The Importance of Your Pelvic Floor

It's a topic we hear more of as we get older, in particular around our friends or family that have had babies. But is it something we should be thinking about before we have children?

In short - YES. Once we learn how to engage our pelvic floor, we can::

- improve our spinal stabilisation by maintaining intra-abdominal pressure

- help to control bowel and bladder movements

- improve the effectiveness of our workouts

- improve our posture

- improve sexual satisfaction

- decrease the recovery time post giving birth

So, where is it?

Your pelvic floor can be found at the base of the pelvis and can be thought of as a hammock or a sling made up of muscles and ligaments that support the weight of the bladder, bowel and, in pregnancy, the growing uterus.

The muscles are made up of slow and fast twitch muscles and both work together to support the base of the pelvis for prolonged periods of time as well as having the ability to contract immediately at a rapid speed - think the reflex muscle that kicks in (we hope!) when you sneeze or cough.

During pregnancy, the importance of recruiting the pelvic floor muscles becomes essential as the body has to deal with the influx of the hormone relaxin which further relaxes the muscles and tendons in preparation for birth, placing more stress on the pelvic floor as the weight of the foetus increases. Whether we have had/are planning on having children or not, we shouldn't be waiting for the midwife or our doctor to educate us on our pelvic floor when we can quite easily incorporate exercises to strengthen these muscles in our day to day life to ensure that we can reap the benefits

Okay, so how can we 'find' them?

This is the tricky part as you can't see your pelvic floor muscles and you have to 'feel' them to know that the correct muscles are working. Prepare to be patient with yourself here! A visualisation technique is the best way to recruit these muscles and here are a couple of examples you can think of:

- The lift analogy - imagine the pelvic floor muscles are a lift. Tighten these muscles as the lift doors close and draw up inside as the lift rises to the first floor.

- Drawstring bag - imagine a string between the pubic bone, coccyx and sit bones. Pull the string tight and lift it up into the pelvis. (HFE Student Manual & Di Fiore, 2010)

You can put these analogies into practice in any position but it is recommended to start off by sitting on a chair and ensuring you have good posture to start off with. The challenge will be to refrain from involving any of the peripheral muscles that might be tempted to aid the contraction - you'll soon notice if your glutes have engaged if you rise up slightly from your chair. Make sure you're not holding your breath when you execute the contraction - you should be able to breathe normally, however the use the breath can aid technique depending on what sort of contraction you're performing.

There are 2 types of contractions that can be performed: slow and fast.

Fast contractions - these are short and quick contractions where we engage the muscles forcefully and release immediately. To perform the contraction, inhale through the nose, allowing the abdomen to extend and exhale forcefully whilst tightening the pelvic floor, then release immediately. Try this:

-Perform 8 - 10 repetitions and repeat 2 - 3 times with minimal rest in between sets. Make sure the pelvis doesn't tilt during the contractions and focus on maintaining a neutral position of the pelvis.

Slow contractions - unlike the fast contractions where you are using maximal force to ignite the pelvic floor, the aim of these contractions is to achieve moderate activation of the pelvic floor muscles by performing the contractions in a slow and steady manner. Inhale deeply through the nose, allowing the abdomen to expand and upon a slow exhalation, gently draw the pelvic floor muscles inwards and upwards, holding the contraction for 2-3 seconds while continuing to breathe normally, then release under control.

- Perform 8 - 10 repetitions of these. Some may find the slow contractions a little harder than the fast contractions as the action tends to fatigue the muscles quicker. The holding time can be decreased if this is the case and then increased with conditioning and practice. Alternatively, you could hold the contraction for 6 counts, releasing slowly and controlled and then repeat this 4 more times.

Once you have mastered these exercises from a seated position, you may want to try them kneeling, lying down or from standing. Practicing these exercises a couple of times a week for a non -pregnant person is a great starting point. Pregnant or post natal women should be practicing these a 2-3 times a day. Think of ways you can incorporate them into your everyday life, maybe whilst you're brushing your teeth or waiting for the kettle to boil? By strengthening the pelvic floor, the deeper, local core muscles will aid the stabilisation of the spine and pelvis. It's also worth noting that by doing these exercises regularly, your pelvic floor muscles will be able to better differentiate from a contraction and relaxation.

The Transverse Abdominis

I could write a whole other blog on the TVA's (transverse abdominis) which can be thought of as the corset underneath your abdominal wall that supports your internal muscles and works in tangent with your pelvic floor.

To engage your TVA's, think about drawing the belly button to the spine upon exhalation of the breath, hold for 10 seconds whilst breathing normally and then release - practice 8-10 repetitions of this from lying down on your back to start off with and gradually work your way up to performing these from a quadruped position on the hand and knees (working against gravity here). Maintain the activation at 30% of the maximal effort when performing exercise and this will help to strengthen the core and protect the back.

The internal core muscles work together with the external muscles such as the rectus abdominis (the six pack - don't worry, I'm still looking for mine too!) and the obliques (your waist). Think about strengthening the core from the inside out - it's a process and it will take time and patience as you won't be able to physically see these muscles working but after a little practice, you will notice that your core work will feel easier and your posture will be positively effected by these exercises too.

I know you'd be lying if you said you hadn't tried a couple of these exercises whilst reading this! So, have you found your pelvic floor muscles? If so, how are you going to incorporate these exercises into your daily life? I'd love to know. Pelvic floor exercises aren't exclusively for women, so any men reading this - get to it too!

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