When you think of the pelvic floor — the basket of muscles that sit at the bottom of your pelvis — your mind likely goes to holding your urge to pee or giving birth.
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But a functional pelvic floor is super important for more than a healthy pregnancy and postpartum experience and for people of all sexes. It plays a big role in healthy bathroom habits, sexual function, a strong core and more, explains Marcy Crouch, PT, DPT, a board-certified clinical specialist in women's health and creator of The DT Method.
The Benefits of a Functional Pelvic Floor
But what exactly is the pelvic floor? In short, it's a group of muscles that run side to side (sit bone to sit bone) and front to back (pubic bone to tailbone); these muscles are made up of skeletal muscle — the same makeup of your hamstrings or biceps, Crouch says. "Because these muscles sit at the bottom of the pelvis, they have lots of functions that we rely on."
A big one is support; your pelvic floor holds up your pelvic organs and your body weight. "They are the 'floor' of the core," Crouch says.
They also play an important role in bladder control. "The rectum and urethra (the tube that urine flows out of) pierce through the pelvic floor," she explains.
"When your bladder is filling with urine, the pelvic floor muscles turn on and lift up to close the urethra so urine doesn't leak out. When we get the urge to void, we go to the bathroom, sit down, the pelvic floor muscles release and the bladder muscle pushes urine out."
These muscles are also involved in sexual function, namely erections and orgasms, adds Rachel Gelman, PT, DPT, a pelvic floor therapist in San Francisco, California.
And if this whole system isn't working optimally, you can wind up experiencing leaking urine, painful urination, frequency or urgency, incomplete emptying, constipation, hemorrhoids and more, experts say.
How to Make Your Pelvic Floor More Functional
But here's the thing: Strengthening your pelvic floor isn't always the solution. "These muscles need to relax and lengthen to allow urine and poop to come out, and they need to contract and relax for orgasms to happen — so length is just as important as strength," Gelman explains.
After all, in order to be truly functional, a muscle has to be functional through its entire range of motion. "Think of your biceps: If the biceps are contracted all the time, your elbow will be flexed and you can't use your arm well. Same with the pelvic floor," Crouch says.
And that's why the "bread and butter" of pelvic floor exercises — the kegel, a shortening contraction of the pelvic floor — isn't the sole answer to building a more functional pelvic floor.
People with vaginas are "told over and over again to do kegels, which is incorrect," Crouch says. "It's more about proper contraction technique and coupling that with synergist muscles for the best contraction and correct breathing, and incorporating this into functional activities."
The Best Pelvic Floor Exercises to Try
Pelvic floor physical therapists can help anyone learn to do kegels — and other effective pelvic floor exercises — the right away. Here's a look at some of the other exercises they keep in their repertoire.
Engage your pelvic floor muscles by lifting up and in, like you’re holding in urine.
Move 1: Side-Lying Leg Lift
- Lie on your side, stacking your top leg directly over your bottom one. Bend your bottom leg and keep your top leg straight. Engage your pelvic floor by lifting up and gently squeezing your pelvic floor muscles.
- Keeping your pelvic floor engaged and your hips pointing forward, lift the top leg up and down. Don't hold your breath or push out through your stomach.
- Complete 3 sets of 10 reps on each side.
Move 2: Clamshell
- Lie on your side with your knees bent at about a 90-degree angle and positioned slightly in front of you. Support your head with your bottom arm and keep your top hand on the floor in front of your chest or on your top hip.
- Engaging your outer glute, rotate your top knee open while keeping the heels of your feet together. Make sure to keep your hips square throughout the entire movement and avoid rolling your hips back by activating your core.
- Pause at the top of the movement for a few seconds before lowering your leg back down to the starting position.
- Complete 15 reps before switching sides.
You should feel your gluteus medius (think: your back pocket) working. If you aren’t, try altering the angle of your knees, either closer toward your hips or down and away from them, to target that area, says Sam DuFlo, PT, DPT, a pelvic floor physical therapist and founder of Indigo Physiotherapy in Baltimore, Maryland.
Move 3: Cat Camel With a Foam Roller
- Start on all fours with your shoulders directly over your wrists and your hips over your knees, palms and knees shoulder-width apart. Place a foam roller underneath your palms.
- On an inhale, bring the foam roller closer to your knees as your back scoops up like a camel's hump, drawing your navel toward your spine and your chin toward your chest.
- On an exhale, push the foam roller away from your knees as your back arches like a cat, dropping your belly down toward the ground.
- Complete 2 sets of 10 reps.
Move 4: Child's Pose
- Sit back on your heels and stretch your arms forward, relaxing your forehead to the floor.
- Feel your lower back, hips and waist lengthening as you breathe deeply.
Gelman suggests holding this go-to yoga position for a few moments at a time — it’s highly effective at relaxing your pelvic floor.
Move 5: Squat
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Engage your pelvic floor.
- Hinge your hips back and squat down as if you're sitting on a chair until your thighs are parallel to the ground (or as low as you can comfortably go). Avoid allowing your knees to collapse in toward your midline or drift over your toes. Squeeze your pelvic floor muscles at the bottom of your squat.
- Push through your heels to stand back up.
- Complete 3 sets of 10 reps.
Move 6: Banded Glute Bridge
- Anchor a resistance band behind you, preferably in a door hinge.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Hold the resistance band in both hands with your arms extended up toward the ceiling, palms facing your feet.
- Tuck your pelvis under and squeeze your glutes to lift your hips off the ground until they are parallel with your thighs.
- Lift your right leg off the ground and pull the band down toward your hips.
- Lower your hips back down to the ground and repeat with the left leg.
- Continue alternating legs for 2 sets of 10 reps.
This move coordinates glute work with activating the pelvic floor and stabilizing the core, Abraham says.
Move 7: Donkey Kick
- Start on all fours with your shoulders directly over your wrists and your hips over your knees. On an exhale, squeeze your pelvic floor, but don't hold your breath.
- Keeping your pelvic floor engaged and your hips square, lift one leg up off the ground, like you are kicking the ceiling with the sole of your foot. Maintain a tight core and pelvic floor, and avoid arching your back.
- Inhale as you lower your leg back down to the starting position.
- Complete 3 sets of 10 reps on each side.