Pelvic Floor Mythbusters: Is kegeling the one true way to a healthy pelvic floor?

Pelvis Drawing

Fiona McMahon PT, DPT.

Is kegeling the one true way to a healthy pelvic floor? Not always. We can end the blog here. Just kidding, of course there is nuance to be considered here. But as pelvic floor physical therapists, nothing is more cringe inducing than hearing the phrase “just do your kegels” thrown around for myriads of ailments from low libido, to pain, incontinence, and erectile dysfunction. While it is true the pelvic floor muscles can be involved in all of these conditions and in some cases kegels may help, there are many cases where kegels are the EXACT opposite of how you should be treating these muscles.

Physiology

To understand kegels we must first understand the pelvic floor. To understand the pelvic floor we must also explain the muscles at a very basic level. Bare with me readers, this will help us as we bust through this myth. Muscles, all muscles do what they do, by contracting and getting shorter to produce force. This is easy to see on a bodybuilder doing a bicep curl. As she curls her hand up you can see these muscles shortening into a little ball. Not only is this a great way to show off your gains in the gym, the shortening of these muscles are providing the strength to perform this task. We call this shortening a concentric contraction. Kegels are concentric contractions too! A good kegel will cause the pelvic floor to shorten and provide strength. Let’s go back to our body builder for a second. She has done her lift now she needs to lower her dumbbell back to the floor. In order to lower that dumbbell back to the floor in a controlled way, she needs what’s called an eccentric contraction, which is the controlled lengthening of the muscle. If she did not have a good eccentric contraction she may not be able to lower that weight effectively after she curled it. What if she couldn’t lower her bicep at all or just very slowly after her bicep curl? Maybe her weightlifting wouldn’t be as effective, she’d tire more easily, or she could develop pain. Would you tell this woman that more bicep curls would help? Or might you suggest a program of stretching first? Telling someone to do kegels, when you don’t know the status of their pelvic floor and how well it can relax is similar to telling the bodybuilder with the non relaxing bicep to just do more bicep curls. At best it certainly won’t help the situation and at worst it could cause more pain and dysfunction.

“But Fiona, I have incontinence, so that definitely means I have weaknesses, so it’s good for me to do kegels, right?”. Maybe… but in my experience, probably not. Let’s agree on one thing, it’s completely intuitive that people would think that kegels would help incontinence. The muscles of the pelvic floor are responsible for continence… so they must be weak if one is experiencing incontinence. You are right! When we think weak with muscles, we often think weak and loose, which is one form of weakness, but we rarely think weak and tight. Let’s go back to our body builder lady. She deserves a name at this point. Let’s call her Kendra. If Kendra has a tough time moving her lifting her arm from fully straight to a full bicep curl, we could guess she is weak and loose. But if Kendra could not fully straighten her arm out she would be considered weak and tight. Both of these versions of Kendra would have trouble curling heavy weight. One Kendra due to frank weakness another Kendra because she simply does not have enough room or range of motion to generate enough force to curl that dumbell.

Tight and weak pelvic floors are a lot like second Kendra with the poor ability to lengthen her arm. Tight pelvic floors have less range of motion to generate force. You need a good amount of force from the pelvic floor to counteract the pressure of activities like lifting, coughing, laughing and sneezing and stay continent. Over loose and over tight pelvic floors can’t really do that.

If you have pain in your pelvis not from a medical condition, (although tight pelvic floors present with many medical conditions), your pelvic floor is probably tight. A tight pelvic floor may also have trigger points which can send pain to various locations in your genitals, back, legs, and abdomen. Continuing to tighten can cause this pain to get worse.

Treatments

So how do you know what to do? This is where a skilled pelvic floor physical therapist can come in handy. They can assess the muscles by touching them either externally or internally to determine what course of action is right for you. If you are loose and weak, HAPPY DAYS! Strengthening can help them get better. If you have tight and weak muscles, HAPPY DAYS again! Gentle lengthening, stretching and down training of the muscles can help them get better. Did you know, because a tight pelvic floor can cause weakness itself, returning the proper length to the muscles can restore strength, without actually needing to kegel?! Wild! Regardless of the situation happy days can be ahead.

Skilled PT

Really knowing the pelvic floor is a skill and requires advanced expertise.  Kegels should not be initiated, unless the physical therapist has carefully examined your pelvic floor. Not all therapists are trained to do that technique so it is important to inquire about their background before starting pelvic floor PT. There are a lot of different ways to treat the pelvic floor, to read more What is Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy . If you are interested in learning more give us a call at 212- 354-2622 for a free consult if you live in the greater NY/NJ/CT area.

Pilates with Kierstin! Scissor Kicks

Kierstin Elliott

Exercise: Scissor Kicks

Set Up: Lying supine on the mat, press your back into the mat, legs in table top with hands behind the head.

Execution: Inhale to prep, exhale to curl head to your chest, neck and shoulders off the mat driving your naval closer to spine. Inhale to extend your right leg out 45 degrees and left leg straight up to the ceiling. Switch legs, with continuous emphasis on length and control from the psoas. Inhale for two kicks and exhale for two kicks.

Focus: Focus on stabilizing your pelvis and lumbar spine with your core while lengthening through energized legs. Your neck and shoulders should not be holding any tension.

Importance: Stability and strength! While this is primarily a core exercise, the psoas gets the opportunity to strengthen and lengthen with each kick as well.

Modifications: For extra assistance, bend the knees slightly to lessen the load for the core. You could also keep head on mat and place hands under pelvis for greater lower back support.

Pilates with Kierstin! Skater

Kierstin Elliot, Pilates Instructor

Exercise: Skater

Set Up: Stand with one foot on the platform and one foot on the carriage, keeping your feet parallel. Find a squat position with knees over ankles, extended, neutral spine, and core engaged.

Execution: Transfer weight to the platform leg and press carriage away with the carriage leg. Maintain the squat position while extending and bending the carriage leg keeping the pelvis level.

Focus: Stabilize standing leg. Do not let the pelvis or the knee on the standing leg move. Standing glute and hamstring should be the main focus here.

Importance: Form is huge in executing this one properly. Keep your hips back, knee over ankle, level pelvis, neutral spine.

Modifications: For less intensity use lighter springs. For more of a challenge and abductor strengthening, use heavier springs. This can also be done with the stabilizing leg on the carriage opposed to the platform.

Pilates

Check out Julia’s experiencing Pilates to help her weight lifting program here

Pilates, Moving from Injury Back to Peak performance

Julia Rosenthal PT, DPT

Julia Pilates

As an avid high intensity exerciser, I am always looking to push myself in my workouts. When pain gets in the way of my progress, it can be extremely frustrating. For years, I have been struggling with chronic hip and sacroiliac joint (low back) pain. These symptoms intensified about two and a half years ago when I fractured a lumbar vertebra weight lifting. Recovery was hard, and during that time I was told by doctors, friends, and family that I could not or should not return to the things I loved: lifting heavy weights and running outside. I was devastated. I tried swimming, biking, the crazy looking stair treadmill at the gym, and while I was able to get some exercise in, I still felt like I had lost one of the things that brought me the most joy.

Months after my injury, I finally started listening to my body and my physical therapist friends rather than the limiting and negative advice I had gotten. I started returning to weight lifting and running and began trying not to judge myself for the strength I had lost. The more I did, the better I felt. I was scared, but I felt liberated at the same time. But despite making some initial progress, I started to hit a wall. I couldn’t deadlift as much as I could before, I couldn’t lift as much overhead, and I was too afraid to run on concrete or to get in a squat rack, which was where I had hurt myself all those months ago. I started to feel that hip and sacroiliac (SIJ) pain again after every workout, and I knew I had to change something about what I was doing.

Enter: Pilates. Pilates and weight lifting are both forms of resistance training, but there are key differences between them that make Pilates an effective form of cross training for a weightlifter. When you do any singular form of exercise, your body is learning how to complete a task one way. Introducing a different form of exercises gives you variability, and teaches your body to work under lots of different conditions using different muscle groups. The more options our bodies have for how to complete a task (like a deadlift), the stronger we become.

Here at Beyond Basics Physical Therapy, I had the opportunity to work with Kierstin Elliot,a certified Pilates instructor with a wealth of experience working with clients who struggle with orthopedic issues, including pelvic floor dysfunction. “In Pilates,” Kierstin explained, “subtle nuances matter and you have to be a stickler for form and alignment.” Weightlifting athletes, on the other hand, generally focus more on larger, more powerful movements. Because of these differences, Pilates can make a big difference when it comes to increasing strength and decreasing injury in people who typically exercise with high resistance. In the months that I spent working one on one with Kierstin, I achieved personal bests in my squat and my deadlift and could feel that I was much more steady in any single leg weight lifting activity.

If you like to lift weights and you want to see your performance improve, here are 5 specific ways that Pilates can up your weight lifting game:

  1. Eccentric Strengthening
    1. While weight lifting certainly helps to develop core strength, Pilates does so using lighter weights and more eccentric contractions. Eccentric contractions require muscles to work and lengthen at the same time. Typically, weightlifting and other forms of exercise will strengthen the core in a concentric way, meaning the muscles are asked to shorten and tighten in order to build strength. While both are effective, the best option is a combination – variability is key. Eccentric contractions are also a great way to increase mobility.
  2. Increasing Mobility in the Spine and Extremities
    1. The demands on the spine are very different in weight lifting versus Pilates. Lifting heavier weights requires you to maintain a certain amount of stiffness in the spine to protect it against a heavier load. While that is an important skill (think about how hard it can be to lift a heavy suitcase, stroller, car seat, etc.), it is also important to be able to manage resistance at times when our back can’t be in a “neutral” position, like when you’re putting a baby in a crib or digging things out of your storage unit. Pilates exercises are done at lower resistance and in various different spinal positions: flexion, extension, side-bending, and rotation. This allows you to learn to move well under tension in lots of different positions.
    2. Pilates is also a great way to increase your hip and shoulder mobility, both of which are important for weight lifting. Squatting, deadlifting, and overhead movements were the things I was having the hardest time progressing back to, and these all require good shoulder and hip mobility. Pilates exercises are often done with the trunk supported, and with resistance applied to the limbs by springs. This means that there are more eccentric contractions involved (working and lengthening at the same time), which can be a great way to improve strength and mobility at the same time.
  3. Increasing Stability
    1. Weightlifting focuses on powerful movements. These types of movements will require increased work from our larger “global” muscles which tend to be longer and move lots of joints at the same time. While strengthening these muscles is important, using Pilates to strengthen the smaller “stabilizing” muscles is a great way to enhance the strength of the global musculature. When we do a big, powerful movement, we need the smaller stabilizing muscles to automatically fire too – this enhances our overall strength, improves our balance, and makes us less prone to injury.
  4. Increasing Endurance
    1. Training for increased endurance means training at a lower weight and performing more repetitions. In weightlifting, the goal is to work at a higher percentage of your 1 rep maximum, meaning the greatest amount of weight that you would be able to lift once. In Pilates, on the other hand, lighter resistance is used for more repetitions.
  5. Increasing Body Awareness
    1. Proprioception is the sense that allows us to know where our bodies are in space. Exercises that are done in a closed chain – meaning one of your body parts is in contact with a fixed surface – enhance this sense. Because reformer Pilates includes spring tension with your feet or hands in contact with a surface, almost all exercises are done in a closed chain. This can be a really great way to ease into a movement after an injury. The support of a closed chain exercise allows you to tailor the movement to your current level as you progress back towards more traditional open chain (no contact with a surface) weightlifting movements.

Thanks for reading! I hope this blog post helped you understand how you can take your training to the next level. If you are interested in experiencing what Pilates can offer or how physical therapy can maximize your athletic potential, please call our midtown (212-354-2622) or downtown office (212-267-0240) today!

 

Check out what Kierstin has to say about Pilates here!

The Benefits of Pilates While Healing Diastasis Recti

Pilates with Kierstin! Standing Side Splits

Pilates with Kierstin! Bridges with Stability Ball

References:

  1. Ahearn EL, Greene A, Lasner A. Some Effects of Supplemental Pilates Training on the Posture, Strength, and Flexibility of Dancers 17 to 22 Years of Age. Journal of dance medicine & science : official publication of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science. 2018;22(4):192-202.
  2. Di Lorenzo CE. Pilates: what is it? Should it be used in rehabilitation? Sports health. 2011;3(4):352-361.
  3. Phrompaet S, Paungmali A, Pirunsan U, Sitilertpisan P. Effects of pilates training on lumbo-pelvic stability and flexibility. Asian journal of sports medicine. 2011;2(1):16-22.
  4. Queiroz BC, Cagliari MF, Amorim CF, Sacco IC. Muscle activation during four Pilates core stability exercises in quadruped position. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2010;91(1):86-92.
  5. Valenza MC, Rodriguez-Torres J, Cabrera-Martos I, Diaz-Pelegrina A, Aguilar-Ferrandiz ME, Castellote-Caballero Y. Results of a Pilates exercise program in patients with chronic non-specific low back pain: a randomized controlled trial. Clinical rehabilitation. 2017;31(6):753-760.
  6. Why Pilates and Lifting Weights Aren’t Mutually Exclusive – Girls Gone Strong. Girls Gone Strong. https://www.girlsgonestrong.com/blog/strength-training/why-pilates-and-lifting-weights-arent-mutually-exclusive/. Published 2019. Accessed May 26, 2019.

Marathon Training and Racing Wellness: Why I Chose Tina

Molly Team Tisch MSMolly Caughlan PT, DPT

I am very excited to announce that I will begin training soon and will be running the New York Marathon for the first time. I will be running as part of Team TISCH MS alongside my awesome and inspirational co-worker, Fiona McMahon. We are working together to raise a combined $10,000 dollars to support multiple sclerosis research. You can donate to my personal fundraising page here. This is an incredible opportunity that I feel so honored to be a part of. I decided to run the marathon as part of my New York and life bucket list. I see marathon training as a perfect way to get to know all of the five burrows. Running has always been my way of getting to know the city I’m living in.

I have trained for several 5K, 10K and half marathon races, but only one full marathon. My first (and only) marathon I call my “almost marathon” took place in Savannah, GA in November, when the weather should be sunny and 70s. Unfortunately, due to a heat index of 105 and with several hundred participants fainting due to heat exhaustion, they cut the race short and made everyone turn around at mile 14. I was relieved, frustrated, exhausted, and incredibly HOT. My 6 months of training in the hot Atlanta summer had not prepared me for the intense humidity that made me feel as if I were swimming and not running.

Beyond Basics Physical Therapy has generously offered physical therapy services to me to help me meet my marathon training goals. First and foremost, I’d like to complete my training and marathon without any major injuries. In previous races, I’ve been fortunate to not have any serious injuries and just minor aches/pains. My main problem areas are my right sacroiliac joint and right foot feeling occasionally unstable and achy. Second, I’d like to finish in under 4 and a half hours, meaning little to no walking breaks. My pace is on the slower end (around 10 min/mile) and I’m hoping to increase my pace. My third goal is to get the most out of my training and to fully enjoy the whole process.

My co-worker Tina Cardenia will be my physical therapist and I could not be more thrilled to be working with someone so incredibly talented, intelligent, and experienced. Tina has an extensive background working in an orthopedic setting and has completed the intense certification process in Functional Manual Therapy (CFMT). Tina uses this strong framework to look at the body as a whole and bring its function to optimal capacity.

These next 6 months will be intense, but I’m excited to push my body to new limits and finally cross “marathon” off the list. With the help of Tina, Team TISCH, and Beyond Basics, I am excited to take on this new challenge. I’m confident that I’ll meet all the goals I’ve set out for myself and look forward to November as they come into fruition.

Both Molly and Tina work in our Midtown Location.

PT Molly

 

Pilates with Kierstin! Bridges with Stability Ball

Kierstin Elliot

Exercise: Bridges with Stability Ball

Set Up: Lie on your back with knees bent, with left foot flat on the mat, and stability ball under the right foot. Arms resting by your sides. Neutral pelvis.

Execution: Inhale to prep. Exhale to lift pelvis off the mat into bridge position while pressing left foot firmly into the mat and right foot firmly into the stability ball. Hold bridge for one breath, then lower with control maintaining a neutral pelvis. Repeat 5-10 times on this side and then switch to the other leg.

Focus: Keep pelvis completely level throughout the entire exercise. Be sure to not overuse or arch the lower back. Ribs should be flush with abdomen and the knees should be reaching over the toes.

Importance: Key muscles targeted in this exercise are the glutes and hamstrings! Pelvic and core stability are also challenged due to the stability ball. If you feel only your hamstrings engaging as you bridge, move heels closer to sits bones. This should help the glutes turn on.

Modifications: If you find adding the stability ball too challenging, don’t continue using it with faulty form. Try marching slowly in a bridge position- hold the right leg up for 5 counts, then slowly transfer to left leg lifting for five counts. Keep alternating legs being sure the pelvis stays level and glutes and hamstrings are engaged. If you find you pelvis dropping on one side as you do this, then do fewer repetitions to start.

Pilates with Kierstin! Kneeling Side Twist

Kierstin Elliot

Exercise: Kneeling Side Twist

Set Up: Kneel on the reformer facing either right or left side of the room with a strap held in both hands. Hands should be directly in front of the sternum, and arms rounded as if holding a big beach ball. Shoulders relaxed, lats slightly engaged, lower abs lifting up and glutes engaged for stability.

Execution: Inhale to prep. Exhale to twist from waist towards foot bar while maintaining fixed upper body posture. Inhale to return back to starting position. Imagine wringing out your waist.

Focus: Obliques and TA, spinal rotation, and pelvic stability. Be sure to keep the pelvis still while twisting from your waist. Your range of motion should only be about a quarter of a pie. Initiate movement with the ribcage, not the arms.

Importance: Core strengthening, spinal mobility, pelvic stability, and overall coordination.

Modifications: If dealing with bad knees, perform the exercise while sitting on the long box. This can also be done standing on the floor with a theraband attached to a doorknob, or standing with free weights.