What they are
As a pregnant woman there are many terms that you'll hear bandied about with abandon, one of these is 'Kegels', and they are one of your new best friends. Kegel exercises are the brainchild of one Dr Kegel who, in the 1940s, discovered that exercising the PC (puboccygeus) muscles, or muscles of your pelvic floor, gave women better bladder control.
What the pelvic floor is & why it matters
You pelvic floor muscles are those muscles supporting the bladder, uterus and rectum and keeping them all where they should be, as well as controlling the openings of the vagina, urethra and anus.
Depending on what stage of pregnancy you're at you've probably already noticed that you need to urinate more often and so increased bladder control is already A Good Thing. You'll find that this is increasingly the case as the weight of the baby begins to put pressure on your pelvic floor. But the real challenge comes after childbirth, during which the stretching and straining of the pelvic floor muscles can leave them weakened. This leaves new mums in less control of urinary function, particularly when sneezing, exercising or laughing. This lack of control is known as 'stress incontinence' and the phrase "I laughed so hard I nearly wet myself" now takes on a whole new meaning.
The good news is that Kegel exercises done regularly to strengthen the pelvic floor can help you both prepare for vaginal delivery, making it easier, and help with improving bladder control after birth. They can also, usefully, help with improving the satisfaction you can achieve through sexual intercourse.
How do I do Kegel /pelvic floor exercises
There are lots of different ways of doing Kegel exercises, but the key starting point is to locate your PC muscles so that you can exercise them.
Many people recommend that you try to locate your pelvic floor muscles by deliberately interrupting your flow of urine, but if you do this then it's important that you do empty your bladder completely to avoid possible infection. In locating the muscles it might help you to think back to sexual intercourse and the muscles you use when you squeeze around your partner to enhance the experience for both of you. If you haven't done this yet then give it a go, your partner should feel the light squeeze when you're successfully tightening your PC muscles, and should like it!
When you first try to locate these muscles you might find that you're simultaneously clenching your bum and/or your thighs, tightening your stomach muscles or holding your breath. In order to do the exercises successfully you'll need to tighten the PC muscles in isolation, so gradually try to relax the other muscles and breathe normally. This might be a difficult at first but a little perseverance will go a long way. Once you've found your PC muscles you can do the following.
Tighten and hold
- Tighten your PC muscles and hold for three seconds, but remember to breathe! Repeat several times and after every third or fourth time push out the PC muscles after releasing them
- Repeat several times or until your PC muscles are tired. Make a mental note of how many repeats this takes so you can mark your improvement
- Do this slow hold exercise several times a day, but also mix it in with mixed-speed PC exercises
As you get better at doing the exercises and your muscles become stronger you'll be able to increase the number of holds you manage each day. How many you do really depends on you and the level of your PC control, and whether you're doing rapid or slow holds. Try aiming for 30-40 per day to start off with, spread out over the day. In a few week's time you should be able to triple this if you're dedicated.
- Tighten your PC muscles and quickly release them. Repeat about 20 times, building up to more as you're able
- Tighten your PC muscles and hold then for as long as you can while still remember to breathe. You may find it difficult to hold the muscles beyond a couple of seconds at first, but as you tone the muscles you'll be able to hold them for longer. Relax and repeat several times.
- Once you've got the hang of both rapid and long holds, you can mix them up together, intersperse sets of rapid release with longer holds.
- You can also try pyramids of both rapid and long holds. Start with one hold, then two repetitions together, then three and so on up to about 5. Then come back down the pyramid. You can raise the number you go up to as you increase control
One of the most wonderful and convenient things about Kegel exercises is that you don't need to get in your gym kit or set aside dedicated time to do them once you know what you're doing. After a bit of practice you'll be able to do your Kegels anywhere, and without anyone else knowing. If you have your favourite time to do them it'll help you remember to, as well as making the most of time. Here are some of our suggestions as well as suggestions from ThinkBaby members on the forum.
- Waiting time. Whenever you're waiting to see the doctor, standing in line in the bank or check-out queue, at the traffic lights or on hold on the telephone
- Watching telly. Use those ad breaks to fit in a few squeezes
- Doing the washing up
- During meetings - but maybe wait until you can do the exercises without thinking!
- While sitting at your computer, tapping away (yes, we're taking our own advice!)
- Reading the morning or Sunday papers
- During sex - two birds with one stone!
In terms of when to start, the sooner the better, it's never too early to gain from pelvic floor exercises, even before you get pregnant.