Maybe you just had a baby, or are about to. You’ve likely been warned that childbirth causes your pelvic floor to drop significantly, or even leads to prolapse, which can mean incontinence and a loss of sexual satisfaction—and you’re told the answer is to practice your Kegels.
Not so fast. The thing is, we’ve come a long way since Kegels first entered the women’s health chat.
“Kegels are an old-fashioned technique that were made popular by a male doctor (Dr. Kegel) in the 1940s,” Pilates trainer and postpartum corrective exercise specialist Emma Bromley shares. “Although his work was groundbreaking at the time, we now know that Kegels do not, in fact, give us the full picture.” Why? Your pelvic floor wasn’t designed to function independently from the rest of your core.
As innovative as Kegels may have once seemed, Bromley says that they actually overwhelm the delicate pelvic floor muscles. Over time, they can lead to extreme tightness—and sometimes even excruciating pain. “There are no movements in life that require pelvic floor isolation, so it’s actually not a particularly helpful thing to learn and, honestly, in many cases, causes more harm than good,” she adds. “When someone tells me that they’ve been doing Kegels regularly and they’ve never had any issues, I consider them to be one of the very few lucky ones.”
Instead, the key is to hone in on your pelvic floor and core as a whole. “Your pelvic floor was designed by nature to work in tandem with the diaphragm and the rest of the core, and with the breath,” Bromley says.
The only problem? Since the pelvic floor muscles aren’t ones we can see, like the biceps or quads, it can be tricky to figure out how to engage them. Find the right coordination takes both imagination and practice.
How do you activate your pelvic floor?
1. Start with your breath
The pelvic floor lies deep within the multi-layer muscle system of the pelvis, The Bloom Method founder Brooke Cates points out. She admits that it can be quite challenging to connect to at first.
“I love helping women tap into their entire pelvic floor musculature by starting them out with deep, slow diaphragmatic breaths,” she says. When you inhale, your pelvic floor muscles naturally lengthen, and when you exhale, they naturally contract. “Once someone can feel the subtle movement of the pelvic floor in correlation to the breath, we can go a bit deeper.”
2. Imagine an arcade machine grabber
Cates suggests imagining lifting the pelvic floor as if it were a grabber claw. “All four pelvic floor points come together (think of a diamond shape, and you want to draw all points to the middle as you lift up with your exhale),” she explains. “The slower the exhale the better. As you inhale, imagine the grabber claw opening and releasing with all points moving away from one another.”
3. Try deep squats
“In a deep squat position (think: sumo squat) inhale as you lower, opening the pelvic floor and as you rise, exhale and imagine picking up a blueberry or marble ball with your pelvic floor,” Cates says.
4. Think of sucking up through a straw
While on the topic of food, Cates says envisioning a slurping sensation can help, too. “Imagine your vagina sucking a milkshake up through a straw,” she suggests. “As you exhale you’re literally sucking the milkshake up with your pelvic floor contraction and on the inhale you release the milkshake back into the straw.”
5. Envision an elevator rising
For non food-related cues, clinical sexologist and Satisfyer director of education, Megwyn White, says to imagine an elevator pulling upward further inside of you. “When your pelvic floor muscles contract, your internal organs lift upward and your vaginal, anus, and urethra openings tighten,” she adds.
6. Do the same thing as when you stop your pee
Elvie CEO and founder Tania Boler says to imagine you’re stopping your pee mid-flow. “This will help you to identify where your pelvic floor muscles are,” she explains, quickly noting that it’s important to not use this exercise when actually holding pee or use it as an exercise to strengthen your pelvic floor (this can actually damage your pelvic floor if done too often). “But it is a good trick to know what muscles you want to focus on engaging.”
7. Think of lifting and lacing
Rather than clenching your vagina and holding that tension, Bromley says to switch your attention to a lifting and lacing mindset. “Put your mind six inches below your belly button, and imagine you are simply trying to lift up all of your internal organs—no clenching, just lifting,” she instructs. “Now we don’t want to teach the pelvic floor to be working independently from the rest of the core, so here’s how to connect the dots: Keep that lift, and imagine someone is tying one of those old Victorian corsets really tightly around you. That’s your transverse abdominals (your wraparound abs).” Breathe in that position for 30 seconds, then relax and repeat.
8. Add a prop
If you want to take your pelvic floor strengthening a step further, there’s always the option to include an accessory, like the Elvie Trainer ($199). “You can strengthen your pelvic floor with expert-designed workouts and visualize the movements in real time using biofeedback to ensure you are performing them correctly,” says Boler.
9. Place a finger inside
Want to make sure you’re activating everything the right way? White suggests placing a finger in your vagina. “You should feel a lifting/contracting feeling.”
Try this step-by-step tutorial on engaging your pelvic floor with physio and Pilates trainer Chloe de Winter:
Something to note
It’s worth mentioning: While it’s most common for conversations surrounding pelvic floors to be geared towards people with vaginas—and especially with those who have recently given birth—in reality, men have pelvic floors, too. Like women, men’s pelvic floors support the bladder and bowels, and play a role in sexual performance.