We hear much about the importance of strengthening our “core” muscles. Most core exercise programs focus on the abdominal, hip, and back muscles. However, there are deeper core muscles that form the floor of the core muscles–the pelvic floor muscles—that are often neglected. These muscles play a vital role in sexual, urinary, and bowel health and in maintaining proper form, balance and posture during virtually every form of exercise.
The Pelvic Floor Muscles
The pelvic floor muscles are not well-respected external glamour muscles. However, these often-ignored pelvic muscles are hidden gems that work diligently behind the scenes. These muscles have a role that goes way beyond the joint movement and locomotion function of the external muscles. Although concealed, the pelvic muscles have a profoundly important role in sexual, urinary, and bowel function as well as in supporting our pelvic organs.
Use Them Or Lose Them
The pelvic floor muscles, as with other muscles in the body, are subject to adaptation. Unused as intended, they can become thin, flabby and poorly functional as happens with aging, weight gain, a sedentary lifestyle, poor posture and other forms of injury and trauma, chronic straining, and surgery. Used appropriately as designed by nature, they can remain healthy in structure and function. When targeted exercise is applied to them, particularly against the forces of resistance, they can be enhanced. Diligently practiced pelvic exercises will allow one to reap tangible rewards, as having fit pelvic muscles is the essence of functional fitness.
Pelvic Floor Muscle Training: In Isolation and Integrated With Other Workouts
There are two means of working out the pelvic floor muscles: in isolation and integrated. In order to become the master of your pelvic domain, it is initially important to isolate the pelvic floor muscles. Once pelvic floor muscle competence is established, pelvic exercises can then be integrated into other exercise routines and workouts. In real life, muscles do not work in isolation but rather as part of a team, the pelvic muscles being no exception. The pelvic floor muscles often contract in conjunction with the other core muscles in a mutually supportive and synergistic fashion. In fact, many Pilates and yoga exercises emphasize consciously contracting the pelvic muscles simultaneously with the other core muscles during exercise routines.
Engaging the pelvic floor muscles while doing squats, lunges, etc., serves not only to integrate the lower regions of the core and provide optimal support and “lift” of the floor of the core, but also as a means of exercising the mind-body connection. It is important to avoid overexertion of the pelvic floor muscles and awareness directed towards this region is sufficient without the necessity for a forceful contraction.
Dynamic exercises in which complex body movements are coupled with core and pelvic stabilization—such as squats and deadlifts—enhance non-core as well as core strength and function to the maximum. The core muscles, including the pelvic floor, stabilize the trunk when our limbs are active, enabling us to put great effort into limb movements. It’s impossible to use the arm and leg muscles effectively in any athletic endeavor without engaging a solid core as a platform from which to push off (think martial arts). Normally this happens without conscious effort, but with some focus and engagement, the core and pelvic floor contraction can be optimized. The stronger the platform, the more powerful the potential push off that platform can be.
Pelvic Contractions To Counteract Intense Training Regimens
Weight training and other forms of intense exercise result in tremendous increases in abdominal pressure. This force is largely exerted downwards towards the pelvic floor, particularly when exercising in the standing position, when gravity also comes into play. Engaging the pelvic floor during such efforts will help counteract the vector of downwards forces exerted on the pelvic floor.
Many females and certain males (particularly after radical prostatectomy) suffer with stress urinary incontinence, a spurt-like urinary leakage that occurs at times of increased abdominal pressure such as with sports and other high impact activities including jumping and kickboxing. For years, urologists and gynecologists have advocated the “knack” maneuver to counteract this, a technique in which the pelvic muscles are braced and briskly engaged at the time or just before any activity that triggers the stress incontinence. When practiced diligently, this can ultimately become an automatic behavior.
Bottom Line: The pelvic floor muscles are out of sight and therefore out of mind. However, these muscles that form the floor of the core are fundamental to many important body functions (sex, urinary and bowel). Pelvic floor muscle conditioning will not only help keep these functions in working order, but also is a vital component to the performance of complex movements that require engagement and stabilization of the core muscles.