Lifetonic May 2022

How to build a functional pelvic floor through pilates

Hi friends

Did you know that your pelvic floor muscles form part of your core?

It’s a muscle group that often gets left out of the equation when it comes to working your core, so I thought that this month, we’d spend some time focusing on this really important muscle group.

It works alongside your abdominals, obliques, diaphragm and your spinal extensors (multifidus) – all of the muscles we target in pilates as part of our ‘centring.’

Often a lot of people think your pelvic floor only becomes important if you’ve had a baby but this is a complete life misconception!

Both men AND woman have pelvic floor muscles that need to be worked just like all of your other muscles in your body, they need to be able to hold tone and both contract and relax to support you with your everyday movements – this is the very essence of a functional pelvic floor!

If you are a female, your pelvic floor goes through a number of transformations during puberty, pregnancy and at midlife with the perimenopause and menopause.  These changes are driven by  fluctuating hormones in your body during those significant periods of your life and of course physically, through the delivery of your baby.

As always, you can support ALL of these life changing moments in your life by proactively adding in pelvic floor exercises into your daily routine.

If you are around the age of 45, then it’s recommended that you start practicing PF exercises daily  to help maintain tone and strength.

If you are recently postnatal, you’re probably doing these already and if you are planning to be prenatal then you should start doing these exercise now too!

The exercises that follow are suitable for our male and female members.

What is the pelvic floor?

The pelvic floor is made up of muscles and ligaments that support and cradle the bladder, uterus or prostate, and the bowels.

Symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction can include things like pelvic pain, incontinence/leaking of urine or bowels, urge to urinate, trouble fully emptying the bladder/bowels, constipation, painful intercourse, painful menstruation or ovulation, and of course things brought on by pregnancy and labour.

Breathing and the pelvic floor

The aha moment in pelvic floor work is understanding good breathing!  This really is the central ingredient of good pelvic floor work!

Your pelvic floor muscles are directly connected to your diaphragm (breathing muscle).  In fact, some anatomy textbooks actually refer to the PF diaphragm because it is activated and controlled through the breath.

There are 3 breathing cylinders in the body; from bottom to top – you have your pelvic floor diaphragm, your diaphragm and your thoracic diaphragm (your voice box is maintained here).

All pelvic floor work should start by releasing the pelvic floor and this happens on your INHALE.

Once you have found a release, you can then go on train both the fast twitch and slow twitch muscles fibers correctly.

Fast twitch means you can recruit your PFM quickly, which helps to support any sudden changes / big moves of the body.

Slow twitch means that you are working to maintain functional tone of your PFM (ie making sure that they are always ‘on’ to support low load activity like sitting, standing etc).

If you’ve been to any of my pre, postnatal or beginners pilates classes, then you’ll be familiar with all of these exercises.

Please remember that if you have an form of pelvic pain or discomfort please make sure you seek medical advice.

Overall with pelvic floor exercise, we are looking to isolating the muscles and then training them to maintain elasticity and functional strength – that means training them to be adaptable so as they can support you with activities of everyday living.

And that all starts with being able to release them, so let’s start there…

Pelvic Floor Muscles  – Release

Before you work to strengthen and tone your pelvic floor muscles, you need to make sure that you are able to fully release them.

This is true whether there is pain, restriction, weakness or if you just haven’t been exercising your pelvic floor; there will always be a benefit to releasing muscles.

Once you have control of the release, then move on to focused work on strengthening. 

Your pelvic floor muscles are truly released in your IN BREATH because this facilities a release of your diaphgram downwards, which presses downwards on the PF directly beneath it, which releases it. 

This is why, in the exercises that follow, we always start AND finish with a releasing INHALE.

When we are using our exhale in matwork, remember we are using the breath to train control of the PFM and aid stabilityl so it’ slightly different.

Give it a go with the following exercise…

Sniff, Flop, Drop

Come into relaxation position and find your neutral pelvis and spine.

Place your hands on your belly.

Start by bring your awareness to your pelvic floor area.

Gently start to breathe in (SNIFF) through your nose, keeping your chest soft, allowing your belly to soften and (FLOP) into your hands.   

As you exhale keep your belly soft and let it fall away from your hands.

Try to get softer with each inhale and cycle through this patter for as long as you can (5 -10 minutes if you can).

Your pelvic floor will start to gradually descend (DROP) more and more with each cycle of this.

Try to get into a state of complete relaxation with this; almost meditative.

Remember you are truly to fully release so make sure you let go backwards and wide as well.

Pelvic Floor Muscles – Strength & Tone

Once you feel ready to progress to strength and tone work, then you can add in these pelvic floor exercises to your daily routine!

Pelvic Elevator

Lie in relaxation position and find your neutral (you can also do this in sitting, kneeling, or on a pilates overball or physio ball if you want to feel the sensation of the pelvic floor lifting more). 

Start by bringing your awareness to your pelvic floor area.

Imagine that the whole of your pelvic floor area is a lift in a building.

Inhale to prepare the body.

Exhale to gently slide the lifts of the door shut (drawing the muscles of the back passage together) and then start to draw that sensation forward towards the pubic bone (as if you were zipping up from back to front) and gently raise your pelvic floor up to the first floor.

Inhale maintain this connection and lift

Exhale raise the pelvic floor a little more, up to the second floor

Inhale matain the lift

Exhale raise the pelvic floor a little more, up to the third floor

Inhale maintain the lift

OPTIONAL: At this point, you can hold the lift (gentle contraction) and breath normally for 5 seconds before starting to lower back down (step below).  You can progress to a 10 second hold once you feel more confident with this exercise.

If you don’t want to hold the lift, move straight to the step below…

Exhale lower your pelvic floor all the way back down, floor by floor.  Release from front to back and let the doors to the lift open gently to fully release the pelvic floor (think width of the hips not just the back passage here to facilitate a full release).

Inhale to soften the abdomen and fully release at the end (think Sniff, Flop, Drop above).

Repeat the whole process for 3 – 5 repetitions, 3 times a day.

This is a truly mindful practice and a great one to add into your daily routine.  Try not to multi-task when you do it (ie don’t do it at your desk working).  Stop what you’re doing, close your eyes at your desk and build the picture of what you’re doing, so as you are doing it correctly.

We are training the correct recruitment pattern of the pelvic floor muscles in this exercise and also control of the muscles in a co-ordinated way.

Some things to watch out for when you’re doing this:

Stay relaxed in your entire body including the jaw, shoulder and neck

The lift should be slow and controlled – try not to let the pelvic floor come racing back down through all of the floors.  Try releasing from floor 3, 2, 1 before fully releasing from front to back.

There should be no movement in the spine of pelvis.

Flower

This trains the slow twitch muscles fibres – think posture!

Start by bring your awareness to your pelvic floor area.

Fully release your PFM.

Imagine your favourite flower in full bloom then Exhale and start to slowly draw all of the petals ‘inwards’ until you have a tight bud.

Hold this contraction and breath normally for a count of 5 seconds, eventually working up to 8  or 1o breaths.

Exhale and slowly, with control, start to unfurl the petals back our until you have your flower in full bloom.

Inhale to fully release (Sniff, Flop, Drop).

Try to follow the same recruitment pattern – back to front, then up inside.

Remember to soft and relaxed in the rest of the body – don’t recruit any unwanted tension anywhere else.  We’re isolating the PFM only.

Emergency Stop

This trains the fast twitch muscle fibres of your pelvic floor, which can help your pelvic floor react quickly to sudden changes or big moves of the body.

Start by bring your awareness to your pelvic floor area.

Fully release your PFM.

Exhale and quickly lift (contract) ALL of your pelvic floor muscles (you are looking to contract maximally here). 

Hold this contraction and breath normally for a count of 5 seconds, working up to 8 then 10.

Exhale to release in one go.

Inhale to fully release (Sniff, Flop, Drop).

Be really careful to not also recruit muscles in the shoulder, neck, jaw etc.  You are isolating the pelvic floor only and the rest of your body should be in a relaxed state.

Try to follow the same recruitment pattern – back to front, then up inside.

Let us know how you get on with these exercises in your private Facebook Group and share ONE THING you’ve learned about your PFM that you might not have known before with us! And don’t forget to add in a few PF exercises into your daily routine!

Other TLC resources to help you maintain a health pelvic floor include:

  • Posture & Pelvic Floor (Bodytonic Library)
  • How to recruit your pelvic floor muscles (within your Modifications & Short Tutorial Library)
  • Hydration Tracker.
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Meet Julie

Hi, I’m Julie owner of Ostara Pilates and creator of The Lifetonic Club. Here you’ll find pilates workouts, educational resources and practical tips dedicated to woman at midlife.  You’ll learn how to build a better relationship with your body and mind during one of the most significant periods of your life and how to create a simple wellness routine so as you feel supported even on the days where you have no energy.   Read more.

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