Alright, I admit it: I’m a slightly smug Kegel-er.
Over the course of my working day, I like to give my pelvic floor muscles a good ol’ flex as often as I remember. Which is sometimes lots of times, and sometimes not at all. Not to worry. Despite my scattergun approach, they seem to be pretty good. For example, they did not fail me when I was required to empty half my bladder during a recent ultrasound.
The benefits of a strong pelvic floor are well known. Better bladder and bowel control, improved posture, reduced back pain, and of course, enhanced sexual pleasure. I started my daily flexes during the year of Seductions, mainly because I thought H would notice. I was genuinely surprised when my body’s response changed too: the whole length of my vagina now feels much more sensitive and ‘alive’, and orgasms almost tumble out of me.
But it turns out that my Kegel-ing efforts might have been in vain. A growing number of experts now argue that Kegels can do more harm than good – especially as few of us are doing them properly. It may be better to pay attention to our core muscles in general, rather than the specific muscles in our lower abdomen.
This all gets very complicated, very quickly, so I’ve compiled a handy guide.
1. What muscles are we talking about here?
Good starting point, imaginary questioner. The pelvic floor is a group of muscles that stretch from your pubic bone to the base of your spine. They support your bladder, uterus and bowel, and help these to open and close effectively. We often use the term ‘PC muscles’ when we’re talking about a strong pelvic floor, but this actually only refers to one of the muscles (the pubococcygeus). It’s better to talk about whole lot together.
Pregnancy and childbirth are renowned for damaging these muscles, but apparently they only tend to exacerbate existing problems. We’re suffering a epidemic of pelvic floor problems because of – you guessed it – our modern habits.
This is only half relevant, but I find this Betty Dodson video enlightening. In it, she draws the internal structure of the clitoris and vulva, which helps to illustrate why strong PF muscles can lead to orgasmic fireworks.
2. What’s a Kegel?
A Kegel is the classic exercise recommended to strengthen the pelvic floor. It simply involves drawing the PF muscles upwards, and holding for a while. I say ‘simply’ but it can take a bit of learning so that you’re not tensing every muscle in your body, holding your breath, or generally making yourself dizzy in other ways. But once learned, it’s simple and convenient. There’s a good factsheet of how to Kegel from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital here.
3. But you said that Kegels might not be the answer.
Well, yes and no. As this post on Mama Sweat shows, Kegels can make the PF muscles too short and tense, causing a knock-on effect to other parts of your pelvis. Your vagina may feel tight, but you’re not getting the support you need. This is particularly a problem for pregnant women, for whom Kegels can make it difficult for the pelvis to open up fully during childbirth.
Far better, says biomechanical scientist Katy Bowman, to do regular squats (not the gym sort, the ‘peeing in the woods’ sort), something that our ancestors would have naturally done all the time. She suggests you start squatting in your bath every time you pee, but if that’s not your bag, she offers a great squatting programme here, and a basic guide here.
As with all things, it’s essential to do these exercises with a correct posture. This video from Hold It Sister shows good practice.
4. So it’s goodbye Kegels, hello squats?
Well, no. Alyce Adams, the self-dubbed Kegel Queen, argues that there’s nothing wrong with Kegels if they’re done properly. Her guide to the Five Biggest Kegel Mistakes shows how many of us are misinformed about how to Kegel correctly. The most important point is this: to avoid over-shortening the PC muscle, you should make sure you fully relax (not push out) after every Kegel. And there’s absolutely no need to do hundreds every day.
It’s all about balance. The squats are great for overall pelvic health, particularly for pregnant women, but (properly done) Kegels have their place too – they’re convenient, discreet and really target sexual pleasure for those interested in that sort of thing. The Kegel Queen has something to say about that, too.
5. Okay, so it’s really a case of squatting a few times a day, and Kegelling a few times a day.
Probably, yes. Let’s be honest, integrating both or either into your everyday life is your best chance of sticking with it.
6. What about all those PF exercisers that are on sale? Worth it?
Jury’s out. Studies seem to suggest that exercising alone is more effective than gadgets, including those that use electric currents. And pregnant women are at a higher risk of infection, so shouldn’t use anything that’s inserted into the vagina.
On the other hand, PF exercising gizmos may add an extra element of motivation, because they’re pleasurable, and you can sometimes leave them in place while you get on with your life, without having to remember to keep squeezing or squatting. Given the concerns about shortening muscles, though, it’s probably a good idea not to leave them in for too long, so that you make sure your vagina gets some r’n'r between sessions.
Also, for the love of all that’s holy please don’t use PF trainers with horrible chemicals in them. Just think: these things are sitting in your vagina for extended periods, thereby offering plenty of time for you to leach the nasties out of them. The lovely Amy of Pomegranate Boutique explains all here.
7. Shouldn’t you issue a disclaimer for all of this?
Yeah, probably. Take responsibility for your own pelvic floor, kids. If you’ve got any doubts at all, check with your doctor. And bear in mind that I have no medical training whatsoever, except a Girl Guide First Aid badge, and that really didn’t cover pelvic floors.