doesn’t get mentioned at the gym: the pelvic floor.
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Should you exercise your pelvic floor muscles regularly? Amy Park, MD, a gynecologist who specializes in pelvic floor disorders, explains what happens when this muscle group gets weak — and how to start an exercise regimen to keep it in shape.
What is pelvic floor dysfunction?
The pelvic floor is a sheet of muscles in your pelvis, the lower part of your torso between your abdomen and legs. It forms a kind of hammock to support the bladder, bowel, uterus and other pelvic organs.
When your pelvic floor is weak or injured, the function of the pelvic floor muscles can be affected. That can cause bladder problems, including leaking urine and overactive bladder. But if pelvic floor muscles are too tight, it can lead to muscle spasms and pelvic pain. Trauma or surgery can cause overly tight pelvic floor muscles.
Whether your pelvic floor muscles are weak or painfully tight, pelvic floor exercises can help.
Kegel exercises for men and women
Pelvic floor problems tend to be more common in women, especially after childbirth or menopause. However, men can also experience them. So anyone can benefit from a pelvic floor exercise routine.
How to do Kegels
The go-to move is known as a Kegel exercise. It’s not especially difficult — once you’ve identified the right muscles to squeeze. To start, pretend you have to pee. Now squeeze the muscles you’d use to hold it. Those muscles are your pelvic floor.
“There are a lot of different regimens for Kegels,” Dr. Park says. For a basic starter routine, try these steps:
- Sit or lay down.
- Squeeze your pelvic floor muscles for up to 10 seconds, then release.
- Do a set of 10 Kegel squeezes.
- Repeat the exercises two or three times a day.
- As your muscle strength improves, you can hold each squeeze for longer or add more repetitions.
The knack for stress incontinence
There’s another trick to use if you have stress incontinence, which causes urine to leak during activities like coughing, sneezing or lifting things. “Some people with stress incontinence benefit from an exercise called ‘the knack,’” Dr. Park says.
The knack is just a quick, strong Kegel done right before the activity that causes you to leak. Tickle in your nose? Try squeezing before you sneeze.
Kegel exercises during pregnancy
After pregnancy and childbirth, lots of women discover their pelvic floor just isn’t what it used to be. Can you do anything to prevent it from getting weak?
Unfortunately, maybe not, Dr. Park says. Studies have found that doing pelvic floor exercises during pregnancy doesn’t prevent pelvic floor dysfunction from developing. “But if you already have a problem with stress incontinence, pelvic floor exercises during or after pregnancy will help,” she says.
Pelvic floor therapy: How experts can help
Kegels are safe to do at home, but many people benefit from working with a physical therapist trained in pelvic floor dysfunction. “Learning the appropriate technique is important, and it’s helpful to have a trained professional guide you through it,” Dr. Park says.
Seeing a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor problems is especially important if you experience pelvic pain. “Underlying back and hip pain can contribute to pelvic pain. A specialist can make sure you’re addressing all of the issues,” she says. “For pelvic pain, physical therapy is really a mainstay of treatment.”
Tools for pelvic floor exercises
Physical therapists sometimes use extra tools to help you target the right muscles. These can include:
- Biofeedback: This process uses sensors to monitor your muscle activity. That feedback can help you target the right muscles to perform the exercises correctly.
- Vaginal weights: Some women use weights shaped like cones or teardrops to train their pelvic floor. After inserting the weights into your vagina, you’ll have to squeeze your pelvic floor to keep them in place. Some women swear by vaginal weightlifting, but it’s not necessary for a strong pelvic floor, Dr. Park says. “It’s just one more way to identify the correct muscles and learn how to do the exercises properly.”
Whatever method you choose, working out your pelvic floor is the best way to keep it in tiptop shape.