Emily Boult, Premium Pilates & Fitness
Pilates can be incredibly beneficial for the pelvic floor, if these muscles are engaged correctly. Regular Pilates can help strengthen the pelvic floor; however, it is also equally important to learn how to relax this group of muscles. The relaxation and the engagement of the pelvic floor are both learned skills that Pilates teaches. We hear again and again that Pilates is beneficial for the pelvic floor, but why?
Firstly, let’s define the pelvic floor. The pelvic floor is a group of muscles and ligaments that support the bladder, bowel and uterus in women and the bladder and bowel in men. The pelvic floor muscles act as a sling or hammock by supporting the organs that lie on it. I like to think of the pelvic floor muscles as the floor of the pelvis. The pelvic floor muscles stretch like a hammock from the tailbone at the back to the pubic bone in the front (Continence Foundation of Australia, 2017).
The pelvic floor, the transverse abdominis or TA (a deep abdominal muscle), the deep stabilising muscles of the spine and the diaphragm make up ‘the core’ in Pilates. When the core is engaged correctly, the bones and joints of the body are stabilised and the muscles of the body function more efficiently and effectively.
Simply put, the emphasis Pilates puts on engaging the core is how this form of exercise strengthens the pelvic floor. All Pilates exercises involve recruiting the core muscles, which in turn strengthens them by building endurance and awareness. Engaging the pelvic floor (along with the other core muscles) when performing each Pilates exercise will improve posture, support the lower back, help with muscular imbalances, strengthen the body’s deep stabilising muscles, decrease the risk of injury, improve balance and aesthetically define the stomach.
Strengthening the pelvic floor with regular Pilates will also provide awareness to engage these muscles during daily activities. Getting into the habit of engaging the pelvic floor when doing Pilates results in my clients turning on the muscles throughout the day, such as when they are picking up something heavy (perhaps a child), doing high intensity exercise, bending down, coughing, sneezing etc. Activities like this are much less likely to affect a strong, engaged pelvic floor than a weak one.
It is very common to think that Pilates is purely about engaging the pelvic floor muscles in conjunction with the other core muscles. What is equally important is learning how to relax these muscles. Just like other muscles, when the pelvic floor becomes too tense and cannot relax, it becomes painful and actually weakens! Pilates teaches combining pelvic floor activation with breathing. On an exhalation the pelvic floor engages and lifts up, drawing the stomach in. On an inhalation, the pelvic floor completely relaxes, lengthening and relaxing these muscles and expanding the stomach. The inhalation gives the core muscles a chance to rest before they need to work again on the next exhalation. The exhalation is used during the part of the exercise that involves the most exertion and therefore needs the pelvic floor engagement. This is why breathing in Pilates is so important as it directly impacts your pelvic floor!
I myself have had personal experience with an overworked or hypertonic pelvic floor. I had pain in the right side of my back and tight hips for many years and saw many practitioners without any improvement. I finally found an amazing physiotherapist, who discovered that my pelvic floor was unable to relax, causing similar symptoms of that of a weak pelvic floor. My rehabilitation involved a lot of breathwork, particularly focusing on completely relaxing my pelvic floor after an exhalation, that is, after a contraction of my core muscles. I am very happy to report that I am now pain free purely due to learning how to relax my pelvic floor!
I’ll leave you with a few pro tips to help strengthen the pelvic floor and get the most out of your Pilates workouts:
- Always breathe through Pilates exercises and through all your daily movements! Focus on letting the pelvic floor go and relax on the inhale, then engaging these muscles on the exhalation.
- Engaging the pelvic floor is a subtle, internal contraction. Think of recruiting the pelvic floor as a 30% or 3/10 contraction.
- Remember that relaxing the pelvic floor is just as crucial as engaging it.
- Ask your Pilates instructor if you are having trouble understanding how to engage the pelvic floor or how to breathe. They want to help you!
Continence Foundation of Australia (2017). Pelvic Floor Muscles in Women. Retrieved January 10, 2017 from https://www.continence.org.au/pages/pelvic-floor-women.html