Pelvic floor exercises

Pregnant woman in exercise clothes

The pelvic floor is the set of sling-like muscles at the base of your pelvis that supports your uterus, bladder and bowel – effectively keeping them all in place. During pregnancy and labour, these muscles are put under a lot of strain. Exercises which strengthen your pelvic floor can help you during childbirth and when recovering after – and can also improve your sex life.

What happens to your pelvic floor during pregnancy

Your pelvic floor goes through a tremendous strain in pregnancy. The muscles can become stretched and weak because of the continual weight. As your baby grows bigger, the amount of pressure put on it gets larger, making it harder for it to do its job of preventing incontinence, treating prolapse and improving sex.

Childbirth compounds these problems and can do some real damage to the pelvic floor. Nearly a third of women develop some level of stress incontinence after giving birth.

I didn't do pelvic floor exercises during pregnancy. Trampolines now fill me with fear and when I sneeze I automatically cross my legs.

Many women can testify to the effects of this, and what happens when your pelvic area is put under stress – such as when you sneeze, laugh, cough, run, or have a few too many wines and clamber onto the kid's trampoline.

To give your pelvic floor muscles a fighting chance of being able to do their job after the stresses and strains of pregnancy and labour, it's good to get into the habit of doing some strengthening pelvic floor exercises whenever you get a chance.

When should I start doing pelvic floor exercises?

Now! Every woman, pregnant or not, can benefit from exercising their pelvic floor muscles. Keeping your pelvic floor fit and healthy can help you enjoy a satisfying sex life through increasing sensitivity during sex and can result in stronger orgasms. Starting them before pregnancy can also help ward off problems in the future that can be exacerbated by pregnancy and childbirth, weight gain or ageing.

Having a strong pelvic floor also helps when giving birth, as they are useful during the second stage of labour when you need to push your baby out. If you experience a perineal tear during birth, they can help you to heal faster.

Stopping peeing midflow can be a useful way of checking your pelvic floor muscles are getting stronger but this shouldn't be used as muscle training as you can give yourself a urine infection.

What are pelvic floor exercises?

Imagine you're having a wee and are trying to stop mid-flow. The muscles you squeeze to do this are your pelvic floor. If you've done pilates or yoga before, you'll probably be familiar with them already.

When you squeeze these muscles, you're exercising them. These are also sometimes called Kegel exercises, and they're very easy to do.

How to do pelvic floor exercises

  • Imagine that you're trying to stop the flow of urine when you are urinating by tightening your muscles from the front of your pelvis and round towards your bottom. It might help to imagine that you are drawing something up and into your vagina, pulling the muscles upwards.
  • Keep the muscles tightened for the count of 10, then let them go and relax. Do this five times.
  • Make sure that you are breathing normally and avoid tightening your legs, stomach or bottom. Just concentrate on the pelvic floor muscles.
  • When you are used to this, try tightening and relaxing the muscles in succession, without holding the tension. Do this 10 to 15 times.
  • A variation is to imagine the pelvic floor muscles as a lift, gradually squeezing them tighter as though they are rising from floor to floor.

If you do them regularly, you should begin to notice the results of the exercises within a few months. You should carry on doing the exercises, even when you notice them starting to work.
Woman on trampoline

How often should I exercise my pelvic floor?

As pelvic floor exercises can be done while you're going about your business without anyone noticing, try to do them as often as you can. Don't overdo it, and make sure you know how to relax the muscles as well as tighten them – this can help during the second stage of labour where relaxing the muscles around your vagina may help you to avoid damaging your perineum.

Every woman should aim to make pelvic floor exercises a regular activity to maintain a healthy and fully functioning pelvic area. Try to associate them with something else you do every day, such as during your regular commute, checking Twitter or watching your favourite soap. This way, you're more likely to remember to do them.

What will happen if I don't exercise my pelvic floor muscles?

Pelvic floor exercises make a noticeable difference to the enjoyability of sex, which frankly I consider a good payoff for remembering to do them.

As well as helping to avoid the functional problems you may encounter during and after pregnancy and childbirth, strong pelvic floor muscles can help to prevent uterine and vaginal prolapse.

In addition, your pelvic floor has a big role to play during sex – a weakened pelvic floor can affect your ability to have an orgasm. Now that seems a pretty good reason to pay it some attention.

“They're really no big deal to do, and a weak pelvic floor can result not only in incontinence but also in a prolapsed uterus. I've worked with elderly women and this is a huge problem. If you've seen a prolapsed uterus, you will always make sure you do your pelvic floor exercises.”