Andrew Siegel MD 4/1/2017
“Exercise” is not the same as “training” and “pelvic floor exercises” (“Kegels”) are not the same as “pelvic floor training.”
Male (left) and female (right) pelvic floor muscles–By OpenStax [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
To anybody interested in the nuances of exercise science, “exercising” and “training” are as different as apples and oranges. Don’t get me wrong—they are both healthy and admirable pursuits and doing any form of physical activity is far superior to being sedentary. However, exercise is more of being “in the moment,” a “here and now” physical activity– the short view. On the other hand, training is a well-planned and thought out process pursued towards the achievement of specific long-term goals– the long view. Every workout in a training program can be thought of as an incremental steppingstone in the process of muscle adaptation to achieve improvement or enhancement of function. The ultimate goal of a training program is being able to apply in a practical way the newly fit and toned muscles to daily activities—functional fitness—in order to achieve a better performance (and when it comes to the pelvic floor muscles, an improved quality of life.)
Muscle training is all about adaptation. Our muscles are remarkably adaptable to the stresses and loads placed upon them. Muscle growth will only occur in the presence of progressive overload, which causes compensatory structural and functional changes. That is why exercises get progressively easier in proportion to the effort put into doing them. As muscles adapt to the stresses placed upon them, a “new normal” level of fitness is achieved. Another term for adaptation is plasticity–our muscles are “plastic,” meaning they are capable of growth or shrinkage depending on the environment to which they are exposed.
One obvious difference between pelvic floor muscles and other skeletal muscles is that the pelvic muscles are internal and hidden, which adds an element of challenge not present when training the visible arm, shoulder and chest muscles. However, the pelvic floor muscles are similar to other skeletal muscles in terms of their response to training. In accordance with the adaptation principle, incrementally increasing contraction intensity and duration, number of repetitions and resistance will build pelvic muscle strength, power and endurance.
The goal for pelvic floor muscle training is for fit pelvic muscles—strong yet flexible and equally capable of powerful contractions as well as full relaxation. The ultimate goal for pelvic floor muscle training—a goal that often goes unmentioned–is the achievement of “functional pelvic fitness.” Pelvic floor muscle training really is the essence of functional fitness, training that develops pelvic floor muscle strength, power, stamina and the skill set that can be used to improve and/or prevent specific pelvic functional impairments including those of a sexual, urinary, or bowel nature and those that involve weakened pelvic support resulting in pelvic organ prolapse.
With occasional exceptions, most women and men are unable to perform a proper pelvic muscle contraction and have relatively weak pelvic floor strength. In my opinion, pelvic training programs should therefore initially focus on ensuring that the proper muscles are being contracted and on building muscle memory. It is fundamental to learn basic pelvic floor anatomy and function and how to isolate the pelvic muscles by contracting them independently of other muscles. Once this goal is achieved, pelvic training programs can be pursued.
Programs need to be able to address the specific area of pelvic weakness, e.g., if strength is the issue, emphasis on strength training is in order, whereas if stamina is the issue, focus on endurance training is appropriate. Furthermore, programs need to be designed for specific pelvic floor dysfunctions, with “tailored” training routines customized for the particular pelvic health issue at hand, whether it is stress urinary incontinence, overactive bladder, pelvic organ prolapse, sexual/orgasm issues, or pelvic pain. Aligning the specific pelvic floor dysfunction with the appropriate training program that focuses on improving the area of weakness and deficit is fundamental since each pelvic floor dysfunction is associated with unique and specific deficits in strength, power and/or endurance.
It is easiest to initially train the pelvic floor muscles in positions that remove gravity from the picture, then advancing to positions that incorporate gravity. It is sensible to begin with the simplest, easiest, briefest pelvic contractions, then advance to the more challenging, longer duration contractions, slowly and gradually increasing exercise intensity and degree of difficulty.
In my opinion, the initial training should not include resistance, which should be reserved for after achieving mastery of the basic training that provides the foundation for pelvic muscle proficiency.
Bottom Line: If you are serious about improving or preventing a pelvic floor dysfunction, you need to do pelvic floor muscle training as opposed to pelvic floor exercises. There are numerous differences including the following:
- Training is motivated by specific goals and purposes while exercise is done for its own sake or for more general reasons
- Training requires a level of focus and intensity not demanded by exercise
- Training requires a plan
- Training can be a highly effective means of improving and preventing pelvic floor dysfunction
Wishing you the best of health,
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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 such dire need of bridging.
Author of MALE PELVIC FITNESS: Optimizing Sexual & Urinary Health http://www.MalePelvicFitness.com
Author of THE KEGEL FIX: Recharging Female Pelvic, Sexual and Urinary Health http://www.TheKegelFix.com