If you're like most women, you probably think of Kegel exercises as something you should be doing, but realistically never will. After all, it's a little weird! Are you really supposed to spend minutes a day squeezing and releasing, hoping it's benefiting you in some intangible way you're not quite sure about? Unless you've given birth and a doctor told you to do it, it all feels vague, boring, and not a priority.
Allow me to change your mind. As it turns out, a healthy pelvic floor (a.k.a. the layer of muscles, nerves, and connective tissues that supports your abdominal organs) is kind of a secret weapon that can improve a surprising number of things in your life, according to Michelle Weber, a New York City-based mind-body personal trainer who specialises in pelvic-floor health.
"It really is connected to almost every part of life — to energy, strength and stamina, digestion, and alertness," Weber says. A healthy and stable "inner core" also helps ensure that any work you're doing in the gym on your outer core — as in, the ab muscles you might be able to see in the mirror — is even more effective. Plus, if you are on the baby train, Kegel work could even potentially make childbirth go more smoothly by helping you learn to release tension, not to mention helping stave off incontinence and prolapse after you deliver.
If that's not enough, how about this: A toned pelvic floor makes penetrative sex even more amazing. "When the pelvic floor is 'alert,' it lifts our spines up out of our pelvis a bit. When that happens, the walls of the vagina cinch like one of those Chinese finger traps and it's much more pleasurable for both people," Weber says. No matter what kind of sex you're having, the healthier connection between the spine and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis into the brain (one potential result of a well-conditioned pelvic floor) means that the brain's pleasure centres get even more activated through the reduction of stress, Weber says.
All this is to say, as unsexy as it might sound, the pelvic floor really is one of the most incredible parts of your body — and getting it in shape is easier than you think. Yes, the focus of the work is Kegel exercises, but I swear it's more fun than you think. One thing that can really help is visualisations, i.e., mental images that help guide the invisible work you're doing in your pelvis so you're not just randomly squeezing, releasing, and hoping for the best. That's why I teamed up with Weber to dream up some offbeat animations that will drive home exactly how it's done. They're all part of a 30-day challenge that will help you gradually work up to advanced pelvic floor exercises and see for yourself how awesome it feels to build a healthy foundation.
A few things to know before you start:
1. Breathing is a crucial part of this equation, which is why every day on the calendar begins with a breath exercise. You'll breathe deeply to help awaken your diaphragm, decompress your spine, and take a moment to assess where you are and how you're feeling.
2. As you perform the pelvic-floor exercises, it's just as important to release as it is to squeeze — many women actually have a hypertonic pelvic floor instead of a weak one, because they focus too much on tensing up and don't give the it a chance to relax.
3. As you progress, feel free to mix up the positions you do the exercises in. The four to try are: 1. Lying on your back with knees bent; 2. Seated upright on the floor with legs crossed (sit on a chair if this is uncomfortable); 3. On all fours; and 4. Standing. Toward the beginning of the challenge, stick to lying down or sitting, but add in the other positions as you go and switch up the order.
4. By the end of the 30 days, your sessions will be pretty lengthy — longer than 10 minutes — but don't stress that you're going to have to be Kegeling for a huge chunk of your day forever. Think of the challenge as a bootcamp to teach you smart pelvic floor skills. When you're done, you can taper down to a more moderate amount (around five minutes per day — you can even space them out into 2-3 sessions) if that feels more sustainable for you.
Let's get started.
Here's the day-by-day calendar. The numbers (e.g., "x5") refer to minutes. Where you see more than one exercise connected by a plus sign (e.g., "Shake + Balloon"), it means you should flow back and forth between the exercises for the amount of time specified.
On rest days, you'll spend a couple of minutes performing the breathing exercise — take the opportunity to assess how your pelvic floor is feeling as well, and whether you're gradually getting a little more connected throughout the pelvis, core, and spinal areas.
Diaphragmatic Rib Breath ("Bellows")
Before you begin, breathe normally for a moment with your eyes closed and notice the internal spaces where your breath naturally goes, how your bones move, and how much your lungs are expanding.
Then, place your hands on the sides of your ribs and direct the breath into the hands so the ribs expand sideways and then return inwards as you exhale — imagine a bellows (a.k.a. one of those weird fireplace tools that helps you blow air on the fire) opening and closing inside your ribcage. On the exhale, find a softening, relaxation sensation. Do about six deep breaths on a rhythm that feels natural to you; then, try a one-to-two ratio, inhaling for four counts (feeling the diaphragm actively pulling air in) and exhaling for eight (feeling the diaphragm relax). Be sure to look for the sensation that your spine is expanding and decompressing as you breathe.
Drawstring Bag ("Bag")
Imagine a soft, drawstring jewellery bag in your pelvis. Inhale. On the exhale, squeeze the pelvic floor muscles as you imagine the drawstring gathering to close the bag. On the inhale, release and imagine the drawstring softening and the bag opening again. Continue squeezing and releasing with a 1:2 breathing ratio.
Picture a milkshake at the bottom of your pelvis with a straw coming out. On the exhale, squeeze your pelvic floor muscles and imagine sucking the milkshake up through the straw, focusing on the lifting sensation. On the inhale, release the "suction" so that the milkshake returns into the cup. Try to inhale the milkshake a bit higher each time.
Hot Air Balloon ("Balloon")
Imagine a hot air balloon at the bottom of your pelvis. As you inhale, envision the balloon filling with hot air in preparation to rise. On the exhale, imagine lighting the fire in the balloon to suction the pelvic floor upwards and pull the hot air balloon up toward your ribcage. On the inhale, the flame dims and the basket returns to the bottom of the pelvis. Each exhale should feel like a fiery explosion that "vacuums" the pelvic floor upwards via the diaphragm.
House With Elevator ("House")
This is the most advanced move of our challenge, incorporating your pelvic floor, diaphragm, and obliques — it's a combination of a Kegel and a deep-breathing exercise.
Picture a house inside your abdomen — the roof is the diaphragm, the floor is the pelvic floor, and the walls are the obliques. There's also an elevator inside to help you visualise a lifting sensation. As you exhale, the floor (pelvic floor) and the roof (diaphragm) lift, the walls (obliques) cave in slightly, and the elevator rises as you focus on the lifting sensation. As you inhale, the pressure neutralises and the floor and roof return to their natural positions. The walls expand and the elevator returns to the ground floor.
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