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  • Health – Leave your pelvic floor muscles alone

    It’s believed that exercising your pelvic floor will help improve orgasm, but some health professionals believe you could be doing more harm.

    We’re often told by health professionals and physical trainers alike that we should be clenching our way to a firmer pelvic floor, but some argue that these exercises are actually really bad for you.

    We’re all familiar with the so-called “Kegel” exercises, widely believed to be beneficial to women (and men) for increasing the strength of the muscles in the pelvic floor, a part of the body which essentially holds the internal organs in place within the pelvis by stabilising intra-abdominal pressure, helps with controlling bowel movements and urinating (as well as incontinence), and facilitates the birthing process for women.

    Dr Arnold Kegel developed his now famous exercises in the late 1940s and early ’50s while trying to find a non-surgical treatment for urinary incontinence. This has since led to millions of women trying to stop peeing mid-stream (one of the exercises modern proponents suggest), especially when it was found that a “strong” pelvic floor enhances orgasm.

    But are these exercises what Kegel really intended? While countering incontinence may have been his goal, it is highly unlikely that he had better orgasms in mind when he first laid women on their backs and asked them to clench his finger with their lady parts.

    Numerous studies have looked at whether strengthening the pelvic floor muscles are actually beneficial and have found that Kegel’s research does carry some weight in aiding the prevention of urinary continence, as well as prolapse (a condition where organs fall out of place and protrude through the vagina or the rectum) by staving off a condition called pelvic floor dysfunction. However, no research has indicated that doing “Kegels” can actually enhance orgasm.

    Advocates of Kegel exercises have long cited his study as claiming that the exercises enhance orgasms in women, causing every Sue, Jane and Sally to start clenching their sphincters while sitting in traffic. Interestingly, in his groundbreaking 1952 study, Kegel writes: “…it has been found that dysfunction of the pubococcygeus [pelvic floor] exists in many women complaining of lack of vaginal feeling during coitus and that in these cases sexual appreciation can be increased by restoring function of the pubococcygeus.” What exactly he meant by “sexual appreciation” is unclear, but considering it is mentioned in the context of women who can’t feel anything during sex, it is rather unlikely that he meant orgasm per se.

    Medical research papers are technical, and one can understand how this particular text could have been read out of context. Add more than 60 years worth of broken telephone and it’s easy to see how Kegelers got to the enhanced orgasm claim. While not directly associated with Kegel’s research, the root of some of the claims may lie in the ancient Eastern sexual technique known as “pompoir” where a woman stimulates a man’s penis by using her vaginal muscles. The technique involves identifying the specific muscles and strengthening them in a way similar to Kegel exercises.

    The challenge is to identify the specific muscles involved and not necessarily the entire pelvic floor. Identifying the correct muscles to strengthen was one of the challenges Kegel noted in his research. It is something many women struggle with, mistakenly exercising the abdominal and thigh muscles as a result.

    However, a storm is brewing within the physical therapy community over the actual benefits of “strengthening” the pelvic floor and whether these exercises may actually cause more problems. According to physiotherapist Elizabeth Rummer, the muscles in the pelvic floor are the only group of muscles that are working all the time. These muscles are taught and function like a trampoline or drum skin to rebound pressure from the internal organs. Due to their tautness they are an exception to the principle “a toned muscle is a good muscle” and may actually become too tight if overworked. In fact, this can lead to symptoms such as urinary urgency and frequency, as well as pelvic floor dysfunction, the very condition Kegels are meant to counter.

    Rummer notes that the pelvic floor muscles do not need to be further strengthened unless they have somehow been over stretched or injured in a way that’s made them weak, such as during childbirth, menopause or as the result of surgery.

    In recent times it has also become popular for men to exercise their pelvic floor muscles in the belief that it will lead to a stronger erection and result in better orgasms. Rummer refutes these beliefs and stresses that the only time it should be done is in the event of weak pelvic floor muscles or after a prostatectomy. Similar to women, over-tightening of these muscles may in fact have the opposite effect of what it was intend for, with no research supporting the notion of stronger erections and better orgasms and over-doing it may result in the muscles not functioning properly.

    Professionals like Elizabeth Rummer are still in their minority and face an uphill battle against more than 60 years worth of misunderstanding, but they’re slowly chipping away at what women have come to believe as gospel.