It seems pretty obvious, right?
You don’t need to clench your pelvic floor to make dinner.
But recently I discovered I was doing just that. I was home between teaching sessions and rushing to make dinner. I had a limited amount of time and, although I was enjoying chopping vegetables and chatting with my daughter, somewhere in the background my brain interpreted the rush as stress. And so my pelvic floor was somewhere up around the middle of my rib cage. Ok, not really, but as I did a mental check in I realised that I was holding a lot of unnecessary tension through my glutes and my pelvic floor.
First, let’s get a couple of things straight. Everyone has a pelvic floor regardless of age and gender. Everyone has the potential for an awesome, happy, well-functioning pelvic floor and likewise, everyone has the potential for pelvic floor dysfunction. PF issues are not restricted to post-partum women, a common assumption that often leads to delayed treatment!
And here’s the kicker: for many of us here in the Western world, in our sitting, sedentary/ high-intensity activity, high -heeled shoe-wearing world, the problem is often that our pelvic floors are not too loose but too tight! It seems counter-intuitive, but hypertonic muscles within the pelvic floor group can be the main culprit in a pelvic floor that is not reliably carrying its weight.
What IS the pelvic floor, anyway??
The pelvic floor is comprised of a series of muscles that attach to the bones and ligaments of the pelvis. The image of a trampoline is often used, and I use it too, but with a twist. Rather than thinking of the muscle grouping as the jumping surface of the trampoline (a nightmare for anyone dealing with a pf issue….) how about we think of the pelvic floor as the springs that hold the bouncy centre in place. If the springs are unevenly tensioned, or different lengths, the trampoline will be wonky.
As an added bonus, the muscles of the deep hip rotators run right along with the pelvic floor muscles and attach at several of the same places. Likewise the inner thigh group. And the abdominals. And the psoas. It really is an intricately related group wherein each muscle affects and is affected by its neighbours, and where balance and alignment really matter. If you think of the bony pelvis as the frame of a trampoline and the all these other muscles as the spotters standing by to support the jumper, our trampoline image is complete!
Our pelvic floors are deeply connected to both our physical activities and our emotional states. The physical activities part is more complex than you might think. Some of the activities we think of as being most helpful to our health in general (think running and biking and core exercises) and to our pelvic floors specifically (think Kegels) can actually be the most challenging to our pelvic health!
Running puts a lot of load on the body as we land (particularly on hard surfaces), biking puts a lot of pressure up from the seat and many core exercises are done in a way that encourages too much forcing and bracing, which creates internal pressures that disrupt both breathing and pelvic floor mechanics. Kegels, when done without adequate emphasis on the release part of the exercise can add more tension to an already overly-tight (hypertonic) pelvic floor.
Emotional stress and strain, fear, anxiety, sudden surprise, trauma (both recent and distant), and even such simple things as rushing to get dinner on the table or watching a horror movie can all have an immediate effect on the tension of your pf muscles without you ever being aware of it.
Egads! It’s all a disaster! What to do!!
No worries. I’ve got your back here. Well, your backside, really. : ))
MY 5 TOP TIPS FOR A HAPPIER PELVIC FLOOR
Find an awesome pelvic floor physiotherapist or osteopath (like Michelle Fraser or Janet Walker if you are located in Toronto). It is absolutely not in my scope of practice to diagnose or treat anyone with a pelvic floor issue, but there are some truly gifted practitioners out there who do. I just get to help you move more and love it!
Start to move in new and novel ways that wake up some of the muscles that might be kind of sleepy. If you have parts of your movement repertoire that are aggravating your pelvic floor, maybe step back temporarily and try some other modalities that give you time to re-build. Explore some small, subtle exercises that help to zero in on those spotters that are standing by your trampoline! Click this link for a short series of exercises you can introduce every day.
Or go for just one new variation on an old favourite My Favourite Squat Variation…and the best trick to master it!
Work on your breathing. Feel for the relationship between your pelvic floor and your diaphragm. In an ideal world…as you inhale your diaphragm draws down and wide to help draw the air in. As that happens, the ribs widen, the core muscles give slightly and the pelvic floor releases a little as you exhale your diaphragm slides up and in to help expel the air from your lungs. As that happens, your ribs narrow in, your core muscles follow the inward shape of your ribs and your pelvic floor lifts as the pressure changes with the exhale.
None of this is intended to be a forced action as you go through your day, but turning it into a mindful exercise is really helpful when you are learning, especially if you have a history as an unconscious belly-breather check out the jelly-fish breathing blog here for more detail on how your breath cycle works!
Get familiar with your pelvic floor. Check-in though the day and see if you can connect to what’s going on. Are you clenching because of habit? Or because you’re stressed? Are you happy and relaxed with a pelvic floor that can activate and release as needed? Can you GENTLY lift the front muscles of your pelvic floor and then DELIBERATELY LET THEM GO? The middle? The back? Play with this idea of the release being as important as the activation during your Kegels and see what a party that can be! Add some rolling of your hips with a tennis ball, Yoga Tune Up balls or Franklin balls to get some pliability back into those muscles and then try your connecting exercises again. They might be different!
Change a couple of daily habits for a bit more over-all movement. Your pelvic floor function is a whole body issue and moving more globally can be a brilliant contributor to site-specific health. Adding a simple hanging protocol to your day could be a great idea, even though it doesn’t seem connected at all!
My favourite ideas are:
- walk whenever you can
- try to sit less, and sit on the floor when you can (maybe not in the middle of your office though…)
- ditch the heels and go with flexible, zero or minimal rise shoes. This is NOT an all-of-a-sudden activity. Go gradually and respect your tissues. If you are normally a big-time heel wearer you need to approach this a bit like training for a marathon of foot work! Check out Petra’s blog here about transitioning to minimal footwear.
- regularly check in and make sure you aren’t tucking your butt.
- regularly check in and make sure you aren’t clenching your butt. Or your pelvic floor. Or your jaw. Or your feet. They’re all connected, babe.
- seriously, start hanging from things. It’s great for your upper body, opens up your shoulders and helps to uncoil the tension that *might* be spiralling down and affecting your lower body and it takes 30 seconds at a time. Make sure you stay in a range that is comfortable for you, hang to find strength as well as stretch and please keep your feet on the floor! It’s the best way to get started. Adding a shoulder issue to your life ain’t gonna make you feel any better!
Ok, my loves, off you go! Walk, stretch, strengthen, relax and may your red peppers never stress you out!
I’m the owner of Boomerang Pilates and creator of the Move SMART program. I teach teachers how to incorporate sustainable movement and authentic teaching in their classes.