When it comes to pelvic floor health, popular culture focuses heavily on kegel exercises. And for good reason! All human beings have pelvic floor muscles that stretch from the pubic bone to the tailbone and sits bones (that’s really a term – it means the bones you sit on) as well. For those with female sex organs, they also support pelvic floor organs like the bladder, urethra, uterus, rectum and bowel.
Keeping this muscle group strong is important for a number of reasons. It improves core strength and stability (and posture), eases chronic back, hip, and neck pain, improves bladder control, and helps you manage anxiety and stress (a major mood killer). It can kick your sex life up a notch as well, because a stronger pelvic floor means stronger, more powerful orgasms.
But did you know kegels are only part of a pelvic floor muscle training program? Or that too much pelvic floor clenching can actually lead to weak pelvic floor muscles? Being able to fully relax the correct muscles is just as important as finding a functional contraction (that’s what a kegel is), because our muscles are only as strong as they are pliable.
How to Properly Kegel
First things first: let’s make sure you’re executing your kegel in the most efficient way possible. Contrary to popular belief, a kegel is not just squeezing your pelvic floor, it’s also lifting it. Because you’re working with an internal muscle group, it’s not easy to understand what proper contraction is supposed to feel like. So knowing what it’s not can be helpful in your trial-and-error process of figuring it out.
A kegel is not squeezing your butt muscles or clenching your abs. Yes, there will be some co-contraction with the abs, because your pelvic floor is actually your most important core muscle. But done correctly, you won’t feel a pushing out on your low belly when you draw the pelvic floor up and in; you’ll feel a subtle corseting sensation around the waist. Try laying a hand on your belly and hugging the abs away from your hand, while lifting the belly button up towards the sternum. Don’t squeeze your butt, though, because then you’re compensating with your glutes and the pelvic floor isn’t getting in on any of the action. It’ll take some practice, but see if you can flex through the sphincter without squeezing the cheeks themselves.
To find the right sensation, sit cross-legged on the floor. Add a cushion underneath your hips if they’re tight, so your knees are not higher than your hips and you’re able to sit comfortably on your sits bones. Visualize a tissue spread flat on the floor (or cushion) underneath the pelvic floor as you inhale. Then as you exhale, imagine drawing the tissue up inside you. For female genitalia, it will feel like you’re sucking the tissue in with your vagina; for male genitalia, it will feel like a “nuts to guts” lift.
Another visual that works really well for those with vaginas is to imagine a straw in your vagina, and then try to contract around the straw while also sucking fluid into it at the same time. You can even build this practice into your self-pleasure time by experimenting with inserting a finger or your favorite Dame toy (I like the Arc!) and seeing if you can draw it in with the vaginal muscles.
Pelvic floor control helps you pay attention to your bodily sensations, which is a powerful sensual experience in and of itself.
To condition these muscles fully, you’ll want to practice quick pulses of contraction and slower holds, so that you’re building strength in both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers. This will improve not just your ability to manage urine urgency, but also prevent the urine leakage that can accompany laughter, passing gas, sneezing, or doing high impact exercises.
How to Effectively Release the Pelvic Floor
In addition to engaging and lifting, the “letting go” portion of the exercise is crucial. Think of how your arm responds to a bicep curl: if you only pulse in and never fully extend the arm straight, you’re missing the eccentric, or lengthening, portion of the movement entirely. You’re likely to end up with a charlie horse or lots of muscle tension. Your pelvic floor muscles are the same – too much squeezing or compensating with other muscle groups can build up tension that weakens the pelvic floor (and your orgasm) over time.
Thankfully, releasing your pelvic floor is as simple as taking a deep breath. I know we all love to brag about how stressed we are, but stress isn’t doing your body (or your mental health) any favors. Think of your pelvic floor as a very intuitive stress ball. We tend to hold our breath and grip our core when we get into the fight-or-flight state, in a natural attempt to protect the most vulnerable region of our body. Three-dimensional breathing not only loosens tension in the neck, back, and pelvis, but it also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which makes us feel safe and relax.
To take a three-dimensional breath, you want to imagine sending your inhale not just into your chest or belly, but also to the sides of the ribs and the backs of the ribs, so you’re not increasing intra-abdominal pressure that pushes on the pelvic floor. In a seated position, close your eyes, place one hand on your low belly and one hand wrapped around your ribs; you should have a thumb around the back, and fingertips resting on the front ribs. As you inhale through your nostrils as if smelling a fragrant candle, fill up the back and sides of your ribs and your low belly like a big balloon. See if you can get that inhale all the way down into the pelvic floor, so that you feel full-contraction release.
Exhale through the mouth as if you’re fogging up a mirror. At the same time, imagine drawing the pelvic floor (or the straw or tissue we talked about) up and in around your abdominal canister, like a balloon letting air out. If you’re having trouble breathing into the back of your body, check out this video I made with some strategies to help you feel more expansive there. This gets your diaphragm and pelvic floor synced in a way that makes the muscles stronger and more flexible.
Get to Know Your Own Body
Building body awareness and pelvic floor control will improve blood circulation to the pelvic floor. That increases arousal response and lubrication in the female genitalia, and can help people with male genitalia manage issues with gas and urinary incontinence (including stress incontinence).
Pelvic floor muscle exercises (and biofeedback) can also prevent issues like pelvic floor dysfunction and pelvic organ prolapse, which can be caused by anything from childbirth and obesity, to heavy lifting and even straining during constipation.
Because this type of training requires focused attention and mindfulness, it also gives you space to pay attention to your bodily sensations, which is a powerful sensual experience in and of itself. Knowing your own body in this way can give you a firmer grasp of what you like and don’t like in the bedroom, too – as clocking out of your body is the quickest way to make sex feel like a chore.
I know self-care can feel like a full-time job if you listen to wellness marketing these days, but the good news is that pelvic floor exercises can be done anywhere and no one will even know you’re working out. I recommend spending some time every day to practice engaging, releasing and listening to your own body. You’ll be amazed what a little “me time” can do for your sexual function and overall sex life, whether it’s solo or partnered.