Like most women, I gave Kegel exercises a few tries over the years, then gave up fast because it was mostly an exercise in frustration. But when little bladder leaks became bigger ones, I decided to take another look at this popular technique for strengthening pelvic floor muscles. This time I took a more scientific approach, and to my surprise, it worked.
Here’s what I learned along the way.
There Isn’t One Perfect Way to Kegel
The procedure for doing Kegel exercises is simple enough. You contract the same muscles that you use to stop the flow of urine, as well as the muscles used to keep from passing gas. By repeating this motion several times, a few times a day, you can gradually strengthen the pelvic floor muscles.
Kegels can reduce bladder and bowel leakage and help prevent prolapse of the uterus or other pelvic organs. They may even help you have better sex. But not everyone should do Kegel exercises in exactly the same way.
“There are many different kinds of Kegels, so some people may need to work on strength, others on endurance,” says Dr. Rachel Gellman, a San Francisco pelvic floor physical therapist. Before you start an exercise program, she recommends consulting a health professional, preferably a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor conditions. “Since the pelvic floor isn’t easy to see or connect with it is very easy to do Kegels incorrectly, and like with any exercise having poor form can lead to issues,” she says.
Some people are better off avoiding Kegels completely. Dr. Gelman cautions that these exercises might not be the best fit if you’re struggling with conditions like pelvic pain, chronic pain around the opening of the vagina, constipation, pain with intercourse or urination, or a frequent urge to urinate. They’re usually more helpful for people struggling with incontinence or pelvic organ prolapse. But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and the best way to ensure good results is to work with a specialist.
More Kegels Aren’t Always Better
“Just like any other exercise, a person can end up doing too many Kegels and that can be problematic,” says Dr. Gelman.
I learned this painful truth the hard way. The first time I tried Kegels, I followed random (and bad) advice to contract and release quickly, as many times a day as possible. I did dozens of lightning-fast squeezes at red lights, waiting in checkout lines, watching TV. My over-enthusiasm made me sore, didn’t stop the bladder leaks, and definitely didn’t improve anything in the bedroom!
Just like other muscles, pelvic floor muscles need to be exercised regularly–but not constantly–to stay toned. In an article for Healthline, pelvic floor physical therapist Marcy Crouch recommends that you take the same approach you would use for strengthening any other muscle: Make sure you’re focusing on relaxing the muscle as well as contracting, don’t overdo, and incorporate rest periods into your schedule.
Pelvic Floor Health Goes Beyond Kegels
I stayed far away from Kegels for years after my first fails, but I did walk and stretch regularly. In doing that, I was exercising my pelvic floor muscles without even realizing it.
“There are many other exercises out there beyond Kegels,” says Dr. Gellman. “In fact most exercises will engage the pelvic floor, so participating in any form of movement may be enough to work the pelvic floor.” If you aren’t already physically active, whatever movement or stretching you can add to your routine will help strengthen your whole body, including your pelvic floor muscles.
While we’re on the subject of overall pelvic floor health, I’ll mention that this isn’t just a “women’s issue.” Anyone with a pelvis can experience pelvic health issues, and anyone struggling with bladder or bowel leakage might benefit from Kegel exercises, including men. A pelvic floor physical therapist or other health professional can help people of all genders find the treatment that’s the best fit for them.
Kegels Aren’t a Quick Fix
Depending on your health, the condition of your muscles, and other factors, it may take several weeks of regular practice before you get results. If your pelvic floor muscles aren’t toned, strengthening them won’t happen overnight.
Once you do build up that strength, you’ll need to keep doing pelvic floor exercises to maintain the benefits. The good news is that it’s a quick, easy move you can perform pretty much anywhere, any time.
A year and a half after I began practicing Kegel exercises regularly, I don’t give much more thought to them than I give to brushing my teeth. I’m back to power-walking with no more awkward leaks. Pelvic floor exercises are just a quick, routine part of my daily self-care. I can’t think of many things I do that benefit me so much, with such a small investment of time.
If you’ve dismissed Kegels as worse than useless, now is a perfect time to talk to your healthcare provider about giving them another chance. Just like me, you might find the results are worth the effort.
Maria Veres is a freelance writer based in Oklahoma City, focusing on health and wellness topics. A former couch potato, she’s learned to love workouts, walks, and healthy food. She is still working on conquering her chocolate addiction.