Strengthening Your Pelvic Floor (& Why Kegels Matter More than You May Think)

Whether you’re dealing with an issue like pelvic organ prolapse or you’re gearing up for a good night, Kegel exercises are one of those workouts that should be part of your daily routine.
In a full-body workout, you strengthen your core, tone your arms, blast your booty and get in some killer cardio, but what about some of the unseen muscles that really matter?
I don’t know about you, but when I (Kalie) hit the gym, there are certain muscles I constantly think about engaging—my core and glutes in particular. For most of my life, one area that I didn’t focus on during my workouts was my pelvic floor. What I’ve come to realize is that those mystery muscles are just as important as the more visible areas I once directed all my attention toward.

A common misconception

Long ago, when I used to take Pilates, the instructor would constantly encourage the class to engage their pelvic floor. Throughout each hour-long session, I heard her words but never thought much about the importance behind them.

Naively, I always thought that these unseen muscles didn't matter much unless you suffered from incontinence or were a bit older in age. I saw them as a way to fix an already apparent problem, rather than an awesome exercise that can prevent a problem from occurring.

A quick anatomy lesson (in case you aren't sure what they heck the pelvic floor is)

Fast forward to my first pregnancy and all that changed. Early in my third trimester I was diagnosed with diastasis recti (abdominal tearing) and began seeing a pelvic floor therapist. My goal in working with her was to prevent further tearing of my abdominal muscles and to minimize damage during a vaginal delivery.
What I learned throughout my time spent working with her was that those pelvic floor muscles (the ones my Pilates instructor was always barking about) were imperative because they support the uterus, bladder and bowels. They also can dramatically improve sexual sensation—hello, better orgasms! 

Pelvic floor muscles are kind of like a basket that keeps your pelvis stable and holds all your lady parts in place.

After a few sessions with my therapist, I realized just how important it is to strengthen the pelvic floor, whether suffering from incontinence or not. To help prevent pelvic organ prolapse (basically when your pelvic organs droop) during a vaginal delivery, and because I finally understood the benefits of the oh-so-mighty pelvic floor, I began incorporating a daily Kegel regimen.
Here's the down low on Kegel exercises so you too can start doing them anytime, anywhere.

How to get in touch with your pelvic floor

One of the most common mistakes while trying to practice Kegels is exercising the wrong muscles. While trying to locate your pelvic floor, try to relax your body as much as possible and focus on the area at hand. 
The elevator approach 
One way to find your pelvic floor muscles is by lifting and squeezing from the vaginal opening up toward the cervix. Visualize bringing your lips together and closing the vaginal opening while you squeeze. Some describe this tightening like zipping up a zipper or riding an elevator up as far as it will go. Then, as you let the muscles relax, unzip or take the elevator all the way back down.   
Finding those “fluff” muscles
Another simple way (the one that my physical therapist recommended) is by imagining you're out to dinner with a group of friends and a sudden urge comes on to fluff (our family's terminology for passing gas). The first thing you tend to do is to squeeze your booty muscles to prevent yourself from breaking wind. Try it quick! And there you have it, the muscles you're squeezing and pulling up are your pelvic floor muscles!
What not to do
Keep in mind that this activation is a "pulling in" movement, not a "bearing down" one. When you push, rather than pull, you put more strain and pressure on the pelvic floor structures, which can make both bladder, bowel and symptoms of prolapse worse.

How to test the strength of your pelvic floor

Just like with other types of exercise, it takes practice to get stronger. By assessing your own muscles you're able to track the progress of your pelvic floor exercise routine so you stay motivated and it continues to be effective for you. After testing your strength, file your self-assessment ratings away so that you can refer to them in a few weeks. 

The pee test
One of the easiest ways to test the the strength of your pelvic floor is by trying to stop the flow of urine while you're going to the bathroom. If you're able to stop your pee midstream, you're already ahead of the game. These muscles are the same muscles you want to squeeze when doing your Kegels. This isn't an actual exercise (or something you want to do consistently) but a good way to identify the muscles you're looking for and check for weakness.

Feel from the inside
A more accurate way of self-assessing pelvic floor muscle strength is by feeling inside the vagina. Gently insert your index finger (just up to your second knuckle) into your vagina and press onto the side of the vaginal wall. Contract your pelvic floor muscle as explained above. You should be able to feel a squeezing and lifting sensation around your finger.

If you're not able to feel contractions, you may want to visit a physical therapist specially trained in pelvic floor disorders to assess your strength and, if necessary, come up with the best course of action to treat weakened muscles.

Should everyone do Kegels (even if they don’t suffer from incontinence)?

Yes, yes and YES! This was one of the misconceptions I previously had. Kegels aren’t just for women who are pregnant or suffer from a weakened pelvic floor. Nearly everyone can benefit from Kegel exercises, no matter what age or stage of life they’re in!

Do Kegels help pre- and post-pregnancy?

Because pregnancy is one of the biggest reasons pelvic floor muscles are weakened, it's one of the first exercises you should include pre- and post-partum.

When you regularly practice Kegel exercises, you strengthen your pelvic floor muscles and develop the ability to relax and contract them in preparation for childbirth. Research even suggests that women who do pelvic floor exercises may have a shorter active phase of labor than women who don’t. Strengthening your pelvic floor can also help the perineal healing process during the postpartum period. 

After enduring natural childbirth, I can honestly say that knowing how to effectively contract and relax my pelvic floor muscles was a key factor as to why I was able to deliver Isla and Alana so quickly when it came time to push.

How long and how often should you practice them?

The great thing about Kegels is you can practice them anytime, anywhere (without anyone even knowing). That means you can get in all your sets whether you’re in a business meeting or out to dinner with friends.
Slow Kegels

Slow Kegels help strengthen your pelvic floor muscles.  

  • Length: Slowly, lift and squeeze your pelvic floor while inhaling deeply.  When you reach the “top of the elevator,” hold firmly for 5 to 10 seconds (depending on your strength), while breathing normally. Keep in mind, it might take some practice to lift your pelvic floor while breathing in and out. Release slowly, then relax for 5 to 10 seconds before another contraction. If you don’t, your next pelvic floor lift will be weak.   
  • Reps: Aim for 10 reps in a row, but if you notice yourself fatiguing, scale it back to 5. 
Quick Pulse Kegels

Quick pulses help strengthen things down under for coping with pressure (when you sneeze, cough or do jumping jacks).     

  • Length: Rapidly squeeze and release your pelvic floor muscles 10 times in a row while breathing normally.
  • Reps: Aim for 10 reps in a row, but if you notice yourself fatiguing, scale it back to 5. 
Remember, these muscles are no different than any other muscle in your body. Time, consistency and focusing on the quality of the movement are what will strengthen them, so don’t get discouraged. The goal is to increase the reps of your exercises to help train your muscles.   

Contract, hold, release… repeat!

Just like when incorporating any other strength-training exercise, it’s important to give your muscles time to recover before starting another set. Treat your Kegel exercises like any other fitness routine, as a habit. Incorporate these exercises into your routine one to three times a day, depending on if you’re leaking or not.

Breathe and squeeze

It can be easy to accidentally hold your breath while practicing Kegels. Just like any workout, remember our FfL motto to “breath and squeeze!” With consistency and practice, you’ll be able to increase the length of holding time and diversify the positions.

If you’re just starting out

One of the best ways to initially focus on activating the right muscles is by lying down. After you get the hang of it, you can progress to sitting or standing. And once you fully master the art, you can start incorporating Kegels into other aspects of your day.

Variety is the spice of life

Doing the same old Kegel exercises day after day can become boring. Your pelvic floor is supported by your diaphragm, glutes, abs and hip flexors, so it’s equally important to strengthen those surrounding muscles too. Once you get the hang of the exercises above (after a few weeks), you can mix up your pelvic floor workouts by trying new styles and exercises that work your pelvic floor muscles in addition to other areas. It’ll keep things interesting!
Some favorites:
  • Pilates Exercises (most Pilates moves are natural pelvic floor strengtheners)
  • Clams 
  • Progression 1: Add a resistance band around your knees
  • Squats  
  • Progression 1: Add a resistance band (activates abductors) 
  • Progression 2 (Ball Squats): Stand with your feet ball-width apart, with your weight mainly in your heels. Place a small ball between your knees or thighs (this activates adductors). During a squat, focus on pushing your hips back and down, while keeping your shoulders back, chest lifted, and core tight. Use your knees or inner thigh muscles to squeeze the ball tight while doing a series of squats. Lift your pelvic floor muscles as you return from squat position to standing position. 
  • Wall Sits
  • Bridges  
  • Progression 1: Add a resistance band (activates abductors)
  • Progression 2: Add a small ball between your knees (activates adductors)

When will I see results?

Generally, women who practice Kegels consistently will see results within a few weeks (usually between 1 and 3 months). 
The good news is you don't have to join a gym—they can be done discreetly anytime, anywhere!
There's a reason why you hear so much chatter about these mystery muscles—because it's REALLY important to keep them strong! Whether you struggle with a weakened pelvic floor, you're a new mom or you're practicing them preventively, strengthening your pelvic floor can help with your bladder and sexual health (heck yes, amplified orgasms!). Basically, it's a win-win for today and your future.
Let's strengthen and squeeze — together!

Cheers to a healthy lifestyle and living FULLforLife!

xo, Pam & Kalie

What’s your experience been like finding those “oh-so- mighty” pelvic floor muscles and practicing Kegels? Share below!

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