Kegels: One Size Does Not Fit All!

Andrew Siegel MD   10/7/17

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Athletes use a variety of fitness and strength-training programs to maximize their strength and endurance. A one-size-fits-all approach—the same exercise regimen applied to all—is clearly not advantageous because of the varying functional requirements for different sports.  Specific, targeted and individualized exercise programs are used to enhance and optimize performance, depending upon the particular sport and individual athlete. The ultimate goal of training is “functional fitness,” the achievement of strength, power, stamina and the skill set to improve performance and prevent specific functional impairments (injuries).

Pelvic floor dysfunction is a broad term applied to the scenario when the pelvic muscles and connective tissues are no longer functioning optimally.  This gives rise to pelvic issues including pelvic organ prolapse, urinary and bowel incontinence, sexual dysfunction and pelvic pain syndromes.  A one-size-fits-all Kegel pelvic floor muscle exercise approach has traditionally been used to manage all forms of pelvic floor dysfunctions. For many years, patients who were thought to be able to benefit from Kegels were handed a brochure with instructions to do 10 repetitions of a 10-second Kegel contraction followed by 10 rapid contractions, three times daily.

Are their shortcomings with this one-size-fits-all approach?  Clearly, the answer is yes. A one-size-fits-all approach lacks the nuance necessary to properly tackle the different types of pelvic floor dysfunction. Aligning the pelvic floor dysfunction with the appropriately tailored training program that focuses on improving the area of weakness is vitally important, since each pelvic floor dysfunction is associated with unique and specific deficits in pelvic muscle strength, power and/or endurance. One size does not fit all!

After decades of “stagnancy” following the 1940s transformative work of Dr. Arnold Kegel—the physician who was singularly responsible for popularizing pelvic floor exercises in women after childbirth–there has been a resurgence of interest in pelvic floor training. I am humbled and honored to have contributed to this “pelvic renaissance” with the publication of the short paperback book The Kegel Fix: Recharging Female Pelvic, Sexual and Urinary Health, which introduces home-based, progressive, tailored exercises consisting of strength, power and endurance pelvic training regimens customized for each specific pelvic floor problem.

The initial goal of pelvic floor muscle training is muscle adaptation, the process by which pelvic muscle growth occurs in response to the demands placed it, with adaptive changes occurring in proportion to the effort put into the exercises. More challenging exercises are needed over time in order to continue the growth process that occurs as “new normal” levels of pelvic fitness are established. This translates into slowly and gradually increasing contraction intensity, duration of contractions, number of repetitions and number of sets.  The “plasticity” of the pelvic muscles require continued training, at minimum a “maintenance” program after completion of a course of pelvic training.

Although the short-term goal of pelvic floor muscle training is adaptation, the long-term goal is the achievement of functional pelvic fitness.  The vast majority of women who are taught Kegel exercises are not instructed how to put them into practical use. Go figure!  This concept of functional pelvic fitness is the actionable means of applying pelvic conditioning to daily tasks and real-life common activities. This is the essence of Kegel pelvic floor training—not simply to condition the pelvic floor muscles, but to apply this conditioning and proficiency in such a way and at the appropriate times so as to improve quality of one’s life.   These Kegels-on-demand—as I refer to them—can be lifesavers and quite a different take on Kegels, as opposed to static, isolated, out of context exercises.

Important Nuances and Details of Pelvic Training

Contraction intensity: This is the extent that the pelvic muscles are squeezed, ranging from a weak flicker of the muscles to a robust and vigorous contraction. High intensity contractions build muscle strength, whereas less intensive, but more sustained contractions, build endurance.

Contraction Type: Pelvic contractions vary in duration. It is relatively easy to intensively contract the pelvic muscles for a brief period, but difficult to maintain that intensity for a longer duration contraction. Snaps are rapid, high intensity pulses that take less than one second per cycle of contracting and relaxing. Shorts are slower, less intense squeezes that can last anywhere from two to five seconds. Sustained are less intense squeezes that last ten seconds or longer.

Relaxation duration: The amount of time the pelvic muscles are unclenched between contractions.

Repetitions: The number of contractions performed in a single set.

Set: A unit of exercise.

Strength: The maximum amount of force that a pelvic muscle can exert.

Power: The ability to rapidly achieve a full intensity contraction, which is a measure of contraction strength and speed–in other words, how quickly strength can be expressed.  Power is fostered by rapidly and explosively contracting the pelvic muscles.

Endurance (stamina): This is the ability to sustain a pelvic contraction for a prolonged time and the ability to perform multiple contractions before fatigue sets in.

Range of motion: The cycle of full pelvic contraction (muscle shortening) to complete relaxation (muscle lengthening).  This is vital in pelvic muscle training because the goal is not only to increase strength, power and endurance, but also flexibility, which is accomplished by bringing the muscle through the full range of motion.

Bottom Line:  A one-size-fits-all Kegel pelvic floor exercise program does not suit all women with pelvic floor dysfunction. To obtain optimal results, pelvic training must be tailored to the specific dysfunction. The achievement of functional pelvic fitness is one of the key goals (“key-goals”… get it?) of Kegel exercises and of the Kegel Fix: Recharging Female Pelvic, Sexual and Urinary Health.  Finally, it is important to know that pelvic exercises are appropriate not only for women suffering with the aforementioned pelvic floor dysfunctions, but also for those who wish to maintain healthy pelvic functioning and prevent future problems.

Wishing you the best of health,

2014-04-23 20:16:29

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Dr. Andrew Siegel is a practicing physician and urological surgeon board-certified in urology as well as in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery.  Dr. Siegel serves as Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery at the Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School and is a Castle Connolly Top Doctor New York Metro Area, Inside Jersey Top Doctor and Inside Jersey Top Doctor for Women’s Health. His mission is to “bridge the gap” between the public and the medical community that is in dire need of bridging.

For informative information on pelvic floor muscle training, please consult the following books by the author:

 MALE PELVIC FITNESS: Optimizing Sexual & Urinary Health

THE KEGEL FIX: Recharging Female Pelvic, Sexual and Urinary Health 

Cover

The Kegel Fix is written for educated and discerning women who care about health, well-being, fitness, nutrition and enjoy feeling confident, sexy and strong.  The book has separate chapters on each of the pelvic floor dysfunctions and provides a specific, targeted pelvic floor training regimen for each.

 

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