Women have special needs when it comes to core fitness. Anatomically, we are built differently than men. Our pelvises are broader, our pelvic floor muscles are wider and more flexible, and we go above and beyond when it comes to pelvic organs (ladies and gents, put your hands together for the uterus and ovaries!). Pregnancy presents a particular challenge when it comes to the muscles of the core: The growing bundle of joy stretches and strains the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles, and postural changes that occur during the second and third trimester can cramp and kink the back and hip muscles. It is truly amazing that we are able to physically function – and, for the most part, bounce back – after the miracle of carrying and birthing a child!
When the core and pelvic floor muscles are strong and working well, pelvic organs are held in place, you don’t leak when you sneeze, intercourse is stimulating and pain free, your back does not hurt, and balance is not a concern. But when the inner core is weakened, particularly the pelvic floor (for example, after childbirth or with deconditioning that results from a sedentary lifestyle) the following problems can occur:
- Back and/or pelvic pain
- Difficulty with arousal and/or vaginal lubrication
- Bladder, uterine, or rectal prolapse
- Instability of the trunk and pelvis, contributing to balance problems (ultimately increasing your risk of falls and fractures)
Take a look at the first bullet point above. Did you know that 47% of women between the ages of 20-49 have experienced urinary incontinence? Leakage is not confined to the elderly! Have you ever heard the joke: “I laughed so hard that tears ran down my legs?” Amusing? Yes… But incontinence and other issues related to core and pelvic floor weakness are preventable and treatable if you follow a few simple rules when it comes to fitness.
Learn how to properly contract and relax your pelvic floor muscles (in other words, learn how to do kegels) and then practice at least three times per week.
Kegels may seem dull and even passé, but regularly completing kegels will help you gain strength, endurance, and coordination of the pelvic floor muscles. This will keep you in control of your bodily functions as you age. Control = Confidence, and confidence is hugely connected to quality of life: If you don’t pee when you laugh, you will feel more comfortable socially. If you don’t leak when you exercise, you will be more likely to head outside for a walk or a run. If you can hold your bladder long enough to make it to the store and back, any anxiety you might have about knowing every rest stop en route and in the shopping center should greatly decrease.
Okay, I get it… Kegels are important… But how do I know if I’m doing them right? Take a moment to practice right now. Lie on your back or on your side. Lying down takes gravity out of the picture and gives your pelvic floor muscles the greatest advantage for a strong contraction. Visualize your pelvic floor muscles. They sit at the base of your pelvis and surround your vagina and your anus. Try to squeeze and lift these muscles toward your head. Imagine that you’re using these muscles to pull a marble into your vagina. I know, I know… It sounds strange. But this visualization works. Now relax the muscles and imagine that you’re letting the marble roll out. You just completed a kegel! Do another kegel, but this time hold the contraction for 5-8 seconds before relaxing. Complete 5 to 10 repetitions. These “slow hold” kegels are great for increasing strength and endurance of the pelvic floor muscles. This is important for preventing incontinence and prolapse, and – bonus – can amp up your sex life as well.
But kegels are so boring… Yes, they are! Boring, but imperative for the feminine health and wellness. Here are a few suggestions for increasing the fun-factor (and remembering to do them):
- Insert a set of kegels into your regular fitness routine. Every time you lie down to do your abdominal work at the gym, slip in a few kegels.
- Do kegels to music! Hold the contraction during slow, melodic parts of a song to work on endurance. Complete quick contractions (i.e. squeeze, release, squeeze, release) when the song has a driving beat.
- Connect your kegels with a daily task such as blow drying your hair, brushing your teeth, standing in line, or sitting at stoplights.
Move your body every which way.
Move high (up on your tiptoes) and move low (into a deep squat). Move in circles, swirls, and rolls. Stretch your limits! Get out of the rut of straight-plane, linear movements that occur within limited and confined ranges of motion such as sitting, standing, and walking.
- Challenge yourself to go deeper into your squats*.
- For multiplanar movement, add some “booty circles” to your next workout session.
- Try these two quick core strengtheners that will get you moving laterally (side to side) and “stirring it up” in circles.
When you move your body in all directions, your spine will thank you, your hips will thank you, and you will feel great moving in a sinuous, sexy, delightfully feminine way.
Note: Of course, your own personal health and fitness needs need to be taken into consideration. For example, if you have recently had surgery, you absolutely must check with your doctor before doing any type of vigorous activity that takes you into extreme ranges of motion. Safety first!
Zip it up!
Often, when we think of both posture and core strength we focus on the abdominal muscles. We stand tall and “suck in” our bellies. But in order to truly and safely engage the muscles of the core (which helps protect your back, prevent prolapse, and keeps you looking trim) you need to start at the base of the core — the pelvic floor.
Imagine a zipper that starts at the pelvic floor. Think of engaging – or starting – the zipper as you do a gentle kegel. Next, think of pulling the zipper up as you contract your abdominal muscles, gently drawing your bellybutton in and up. Finally, stand tall with your shoulders drawn gently back (don’t let them round/hunch forward!).
Remember to zip up before you prepare to do a task that requires extra balance, control, or spinal support. A few examples: Vacuuming, taking out the garbage, and lifting weights at the gym. Zip up to prepare for the challenging task, and hold the “zipped” position while you’re completing the task. After you have completed done the task, relax! But remember to “zip it up” when you need an extra dose of deep core control.
Take Home Message
Plugging away on the elliptical is fine, going for a walk or a run is great, lifting weights is fantastic, but strengthening and toning the middle part of the body – the core – is just as important as exercising the arms and legs. As females, it is essential to incorporate the muscles of the core and pelvic floor into our fitness routines. Although not particularly glamorous, the pelvic floor muscles should not be a source of shame or embarrassment. We need to talk about the deep core muscles – particularly the pelvic floor – with our daughters, our mothers, and our friends. We need to make sure our fitness instructors are aware of the inner core muscles and the importance of activating them regularly and effectively. Being conscientious of our unique female anatomy right now – taking steps to care for our pelvic floor and core muscles with consistency and focus – will pay off tenfold later in life. I assure you, it’s worth it!
Do you do kegels or other pelvic floor-specific strengthening exercises? How do you incorporate pelvic floor fitness into your daily (or weekly) routine?