The pelvic floor muscles are the foundation for the core of the body. They help stabilise the pelvis, and they support the organs of the lower abdominal cavity, like the bladder and uterus. The pelvic floor muscles, along with the deep muscles of the back and abdomen, form the group of muscles we work when we focus on developing core strength, as we do in Pilates. You can think of the pelvic floor muscles as a web of interrelated muscles, tendons and ligaments that form a supportive hammock at the base of the pelvic bowl. One of these muscles, the pubococcygeus, also known as the PC muscle, goes around the openings for the urethra, vagina and anus.
When the pelvic floor muscles are weak or damaged, the integrity of these openings can be compromised. Childbirth, chronic coughing, ageing, and inactivity are among the causes of weakened or damaged pelvic floor muscles. A weak pelvic floor can lead to problems like incontinence, diminished sexual enjoyment and a dropping of the organs into the pelvic muscles which is the case with problems like prolapsed uterus or bladder. In addition, if the pelvic floor muscles are weak, and not working in concert with the muscles of the abdomen and back, structural imbalances that lead to abdominal and back pain as well as patterns of compensation throughout the body, can occur. As you can see, it is important to maintain and strengthen the pelvic floor muscles! This is true for both men and women. There is a pelvic floor strengthening exercise called Kegels (named after Dr Kegel), that is usually recommended for strengthening the pelvic floor.
Exercises that strengthen the pelvic floor muscles
Kegels are very specific to the pelvic floor. To do them, you squeeze the muscles of the pelvic floor as if you were going to stop the flow of urine when you go to the bathroom. Use stopping the flow of urine a few times to find the muscles you need, but do not use it as a way to practise Kegels in general as constantly stopping the flow of urine can weaken, rather than strengthen, the pelvic floor. Kegels are most well-known for helping women recover muscle tone after pregnancy, but they are good for all of us. Pilates is also excellent exercise for strengthening the pelvic floor. In Pilates, the pelvic floor muscles are used in their role as natural muscular support for movement. This is a firm and sustained engagement of the muscles where one is pulling the pelvic floor in and up as part of exercises where abdominal muscles as well as other muscles, are involved. The degree of engagement you use should be balanced with the amount of exertion you need to perform the Pilates exercise you are doing. Knee folds, for example, might require just the slightest activation whereas an intense exercise like the hundred will call for a lot more from the pelvic floor, and abs.
How to find the pelvic floor muscles
The catch here is that the pelvic floor muscles can be hard to feel when you are exercising or moving through daily life. “Engage the pelvic floor” is a common cue in Pilates instruction, but many students are unsure about how to get that to happen. My favourite image for getting the pelvic floor muscles in on an exercise is to think of bringing the sit bones together and up. Another good image is to think of drawing a fountain of energy up from the base of the pelvic bowl—up through the middle of the body, and out the top of the head. (www.pilates.about.com)