Your pelvic floor muscles are a group of muscles responsible for supporting your bladder, uterus, intestine, and rectum. But beyond the crucial role of these muscles to support these vital organs, a strong pelvic floor is thought to have a host of holistic benefits as well, such as heightening feelings of pleasure during intercourse.
The thing is, the pelvic floor isn't a muscle you can clearly point to (like your quadriceps or lats, for example). Identifying—and consequently, exercising—your pelvic floor is a bit more nuanced, but the benefits are well worth it. So to help you understand exactly how to find, engage, and exercise your pelvic floor muscles, we've tapped the pros.
Discover everything you need to know about unlocking your pelvic floor, ahead.
The Importance of a Strong Pelvic Floor
"Pelvic floor muscles are important for bladder, bowel, sexual function, and pelvic organ support. Strong pelvic floor muscles are important for maintaining bladder and bowel continence, improving sexual function, and preventing or alleviating symptoms of pelvic organ prolapse," says Lauren Habig, physical therapist at Indiana University Health.
If you have bladder or bowel incontinence symptoms, decreased sexual sensation, pelvic organ prolapse, or back pain, it is vital to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles. "Alternatively, if you have symptoms of pelvic pain, difficulty emptying your bladder, or constipation, you may benefit from pelvic muscle relaxation exercise," says Habig.
Your Pelvic Floor Can Weaken Due to Age and Life Events
The pelvic floor muscles are critical for healthy functioning. A healthy pelvic floor helps prevent incontinence and improve sexual functioning, essentially acting as a sling or hammock that supports your pelvic organs.
Several conditions can lead to weakened pelvic floor muscles, according to the National Institutes of Health, including:
- Straining excessively while going to the bathroom or coughing
- Pregnancy and childbirth
- Being overweight
How To Find and Exercise Your Pelvic Floor Muscles
If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, it's beneficial to consult a physical therapist specializing in pelvic health. A physical therapist can help you determine which type of pelvic muscle exercises are right for your circumstances.
How often and what types of pelvic floor exercises you should do are individualized for each person based on specific pelvic floor disorders. Habig recommends consulting a physical therapist for a pelvic muscle evaluation to get an individualized home exercise program appropriate for the symptoms being treated.
Before exercising your pelvic floor muscles, it is worthwhile to take some time and discover how to find and sense these muscles.
"The pelvic floor muscles are on the inside of the pelvis extending from the pubic bone to the tailbone and sit bone to sit bone similar to a hammock," says Habig. Touch the space between the opening of your vagina and anus to feel a pelvic muscle contraction. You can also pretend to prevent yourself from passing gas, or pretend to tighten your vaginal wall around a tampon to feel this contraction.
The Most Effective Pelvic Floor Exercises
The answer to your specific pelvic floor symptoms may not merely be to strengthen them. If your pelvic floor muscles are hypertonic (meaning they are overactive and cannot correctly contract due to an inability to relax), the answer may actually be to relax them. So ahead, we'll share both pelvic floor strengthening and relaxation exercises.
Pelvic Floor Relaxation Exercise
- Lay on your back with your knees bent, placing your feet flat on the floor
- Relax your belly and pelvic floor while you inhale
- Exhale by breathing out as if you were trying to mist up a window
- Feel the sensation of your pelvic floor gently lifting while you're deep abdominal muscles contract slightly
- Continue to practice this until you can feel your abdominals relax and contract in connection with your pelvic floor and your breath
Connection Breath For Your Pelvic Floor and Core
The connection breath is the first step towards learning how to perform kegels properly and learning to relax the pelvic floor muscles.
- Sit tall as if you are reaching up through the crown of your head. Avoid rounding forward or hunching
- Maintain a natural arch in your lower back with your ribs stacked over your pelvis
- Place one hand over your belly and the other over your rib cage
- Inhale, pushing your hands outward, and imagine your pelvic floor filling with air
- As you exhale, notice your hands moving inward and imagine your pelvic floor releasing the air
Kegels are a well-known pelvic floor strengthening exercise. However, many people do them incorrectly by bearing down or squeezing as hard as they can. Unfortunately, doing Kegels improperly can cause more harm than help.
- Once you've mastered the connection breath, imagine that your vagina and anus are lifting upwards on your exhale. On a scale of 1 to 10, you should use about a 3 to 4 amount of effort, feeling your deep abdominal muscles and pelvic floor tightening –imagine you are picking up a piece of tissue with your vagina
- Release your vagina and anus downwards as you inhale
- Repeat for two to three sets of 10 breaths
Tip: be sure that you are relaxing your buttocks and thigh muscles while you perform Kegels.
Bodyweight Squat with Breathwork
Bodyweight squats connected with your breath can help improve mobility in the pelvis while stretching and contracting the abdominals and pelvic floor muscles.
- Stand tall with your ribs stacked over your pelvis, feet slightly turned out
- Take a breath in and begin to hinge your hips, sitting back and squatting between your legs, knees tracking over your feet
- Exhale and squeeze the muscles in your glutes and thighs to help you stand back up
- Repeat for two sets of 10
Half-Kneeling Pallof Press
Core stability and strength are critical for preventing pelvic floor issues such as urinary incontinence. The Pallof Press is an excellent abdominal tightening and strengthening exercise that provides core stability and deep abdominal muscle activation.
- Get into a half-kneeling position with a band anchored to your side, with your feet in line with your knees in a straight line; your raised knee should be on the outside
- Grab the band with both hands and press it away from your body, arms fully extended, keeping your shoulders level
- Row the band back in towards your chest
- Maintain a tall posture throughout.
- To perform this exercise properly, it's important to keep your trunk from rotating as you press the band. "This forces your core muscles to stabilize as the band tries to pull you to one side," says physical therapist Briana Bain, DPT, PT. "This exercise should then be repeated with the other side of your body close to the band so that you can work both sides of the core evenly."
- Repeat two sets of 5-8
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What Causes Pelvic Floor Disorders (PFD)? Updated January 1, 2020.
Faubion SS, Shuster LT, Bharucha AE. Recognition and Management of Nonrelaxing Pelvic Floor Dysfunction. Mayo Clin Proc. 2012;87(2):187-193. doi:10.1016/j.mayocp.2011.09.004