When I hit the gym, there are certain muscles I’m constantly thinking about working—like my arms, abs, and butt. One thing I have never, ever thought twice (or even once) about paying attention to during my workouts? My pelvic floor. Apparently, this is a pretty major mistake on my part.
The “pelvic floor” is one of those terms that’s thrown around all the time, and if you’re anything like me, you just kind of smile, nod, and think “kegels!”—and then immediately start doing kegels—anytime anyone mentions it. There’s a reason why people are constantly talking about this group of mysterious muscles: Because it is really, really important to keep them strong.
A quick anatomy lesson if you still aren’t totally sure what the heck a pelvic floor actually is: It’s a bowl-shaped group of skeletal muscles at the bottom of your pelvis, which supports the pelvic organs like your bladder, uterus, and rectum, and makes sure they can do what they’re supposed to. “Keeping it strong can help maintain sexual, bowel, and bladder functions, and prevent things like pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence,” explains Amy Hoover, DPT, a physical therapist with P.volve.
The most popular way to keep them strong—the Regina George of pelvic floor workouts, if you will—is with kegels. But to ensure that you’re building Schwarzenegger-level strength down there, you’re going to want to integrate you pelvic floor muscles into your core workouts, too. “You cannot separate the core from the pelvic floor, because your pelvic floor is part of your core,” says Dr. Hoover. She explains that the core consists of the deep back muscles, the abdominal muscle, the pelvic floor and the diaphragm, which all need to work in harmony to help support the spine and pelvis and help to prevent injury.
Think of it as a system: In order to get a full pelvic floor contraction, your pelvic floor muscles need to work in tandem with your abs and internal obliques. “Getting your deep abdominal muscles engaged helps in strengthening your pelvic floor,” says Whitney Johns, NASM, a Plankk Studio-certified personal trainer. She suggests starting with some fundamental core exercises, like modified planks, dead bugs, and bird dogs, progressively building up to more intense moves.
While you’re doing these, though, you’re going to want to be hyperaware of what your pelvic floor is doing throughout. “The first thing you need to realize is to get in touch with your pelvic floor,” says Sarah Duvall, DPT, CPT, a pelvic floor and core exercise physical therapist, adding that so many women simply have no idea what’s going on down there. “You can tell if you’re clenching your fist or your fingers, right? You should have an equal control and awareness of your pelvic floor. You should be able to tell when you’re relaxing or contracting, and you should be able to tell when you’re baring down.”
Another thing you’re going to want to be aware of? Keeping everything balanced within your core. If your external obliques are a lot stronger than your internal obliques and transverse abdominis, it’s going to create an imbalance, which could lead to problems with your pelvic floor. “When your upper abs are really strong, or your internal abs are really strong, it creates that lower belly pooching and that can actually have a detrimental effect on the pelvic floor, because it can increase downward pressure,” says Dr. Duvall. “So women who focus on their abs and never focus on their pelvic floor can create tremendous amounts of pressure in their abdomen, and then that pressure can lead to pressure down on the pelvic floor, which can lead to leaking and prolapse.”
To help get you started with working the entire system, Wundabar founder Amy Jordan shared her favorite moves for building core and pelvic floor strength in one fell swoop. But, warns Dr. Duvall, as you cycle through these moves (or any core moves, for that matter) be sure you’re not baring down on your pelvic floor while you do them.
Try these pelvic floor exercises:
1. Tweezer: Sit on the edge of a chair with one leg in front of you, and the other reaching back (almost like a lunge, but seated). Inhale to raise two inches off the chair, lifting with your inner thighs drawing up and in like a pair of tweezers. The effort should feel strong through inner thighs and deep abs, including your pelvic floor. Every rep allow a quick rest or reset when you sit back down; otherwise, your quads and gluts will take over and skip the pelvic floor focus.
2. Hip circles: Lay on the floor with a Pilates ring or a beach ball between your ankles. Keep your pelvis neutral (the bones on the front of your hips should be straight with the ceiling and there should be a natural curve to your low back). Tip the legs and ring to the right and trace a circle shape by focusing the effort at the top of your thigh bones. Starting the motion close to your core activates the pelvic floor for conditioning vs drawing a circle focused on your feet. The Pilates ring or beach ball between ankles creates a connecting line to pelvic floor activation by firing up your inner thighs.
3. Pelvic rotation full tilt: Start in a four-point kneeling position on the floor. Feet and knees are four inches apart and parallel. Exhale to hover the knees off the floor, and your pelvic floor should already feel challenged. Holding the knees up, think about the sides of your hips as gear wheels that you are slowly spinning forward and back. Maintain length on the front and back sides of your body the whole time. You’ll feel sincere activation from inner thighs, through pelvic floor and deep abs.
4. Ball squats: Placing a five-inch ball halfway between your knees and hips, and cycle through a series of squats. Make sure you hold the ball as if you’ll drop it instead of actively squeezing. “The inner thigh muscle fibers and fascia are connected to the pelvic floor and waistline,” explains Jordan as to why this particular move is so effective. Happy muscle making!
To strengthen the rest of your body—sans weights—try heavy carries.
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