You've probably heard the phrase "Kegel exercises" at one point or another in your life, as they are often recommended to improve the health of your pelvic floor. However, there may be a little more to it than squeezing certain bits, and also, not everyone needs to do them. In fact, you can do them too often and cause problems that way too. Let's take a look to see what to do and what not to do.
The pelvic floor is what, exactly?
We spoke with Dr. McKenzie Karelus, a physical therapist who works with the Carrington College’s Physical Therapist Assistant Program at the Las Vegas campus, to get a little more info on what a pelvic floor is and when Kegels might be of benefit.
"The pelvic floor is a group of muscles with multiple functions," she tells SheKnows. "It supports the bladder, uterus and bowel, assists in urinary and fecal continence and aids in sexual function."
While the pelvic floor isn't just found in bodies that house a uterus, they are more likely to be affected when things aren't quite the way they should be according to information from UChicago Medicine. Pelvic floor disorders can include urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse. As you can imagine, none of these are any fun and should prompt a medical visit and examination by a doctor.
Why does this happen, though? "Just like any other muscle in our body, the pelvic floor muscles can become weak," Karelus notes. "Many factors may contribute to pelvic floor weakening, such as pregnancy, childbirth, aging and weight gain."
Kegel exercises, then, are often recommended for pelvic floor health, Karelus says. They can help improve strength and function and are performed by squeezing the muscles you use, for example, when trying to hold your urine, she explains. However, there are certain ways Kegel exercises should be done and ways they should definitely not be done; Karelus advises that you first find out (from a medical professional) if you need to do them at all because they're not necessary for everyone.
How to do Kegels
So, your doctor says you're ready to do some Kegel exercises. First, you have to isolate the muscles so you're not doing it the wrong way. "An easy way to find these muscles is by trying to stop your urine mid-flow," Karelus explains. "Please note that this method is only for learning purposes and should not be used outside of finding the correct action of the pelvic floor."
Once you can successfully isolate the muscles, attempt to tighten them for a count of three followed by relaxation for a count of three. Do this for a series of 10 repetitions. Eventually, she says, you'll be able to hold the muscle contraction for a second or two longer, working your way up to a 10-second hold.
However, you have to make sure you're doing them correctly, Dr. Rachel Gelman, a physical therapist and branch director at the Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center, tells SheKnows.
"When done correctly no other muscles should activate," she explains. "If you are squeezing your butt or abdomen you are probably not doing a Kegel correctly."
She also notes that it's a good idea to start doing Kegels on your back, which eliminates gravity dragging you down. "I always read in articles that you can do Kegels all the time, even while driving, but just like any exercise, you need to focus when doing Kegels to make sure you do them correctly," she says.
Get checked out first
However, Gelman says that it's not a good idea to start doing Kegels because you think you have to or you read an article somewhere that says all women need to do them.
"Kegels are definitely overprescribed, and most people aren't able to do them correctly with verbal instruction alone," she says. "If someone is experiencing symptoms like urinary or fecal incontinence, they should consult a health care provider and ideally work with a pelvic floor physical therapist to determine the best treatment plan."
She also says that many people actually present with overactive pelvic floor muscles and need to work on relaxing the muscles instead of strengthening them.
"If the muscles are hanging out in a guarded state, they are already at their end range of motion and won't be able to contract further, for example, when they need to stop urine from coming out," Gelman explains. "So sometimes doing Kegels can make symptoms worse because you are strengthening an already shortened muscle."
So, while Kegels can make a big difference in people who need them, they can cause problems for people who don't. Make sure you get checked out before hopping aboard the Kegel bandwagon.