What Are Kegels?
You may have heard of kegel exercise, but unless you’ve tried them yourself then you’re probably still wondering: what are kegels? Kegel exercises or kegels are simple and discreet exercises performed on the “pelvic floor” region of the body, with the goal of strengthening the pelvic floor muscles and improving several uncomfortable symptoms.
Many women, and men too, who struggle with controlling their bladder and urination, who are looking to improve their intimate life with their partner, and who have experienced weakening of the pelvic floor during or following pregnancy all have successfully improved these symptoms by effectively practicing kegels.
One of the best things about these pelvic floor exercises? You can practice kegels anywhere, at any time, and no one will even know you’re doing them! In fact some people report performing them as they shower, drive to work, or any other time that reminds them to practice for at least a few minutes daily.
How Kegels Strengthen the Pelvic Floor
Kegel exercises strengthen the pelvic floor muscles which are responsible for supporting the function of other organs including the uterus, bladder, intestines and rectum.
The proper name for the pelvic floor muscles, also called the pelvic diaphragm, is the levator ani. This name refers to a group of muscles including the pubococcygeus, puborectalis and ileococcygeus which all move and work together in the pelvic area to control both sexual arousal and urination. These muscles wrap around the urethra, and that’s why when their strength is improved, you experience more control over your ability to start and stop urination.
Studies have demonstrated that by exercising these specific muscles, meaning practicing series of contracting and then relaxing them, they become stronger and better able to control unwanted symptoms. (1) Most people are able to see results from kegel exercises within four to eight weeks of regularly practicing them, although for some people it takes up to several months to see a real improvement in pelvic strength.
Many people falsely believe that there are only kegel exercises for women, but kegel exercises for men are the same and can be just as beneficial.
Who Should Perform Kegel Exercises?
If any of the following apply to you, then you can likely benefit from regularly practicing some simple kegel exercises:
- Orgasm trouble: You are either a man or women who has trouble reaching orgasms and want to improve your sex life.
- Pregnancy: You are pregnant and want to work on strengthening your pelvis in order to prepare for the bodily stress of labor.
- Post deliver: You had a pregnancy and delivery that left your pelvic floor feeling different and less strong than it felt prior to being pregnant.
- Urinary incontinence: You have weak control over your bladder and sometimes you experience a “leak” when you do things like exercise, laugh, and strongly cough (this is called urinary incontinence). (2)
- Fecal incontinence: You suffer similar problems with bowel movements and tend to feel like you cannot control things when you need to go to the bathroom (this is called fecal incontinence).
- Surgery in Pelvic Floor Regin: You had surgery performed on any of the organs involved in the pelvic floor region, including the bladder, uterus, intestines, or rectum which make it difficult for you to control these organs and to properly eliminate waste.
- Prostate Surgery or Radiation: Men who have had prostate surgery or radiation may also suffer from urinary incontinence. (3)
- Aging: You are finding that as you age, you have less control over your pelvic floor than you used to.
- Overweight: Being overweight has limited the strength in your pelvic floor, resulting in unwanted symptoms.
Now, let’s talk about exactly how to do kegels. They’re really not that hard once you understand how to do them correctly.
How-to Guide: Kegel Exercises
Step 1. You need to locate the muscles within your body that will be used in kegel exercises
You can do this by going to the bathroom to urinate, and stopping your stream midway. Pay attention to which muscles you needed to engage to effectively hold urination from continuing.
This will show you whether or not you have a weakened pelvic floor, but keep in mind that this method is only used for initially locating the muscles, and shouldn’t be used again and again because it can damage the urethra.
Step 2. After locating your muscles, start practicing basic exercise “contractions”
Begin kegel exercises by lying flat on your back on a firm bed or floor. If laying on the floor, I recommend using an exercise mat for comfort.
Try to locate the same muscles you used to stop urination and tighten those muscles, holding for several seconds as if you are once again stopping yourself from going to the bathroom. Work your way up to holding the contraction (tightening) for 5 seconds, then relax your muscles. Give yourself a rest of a few seconds, and keep repeating this method.
Step 3. Increase your Pelvic Floor Strength by Holding Contractions for Longer
Once you’ve gotten the hang of holding muscle contractions for 5 seconds, work your way up to 10 seconds. Aim to do a series of 10 seconds of tightening, then 10 seconds of relaxing. Perform this series 10 times.
Step 4. Practice EVERYDAY: 3 Sets of Kegels, 10 Reps per Set
Completing 3 sets of 10 exercises reps daily is the goal for kegel exercises. Keep in mind that you are targeting your pelvic floor muscles, the same ones used to stop urination.
You do not want to rely on tightening your abs, upper thighs or glute (butt) muscles, so get to know which muscles you are really working with and keep practicing tightening them for 10 seconds at a time.
If You’re Having Trouble Correctly Practicing Kegel Exercises
Many people report initially having trouble locating the “kegel muscles”, so if you’re not feeling confident about your ability to perform the exercises correctly, you’re not alone. If you still aren’t sure if you’re reaching the correct muscles, you can try using these techniques:
- If you’re a woman: You can try inserting their finger into their vagina and squeezing their finger, then letting go. If you effectively are able to squeeze your finger, you are using the correct muscles.
- If you’re a man: You can do the same within their rectum; they can try inserting a finger and squeezing it to see if the pelvic floor is being engaged
- Ask for help: You can also seek the help of a physical therapist who will work with you to increase not only the correct pelvic muscles, but also the core and quadriceps muscles’ strength, which play a part in the pelvic floor as well.
- Try pilates: Some people find it helpful to practice Pilates-style exercise moves to build more muscle strength through the entire core and pelvis, helping to actively engage kegel muscles.
Research shows that properly locating the right kegel muscles is key to experiencing full benefits, so be sure to take your time finding the right group of muscles so you can get the best results. (4)
Kegel Exercises for A Better Sex Life
While more research still needs to be conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of kegels on a better sex life, many women and men report that having a strengthened pelvic region can improve their ability to achieve orgasms.
The pelvic muscles are used during sex to create friction and contractions that can lead to orgasm, so improving circulation, sensation, and ability to contract these muscles may be able to help those struggling with having an orgasm.
There is no specific protocol for exercising kegels related to a better sex life; the same method is used as for controlling urine incontinence and for pregnant women.
Some women like to test whether their kegel muscles are become stronger by using a vaginal cone or device that they can practice holding in place with their pubic muscles. Doing this prior to sex can engage the correct muscles and improve blood flow, which can help with achieving an orgasm.
Kegel Exercises for Pregnancy
The pelvic muscles play a very important role in a healthy pregnancy, working to support the weight of the growing and expanding uterus during pregnancy and helping to stretch the region during labor. This means the kegel muscles are essentially working overtime during pregnancy and can afterwards become weakened and stretched past their comfortable point once the delivery is over.
Luckily, kegel exercises help to build back their elasticity and strength following child birth, helping to control symptoms of postpartum urinary incontinence and difficulty enjoying sex. Multiple studies have shown that kegel exercises can significantly reduce symptoms of urinary and fecal incontinence in pregnant and postpartum women. (5, 6)
It’s also useful to build the kegel muscles prior to labor, this way they are more powerful at helping to facilitate labor. Practicing before labor also improves strength in the perenium, which is the area located between the vagina and rectum that can easily tear during labor.
MODIFICATION NOTE: While performing pelvic floor exercises like kegels, if you experience any lower back discomfort, then you may use an exercise ball under your feet to relieve the pressure on your back.
Kegel Exercises for Men
Though most commonly used by women, men can also use kegel exercises. Kegels for men are a useful way for the male population to achieve the same results as females. Kegel exercise for men, really? Yes! Men can also strengthen their pubococcygeal muscle and other muscles of the pelvic diaphragm that control sexual arousal and urination. Some evidence shows that kegels can help to improve erections, urinary incontinence, and fecal incontinence in men who have weakened pelvic muscles. (7)
Some men experience weakening in this region due to aging, surgical removal of the prostate, symptoms related to diabetes, or due to having an overactive bladder. The most popular reason for men to practice kegels is to improve control over urination, especially the occurrence of uncontrolled dripping after urinating. Men can follow the same direction as women to effectively begin practicing kegel exercises. So kegel exercise for men and kegel exercises for women are one and the same.
Pelvic Toner Devices for Strengthening Kegel Muscles
In addition to practicing basic kegels that require no devices or equipment, some women choose to try pelvic toner devices. Most often these devices are used discreetly by women in their own home, and are not commonly used by physicians, because basic kegel exercises have proven to be just as, or even more effective, than devices at targeting the correct muscles. (8)
There are a variety of devices on the market including electro-stimulation devices, vaginal cones, resistance bars and balls, and resistance bands that include springs (which is the type promoted by Dr. Kegel). Studies have shown that simple kegel exercises actually do a better job of reaching the desired muscles than devices, so at this time doctors usually don’t recommend women use devices.
One added benefit of using pelvic devices seems to be that some types offer biofeedback, which tells someone when they are targeting the right muscles or when they are not engaging correctly. This type of biofeedback is most often available in electro-stimulation devices, which are the kind used most commonly in doctor’s offices.
Electro-stimulation devices produce a reading of how strong the kegel contractions are and if they are being performed properly, which can show how strength is building as time goes on. Electrical devices like this help to send the women positive reinforcement and works using electrodes which are placed on the pelvis region.
The History of Kegel Exercises
Wondering how these pelvic floor exercises ever came to be? Kegel exercises were first created and documented by American gynecologist Dr. Arnold Kegel in 1948. In his published report, Dr. Kegel claimed that by practicing non-surgical targeted kegel exercises regularly, women were able to strengthen their pelvic muscles and as a consequence to experience a better sex life, healthier pregnancy delivery, having more control over their orgasms, and more.
Dr. Kegel believed that a certain dysfunction of the “pubococcygeus” area of the women’s pelvis left them with weakened muscles that were to blame for symptoms like a lack of feeling during sex and an inability to have orgasms. Today, researchers encourage kegel exercises for additional benefits beyond an improved sex life, especially for controlling urinary incontinence. (9, 10)
Since kegels can be performed anywhere using no equipment and take minimal time and effort, there’s no reason to not give them a try if you struggle with urinary incontinence or want to improve your sex life. Now that you know how to do kegels, it’s time to start practicing these highly therapeutic pelvic floor exercises regularly. Unlike taking medication or relying on surgery, kegels can offer a natural and effective way to improve unwanted pelvic conditions as well as your love life.