Still, most of the conversation centers on ways to make your pelvic floor stronger. But the truth is that not everyone’s pelvic floor is weak. So if you only focus on pelvic floor strengthening exercises like Kegels, bridges, and squats, but aren’t doing pelvic floor stretches to help it relax, you may unknowingly be over-tightening your pelvic floor.
Like with any muscle, by focusing on just the contraction—and not the extension or stretch—you can reduce the range of motion of your pelvic floor, leaving it imbalanced and less functional than it would be if you were doing both. For optimal health, you need to be able to tighten your pelvic floor muscles and fully release them says physical therapist Kristina Kehoe, DPT, who specializes in pelvic physical therapy.
“Learning to coordinate between [engaging] and then relaxing the muscles is important,” she says. “This can play a role in things like constipation or if someone has pain with intercourse.” Ideally, you want to be doing exercises that require you to both engage and release your pelvic floor regularly.
Here’s the right way to activate your pelvic floor muscles if you’re unsure:
What are symptoms of a tight pelvic floor?
First things first: What does it actually mean to have a tight pelvic floor? "In the case of the pelvic floor, if your muscles lack flexibility, we may also refer to these muscles as overactive or nonrelaxing," Heather Jeffcoat, DPT, doctor of physical therapy, and author of Sex Without Pain, previously told Well+Good about a tight pelvic floor. That means your pelvic floor muscles have trouble letting go fully.
According to Dr. Kehoe, pain in the pelvic or vaginal area can be a sign that you need to add some pelvic floor relaxation exercises into your routine. Other signs of tight pelvic floor muscles include pain during intercourse, chronic constipation, incomplete bowel movements, or feeling like your bladder isn’t empty after you pee. Even tension headaches or jaw clenching could sometimes be a sign that your pelvic floor is too tense.
Finally, Dr. Kehoe says that urinary urgency—a strong, sudden need to pee—is often caused by overactive pelvic floor muscles.
“[Any of these symptoms] can be a sign that you should learn to relax or stretch your pelvic floor,” she says.
But know this: If you're experiencing pain, you might need more than just a few exercises to loosen a tight pelvic floor. Consult your doctor before attempting any treatment protocol on your own. If you’re generally healthy and just looking for ways to maintain your pelvic floor muscles, however, adding some stretches into your fitness routine is a good place to start.
6 effective pelvic floor stretches
Here are a few ways Dr. Kehoe says you can stretch your pelvic floor at home. Bonus: Many of these stretches can double as pelvic floor strengthening exercises, if you take the right approach. “Many stretching positions are good positions to practice deep breathing,” she explains.
"Relaxing the muscles should feel like an opening up or bulging sensation in the pelvic floor muscles." —Kristina Kehoe, DPT
Know that many of these stretches are going to feel pretty subtle, and that's okay. “Relaxing the muscles should feel like an opening up or bulging sensation in the pelvic floor muscles," says Dr. Kehoe. "Stretching, however, should not ever be painful but should feel like a gentle tension and stretch without pain.”
1. Diaphragmatic breathing
“Diaphragmatic breathing is important to help promote relaxation of the pelvic floor and generalized relaxation to decrease muscle tension,” explains Dr. Kehoe, who adds that it also serves as a gentle stretch for the pelvic floor. “As you inhale and expand the pelvic floor, the muscles are stretched from the inside.”
How to: Find a comfortable position, ideally reclined or lying down with your legs supported and relaxed.
Inhale for a count of four seconds, expanding the belly and ribcage wide as you imagine the pelvic floor opening up and expanding. Exhale for four to six seconds, allowing the belly and pelvic floor to relax back to baseline. Repeat this process for at least 10 deep breaths or up to five to 10 minutes or more.
2. Pelvic rest posture
“This position allows the muscles of the pelvic floor and inner thighs to fully release and relax,” shares Dr. Kehoe. Additionally, “if you’re having pain or recovering from childbirth or a surgery, this position can help to take pressure and strain off the pelvic floor.”
How to: Lie on your back on the floor with your legs supported on pillows or up above you on a couch or chair. Your hips and knees should both be flexed at about a 90-degree angle. Allow the knees to fall out slightly and relax so that no tension is felt in your inner thighs. In this position, work on meditative practices or deep breathing for five to 10 minutes.
3. Happy baby
Dr. Kehoe says that this yoga pose directly stretches all three layers of the muscles of the pelvic floor since they run from your tailbone to pubic bone and attach to either side of your pelvic bone. “Happy Baby pose will also stretch your inner thigh muscles,” she says. “These muscles are often implicated with a tight pelvic floor since they attach near your pelvic floor,” she explains.
How to: Lie on your back and reach for either the outside of your feet ankles, or knees depending on your flexibility. Gently draw your feet out wide to the side while bending your knees toward your armpits and out to the side. Hold this position, allowing the pelvic floor to fully release for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat two or three times.
4. Child’s pose
“Child’s pose stretches the pelvic floor, back muscles, and buttock muscles primarily and also the inner thighs if you take a pose where the knees are out to the sides,” says Dr. Kehoe. She says that this is a great pose to not only stretch the muscles but also support generalized relaxation, and can also be used as an alternate pose in which to practice deep breathing.
How to: Come onto your hands and knees, bringing your big toes together behind your body. If you’re able to, separate your knees out wider than your shoulders. If that is not comfortable, bring your knees together. Sit your hips back toward your feet as you reach your hands and arms forward in front of your body, lowering your chest and resting your forehead and forearms on the floor.
You have the option to place a pillow or rolled towel under your forehead for comfort. Find ease in this position by allowing the inner thighs to relax and pelvic floor muscles to release, and hold this pose for as long as needed to achieve a sense of relaxation.
5. Deep squat
Holding a deep squat stretches the glutes, hamstrings, adductors (inner thighs), and pelvic floor muscles, and it can be a particularly great stretch to prepare for childbirth. Dr. Kehoe has a few tips for performing this exercise. “It’s important to have a supportive surface to hold onto so that your muscles don’t actually tense up trying to stabilize in this stretch,” she advises. “Gravity can help in this position to really feel a release and expansion of the pelvic floor.“
How to: Stand in front of a table, counter, or chair with your feet slightly wider than hips-width apart, toes slightly turned out. Tuck your tailbone and bend your knees to sink toward the floor, like you’re sliding your back down a wall, while holding onto the surface in front of you. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat two or three times.
6. Butterfly stretch
This popular stretch lengthens the muscles along your inner thighs that attach at the pubic bones. Dr. Kehoe says that many people with pelvic floor tightness also have tension and trigger points in these muscles, so stretching the inner thighs can subsequently help alleviate pelvic floor tension.
How to: Start seated with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Bring your soles together and let your legs open wide to the sides like a book, allowing your outer thighs to rest on (or toward) the floor. If you need more of an intense stretch, gently press the knees down with your hands or elbows and lean forward. To decrease the intensity, place pillows or blankets under your knees. Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat two or three times.
How long does it take to loosen a tight pelvic floor?
Pelvic floor stretches are by no means a quick fix, and require dedication to regular practice to see results. Most pelvic therapists will tell you that you'll need to keep at it for at least four to six weeks to start to see some improvement, and it may take a few months before noticing major changes.
If you've been working at it diligently but still aren't seeing results, book an appointment with a pelvic floor therapist. They can help assess what's going on, and advise if you might need manual therapy like massage, or to work on joint mobility or muscle strengthening. Yes, you can fix a tight pelvic floor, but it takes a patient, strategic approach.
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