Core Fitness Tips for Women

20100328 Fem Fusion 53

Note from Katie: I am excited to introduce Brianne Grogan, DPT for this guest post. She is the author of FemFusion Fitness for Intimacy and helps women improve their pelvic floor and core strength. This aspect of fitness is often ignored, though it can make a tremendous difference for many women! Enter Brianne…

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:

  • Incontinence
  • 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.

Rule One

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.

20100328 Fem Fusion 16Okay, 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.

Rule Two

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!

Rule Three

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!

http://wellnessmama.com/4443/core-fitness-for-women/Brianne Grogan, DPT, is a women’s health physical therapist, an AFAA certified group fitness instructor, and the founder of FemFusion Fitness™. Originally from Oregon, she currently lives in the Rhineland-Pfalz region of Germany with her husband and son. Brianne teaches FemFusion group fitness classes in her local community and on U.S. military installations. She recently released her first book, FemFusion Fitness for Intimacy, which is available for e-readers on amazon.com

Do you do kegels or other pelvic floor-specific strengthening exercises? How do you incorporate pelvic floor fitness into your daily (or weekly) routine?

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Reader Comments

  1. Thank you so much for having me, Katie! 

    • I’m going to highly recommend this website!

  2. Doing Kegels during daily tasks is a great idea (filling up my water glass at the fridge and rinsing out the dishrag are my go tos). As a Zumba instructor and ballet instructor, I frequently go between circling and shaking them hips out and pulling everything into firm alignment. having had four kids, I can definately feel the benefits of both, as can my adult students.
    A strong pelvic floor has benefits for all aspects of life. Thanks for bring knowledge and awareness to the subject!
    Side note; I’ve heard that kegels are beneficial for men and sexual health as well.

    • Hey Erin! So glad you’ve seen the benefits of a strong pelvic floor. Zumba and ballet are both AWESOME for pelvic health! 
      As for men and kegels, yep — men have pelvic floor muscles, and learning how to control them (i.e. with kegel exercises) has been said to help men increase control during sex. (For example, delay orgasm for men who prematurely ejaculate). Sorry, that got all clinical toward the end. Ha! 
      Have a great day!

  3. I have a question. Is there ever a time where these exercises are not enough to avoid a hysterectomy? After an examination with my obgyn this week, he suggests scheduling surgery. 

    I’ve had 4 vaginal births. The first 3 were normal epidurals. With the fourth birth I wanted to experience something better. I chose natural childbirth and it was amazing. During the pregnancy, I did a lot of research. I did kegels, squats and pelvic tilts. My baby is now 7 months old. I continue to do kegels, but I don’t know if it will be enough. I’m wondering if it’s too late to reverse the lack of exercises from the first 3 births.  

    • Hi Erin R — unfortunately, it may be too late for pelvic floor exercises to help. However, there are always non-surgical options you can look into such as pessaries. 
      Kegels and other focused pelvic floor exercises (such as those you would complete under the direction of a women’s health physical therapist) are best for preventing the PROGRESSION of mild pelvic organ prolapse. If your uterus has prolapsed too far, the pelvic floor muscles will no longer be able to effectively contract underneath the uterus to help support it in its proper position. 
      That’s not to say exercises aren’t worthwhile, even if you choose to undergo surgery (or use a pessary, like I mentioned above). For the exercises, try completing your kegels lying down with your hips propped up on pillows (so that your hips are higher than your chest). This uses gravity to pull your uterus (and other pelvic organs) back into their proper positions. Stay in this position while you do your kegel exercises. And be sure to relax completely between each rep! 

  4. I’ve done kegels during all four of my pregnancies and after as well. I’ve had 4 babies in the past 5 years and never leak, so I’m definitely a kegels fan!

    • Great, Allyson! So good to hear!

  5. Oh, I am so excited. Brianne is only about 25 minutes from me as I am living in Baumholder (stationed here with my hubby). I will have to check out one of her classes.

    Brianne, can you lead me to information about the class in Landstuhl? I also checked out the website for Grace Studio 🙂

    • Hey Erica! So great to hear from you. The class at Landstuhl is held on Wednesdays at 10:00 in the Fitness Center. It’s $4.00 for a single class (you can pay at the front desk). I’m always there early, so if you come a few minutes early we can chat. I hope to meet you soon! 
      *Oh, and bring a yoga mat if you have one (if you don’t, you can always borrow from the Fitness Center). 

  6. My mother has most of the problems you list here so I guess I need to get busy so I don’t as well. 

  7. Love your post, Brianna!  The marble image for the Kegel is so brilliant.

    I have had personal training clients heal their knee pain by incorporating exercises and yoga poses that strengthen the pelvic floor.  Strong flexible pelvic muscles help stabilize the knees.I practice Kegels during sex.  Not only does it make the exercise more exciting, it makes the sex hotter.  The first time I pulled that on my man, he nearly went through the roof with intense pleasure.Thanks for your work to help women regain their power from their core.Best wishes.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jen! You’ve experienced the power of the pelvic floor for yourself… AWESOME! And great to hear that you’re sharing the info with your clients. Thank you!

      • I will definitely check out your book, Brianna.  You’ll probably hear from me via email soon too. 

  8. I have a fitness question that I can’t seem to find the answer to. It’s been just about a year and a half since I had my daughter. I am on my 3rd month of serious exercise (it’s about time!) I don’t have much fat on my stomach. Actually it looks very defined because of my workouts, however my whole stomach sticks out… It won’t stay in (I don’t think it’s fat). Does this mean I need more inner core work? Does this have to do with children, and will kegals somehow fix this?

    Thanks

    • Maybe she’ll chime in too, but I can speak from my experience… I had a tear in one of my abdominal muscles during my first pregnancy (mainly because I was naively doing heavy ab exercises throughout the pregnancy). It took several years for it to get better and the only thing that seemed to help was kettlebells…

    • Nimacomber — my guess is that you are dealing with a separation of the rectus abdominis muscles (known as diastasis recti). This is a common condition that occurs during pregnancy for many women and is often undiagnosed.

      When the abdominal muscles remain separated after delivery, you will have less muscular support for your back and your stomach will protrude. If this is the case for you, you will need to work on closing your diastasis. I suggest working with a trainer or physical therapist who specializes in women’s health and fitness.

      Avoid doing abdominal crunches or sit-ups while the diastasis is healing. I encourage you to focus on strengthening your deep abdominals, specifically the transverse abdominis. These muscles help to flatten and “pull in” your abdominal area.

      Kettlebells are a great way to strengthen all of the muscles of the core, including the transverse abdominis. As long as you know HOW to use kettlebells safely/correctly, and as long as you are strong enough to start a kettlebell program, it is a great idea (see comment below from Katie of Wellness Mama)!

  9. I have had trouble with this since I had my daughter. I went to Sgt’s course last summer and had to explain to my male Ssgt that I could run as hard bc I had to pee… Even goin right before we ran and limiting liquids before and during… Which isn’t a good idea in the subtropic climates of Okinawa. He told me we ere all sweaty and stinky(looked like we had all just swam in out pt gear bc of how hot and humid it was) so just let it flow… Was very embarrassing to even talk about. I do keg els when I think about it, but I think I’m now goi g to try not only adding them to my workout routine, but also brushing my teeth.

    • Hi Christi! Brianne here — the author of this guest post — and I just saw your comment.

      I hope things have improved for you… With regular completion of isolated pelvic floor strengthening exercises (i.e. kegels), along with global core strengthening exercises (including your gluteal and hip muscles and your deep abdominal and back muscles), you should notice a difference in the incontinence.

      I know it’s a difficult thing to talk about, and certainly uncomfortable to explain to a male colleague! Good luck to you. 😉

  10. A word of caution on doing Kegels….

    I am currently seeing a pelvic health physiotherapist for mild incontinence (only when I’m skipping/jumping) and she told me to hold off on doing the Kegels until I addressed my muscle tone issue. On my first visit she did an internal exam to rate my muscle tone… -3 to +3 (-3 being floppy and +3 being rigid – think cerebral palsy). In my case my tone was a good +2 so she said doing the Kegels would only make the problem worse. I needed to learn how to relax the muscles before I could focus on strengthening them.

    My advice would be to seek out a pelvic health nurse to find out what your specific situation is before starting the kegels.

    • Kathy,

      Great word of caution. I couldn’t agree more! Seeking out a pelvic health specialist is always the best route if there are any concerns such as incontinence, prolapse, etc.

  11. Being fit is good for the body but it requires enough time to spend with that so just keep pushing it up.

  12. I have recently found out I pulled an inner wall muscle would kegel or any thing else work to help fix this . I am over weight and have a belly that hangs a bit (sorry if it’s too much info) I don’t know how to tone it and I can’t do my planks or normal exercises cause of the pain. Please help….

  13. Great article! When I discovered pilates I fell in love with the difference it’s made in my own personal life…then became an instructor. Out of all the fitness mediums I have taught, running,walking, bootcamps, yoga…pilates is the one people notice in their daily lives. No longer being afraid to sneeze is a wonderful thing =)

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