First described in 1948 by Dr. Arnold Kegel, OBGYN, every woman who has been or is currently pregnant knows these exercises to be a staple in getting ready for birth and for preventing the pelvic floor muscle weakness that commonly occurs after the baby is born. To get strong pelvic floor muscles in order to facilitate delivery and reduce incontinence post-partum (either stress-related - think laughter or coughing, or feeling of urgency), all you have to do is"squeeze", correct? Not exactly.
When repetitively contracting the pelvic floor muscles to perform a Kegel, these muscles being tight in the first place due to consecutive hours of sitting and lack of proper exercise, become even tighter. You might consider that a good thing: after all, a tight muscle is a strong muscle, right? Again, the answer to this question is a bit more nuanced. A "toned" muscle is what is considered a strong muscle, tone being defined as the most strength with the most muscle length. A strong biceps, or toned biceps, is one that can return to its normal length after a set of curls is complete. Who would want it to remain flexed and tight all the time? Okay, except for showing off, it would not be very functional.
When performing a Kegel, the already-tight muscles become even tighter, pulling the pelvis backwards, even further out of its optimal alignment. Kegels are supposed to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles but really contribute to weakening them through too much muscle tension.
The alternative are regular squats. Why squats? Because on top of activating the core muscles of the body, squats also engage the glutes, which are the muscle group that have the opposite effect on the pelvis as the pelvic floor (PF) muscles. Think of it this way: a biceps cannot be strong without a triceps, and vice-versa. The stabilizing effect created by the glutes and the PF muscles working together causes the pelvis to maintain proper positioning and function, allowing for maximal space for baby to come through during birth. How cool is it that squats can contribute to an easier, smoother delivery?
However, squats are no exception to the rule that exercise has to be incorporated to natural day-to-day movement and not be its own separate thing. Squatting to pick up an object or your child on the floor instead of bending over is an easy way to get your reps in for the day. Also, standing up from a seated position without letting your knees go beyond your ankles is a perfect way to activate your glutes, which is the main goal of a squat anyway. This should easily get you to a recommended 4-5 times per day. Natural movement is the best exercise.
Here are other ways you can strengthen your glutes and offer more stability to your pelvis and spine. One that comes to mind are hip extensions. Standing up and balancing on one leg, push out 45 degrees as if you were skating, 10 times per leg, with or without support. Using no support will activate the stabilizer muscles. Being aware of how you sit is also important, as a slouched seated position can contribute to shortening and weakening the pelvic floor muscles, just like a Kegel would do. A pre-natal neuro-spinal chiropractic examination of your spinal and pelvic structure is also recommended. Finally, different yoga positions such as Warrior I and II, as well as regular walks with your partner and/or friends are great ways to improve the tone of the glutes.
As a parting thought, pelvic floor weakness is not specific to pregnant women. Non-pregnant women and even men can benefit from the recommendations stated above. Strong glutes lead to sound pelvic positioning, enhancing support to the whole spine.
This post was featured in our November edition of our e-zine, THE PREMIER ADVISOR. You can view the full edition here and/or subscribe here.