Kegel Exercises: How and Why You Should Do Them
When you think of exercise, you likely think about training muscles like your legs and butt. Or, maybe you’re more interested in the showy muscles like the chest and biceps. Or, perhaps you think of exercises to keep your heart and lungs in great shape. Yet, there’s a less visual set of muscles that’s just as important for your health and quality of life: your pelvic floor muscles. And there’s a specific type of exercise to help keep these muscles in shape: Kegel exercises.
Why is the Pelvic Floor Important?
Keeping the pelvic floor muscles in shape is essential as these muscles support the uterus, bladder, intestines (bowel), and rectum. And when these muscles are strong, it can help prevent:
- Stress incontinence (i.e., when urine leaks due to a sneeze, cough, or when laughing)
- Urinary urge incontinence (i.e., having a sudden, powerful urge to pee leading to a large outpouring)
- Fecal incontinence (i.e., stool leakage)
- Unintentionally passing gas
How do these muscles get weak? Many factors, including aging, genetics, pregnancy and childbirth, surgery, excessive straining from constipation, coughing, sneezing, exercising, or even laughing can lead to weakening of the pelvic floor muscles, which can also be weakened by weight gain or being overweight. And it’s not only women who can experience a weak pelvic floor and the negative effects that can lead to. Men are also affected.
Strengthening the Pelvic Floor with Kegel Exercises
Kegel (pronounced “Key-gul”) exercises won’t improve the way you look or help you fit into your clothes better, but they can definitely improve your quality of life. Developed in the late 1940s by American gynecologist Dr. Arnold H. Kegel, these exercises can be done by men or women to help strengthen these important muscles.
The first step is to locate the correct muscles. (Many people make the mistake of working abdominal, glute, or inner thigh muscles rather than those in the pelvic floor and thus don’t reap the benefits.)
For women and men, pretend you’re trying to avoid passing gas or trying to stop the flow of urine. Additionally, for women, you can also pretend that you are tightening the muscles around a tampon. The contraction should be felt more in the back of the pelvic area than the front. (And it will take some practice to get a feel for it.)
As you’re learning the exercise, start by emptying your bladder. It can help to lay on your back and breathe deeply to ensure you’re completely relaxed before you get started. Then, with your hands placed on your stomach (so you can make sure your abs, legs, chest, and butt stay relaxed), contract and relax only the muscles of the pelvic floor. (Once your body understands how it feels to contract and relax the muscles, you can perform the exercises while sitting or standing.)
Once you are in position, simply tighten or contract the muscles in the pelvic floor and hold for 3 to 5 seconds and then allow them to relax for 3 to 5 seconds, repeating a total of 10 times but allowing at least a few seconds between every rep (i.e., cycle of contraction and relaxation). Gradually work your way up until you’re able to contract and relax for 10 seconds or choose a variety of timing (contract and relax for 1 second and then for 5 and then for 3 and then for 10, for example). Remember, however, to continue breathing as you contract and relax.
To really strengthen the muscles, shoot for 30 to 40 Kegel exercise reps per day, but it’s better to do them throughout the day instead of all at one time. Fortunately, once your body understands how the exercise feels, and more importantly, how to properly activate the pelvic floor muscles, you can do them just about anywhere, anytime without anyone knowing but you. You can do them while waiting at a stoplight, standing in line, watching TV, or even while working at your desk.
Pelvic Floor Exercise Mistakes to Avoid
As mentioned above, it’s easy to confuse the muscles you’re working. Focus on relaxing the muscles of the inner thighs, abs, chest, and butt.
You also don’t want to practice Kegels while actually emptying your bladder (especially with a full bladder). This can prevent the bladder from fully emptying, increase the risk of a urinary tract infection, and further weaken the pelvic floor muscles.
Women, be careful not to “overtrain” the muscles by working them too often or with too much force as this can lead to pain during sexual intercourse.
If you have any pain during the exercise, stop doing them, as you may be doing them incorrectly or they may not be right for you. While Kegel exercises are safe and often relaxing, they aren’t appropriate for everyone. And you may need to ask a doctor or physical therapist who works with these muscles for added instruction.
Finally, this likely isn’t an exercise you’ll do as part of your regular workout, so you’ll need to remind yourself to do them two to three times throughout your day—perhaps first thing in the morning, when you get home from work, and again before you go to sleep at night.
Additional Benefits of Kegel Exercises
In addition to helping with incontinence, Kegel exercises can also help improve sexual health and enjoyment, especially for women. For example, by learning how to relax these muscles, you can better allow the vagina to open, which can help decrease pain or discomfort during intercourse. It can also increase blood circulation and lubrication in the nether regions, which encourages greater sexual arousal and can even make it easier to orgasm.
For men, it can also help reduce prostate pain and swelling due to benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), or prostatitis. And it may help improve pleasure by helping men control ejaculations and enhance orgasm sensations.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take long—just 4 to 6 weeks—to start reaping the benefits of Kegel exercises, which can continue as long as you continue your daily practice.