Generations of women have been told they need to clench and bear down on their pelvic muscles to help prevent incontinence and improve their romantic lives.
But over the decades, experts say, some common myths about Kegel exercises – named for Dr. Arnold Kegel, a gynecologist who started recommending the approach to women in the 1940s – have blossomed alongside the exercise’s popularity.
Some people do Kegel exercises wrong. Some shouldn’t do them at all. And many people may be surprised to find Kegels can help men, too.
Kegel confusion is one of the biggest challenges for physical therapists who specialize in pelvic health such as Cassie Woodrow, who practices at Tidelands Health Rehabilitation Services at Carolina Forest.
Here are three common myths about the legendary exercise:
More is better
Many people think Kegel exercises are simply contractions of the muscles in the lower abdomen, and they build up reps and aim to do a lot of them.
But that’s the wrong approach, Woodrow says.
“I always compare it to a bicep curl,” she says. “You need to have good form and follow through, not just do a bunch of small contractions very quickly.”
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Woodrow recommends taking some time to learn proper Kegel technique:
- Start by locating the correct muscles by contracting the muscles you would use to stop the flow of urine. Those are your pelvic floor muscles.
- Begin by contracting your pelvic floor muscles and holding a few seconds. Avoid tightening your buttocks, thighs or abdomen. Hold the contractions for 2-3 seconds to begin with, eventually building up to about five to 10 seconds.
- Perform the contractions while breathing out, instead of drawing a breath and holding it during the exercise.
It’s also crucial to rest between contractions, Woodrow says.
“So many people just squeeze and release really fast. But you’re not really utilizing the full muscle if you don’t completely relax in between.”
Everyone should do them
Kegels are great for many people. But in some women, Kegels can exacerbate pelvic floor damage, Woodrow says.
“A lot of women with incontinence actually have very tight pelvic floor muscles. They don’t have the ability to get a full squeeze because those muscles are already in such a tense place, and then they can leak urine,” she says.
Before beginning Kegels, it’s a good idea to first consult with a physical therapist such as Woodrow who specializes in diagnosing and treating pelvic floor disorders. At Tidelands Health, patients can also benefit from the expertise of a specially trained urogynecologist.
“In some cases, you may need to work on relaxing those muscles more than strengthening them,” Woodrow says.
They’re just for women
Perhaps because Kegels were developed by a gynecologist, they’re often thought of as exercises for women.
But Woodrow points out that men should consider Kegel exercises as well. The exercises can help improve bowel and bladder control in men, and in some cases even improve sexual performance.
The exercises can also help girls build strong pelvic floor muscles to improve athletic performance.
“Kegels help the muscles give your organs support while you’re running or walking or doing any kind of activity.”