Your guide to pelvic floor health: What are pelvic floor stretches?


by Carylea Coffey   and Paula McKenzie

Jun 11, 2024

Your pelvic floor is a group of muscles in your pelvis, found between your tailbone and pubic bone. These muscles are essential for everyday activities, such as healthy bowel and bladder function, but they can be weakened or damaged by pregnancy and childbirth, age, being overweight, injuries and stress.

Pelvic floor therapy is a highly specialized form of physical therapy focusing on your pelvic floor. It is frequently recommended for women who are pregnant or postpartum, but men can benefit from it too!

But what exactly are pelvic floor stretches and how do they help with feeling healthy and strong in your body?

What are pelvic floor stretches?

Pelvic floor stretches are specific exercises that can relax and strengthen the pelvic floor.

There are two types of pelvic floor stretches: 

  • The first is internal stretches directly to the pelvic floor muscles. This can be done by a physical therapist, by yourself or a partner, or with the use of a wand or dilator. These stretches use fingers, a wand or a dilator to strum on and massage the muscles to relax and gain muscle excursion.
  • The other interpretation is traditional stretching exercises that target the muscles of the pelvic floor, perineum and nearby muscles, such as the adductors.

Are pelvic floor exercises the same as Kegels?

You may have heard of the term “Kegels,” which are a particular type of exercise that can help to strengthen your pelvic floor. Kegel exercises are not appropriate for all people, and a physical therapist will evaluate you to determine if you need to do Kegels or other pelvic floor exercises.

Alternative pelvic floor exercises include:

  • Getting your pelvic floor muscles to relax (known as “down-training”).
  • Working on coordination, strengthening or stretching your pelvic floor’s accessory muscles, such as your abdomen, lower back and hips.
  • Focusing on the other main muscle groups that support the pelvic floor, including your core and lower extremity muscles.

What are pelvic floor exercises for women during pregnancy?

It’s important to stay active during your pregnancy. Typically, it’s best to focus on strength throughout the second trimester and mobility into the third trimester. Many pelvic floor exercises can help reduce normal aches, pains and other symptoms during pregnancy, as well as improve your ability to stay active longer as your pregnancy progresses.

During pregnancy, the appropriate level and frequency of exercise is individual to you. Once you're pregnant, it’s important not to start a new program at a higher intensity level than you’re used to. You can develop an exercise plan unique to your needs by working with a pelvic floor therapist, typically after the start of your second trimester—unless you are experiencing symptoms before that.

The “hug the baby” pelvic floor exercise

As your abs stretch out throughout pregnancy, one exercise that can be helpful to stay connected to your core is thinking about “hugging the baby” toward your spine and up toward your head as you exhale—blowing out like you would a birthday candle. You can then inhale to relax your abs.

You can use this exercise whenever you lift something moderately challenging to give your body more support and effectively activate your core.  

How do pelvic floor stretches help after birth or a C-section?

Both pelvic floor stretches and exercises are helpful after giving birth. Most women are advised to perform Kegels following a vaginal delivery, but it is also important to re-learn how to activate your core muscles after several months of the baby gradually stretching them out. Often, it’s difficult to even feel your abs engaging after baby is delivered, regardless of how you deliver.

Your needs are unique to you, and it would be best to work with a specialist to give you the most individualized care. Some women need more strengthening compared to stretching, and vice versa. Early in your postpartum journey, gentle movements and giving yourself time to heal are especially important.

You should be cleared by your OBGYN or provider at your six-week follow-up before beginning any strenuous postnatal exercises. It’s best to schedule a follow-up with a pelvic floor physical therapist so you can return to exercise with confidence and gradually gear up without worrying about impacting your postpartum recovery.

How do pelvic floor exercises help with incontinence?

Pelvic floor exercises can help with urinary incontinence and bowel incontinence. Pelvic floor muscles are sphincteric in nature, meaning they need to put appropriate pressure on the urethra and anal sphincters to keep them closed when you don’t want to go to the bathroom. By appropriately exercising the pelvic floor and accessory muscles, we can create balance and support for the core to allow the pelvic floor to function properly. 

In addition to prescribing exercises, pelvic floor physical therapists also educate about bladder and bowel fitness to help you to identify and correct poor bladder and bowel health habits, which may lead to incontinence. 

How do pelvic floor exercises help with prolapse?

A pelvic organ prolapse is a displacement of a pelvic organ from its original position in the body, usually the bladder, uterus or rectum. You may experience a bulging or pressure in the pelvis (usually via the vagina or the rectum) and it can impact urinary, bowel and sexual function.

Pelvic floor exercises help strengthen the muscles that support the pelvic organs. In addition to strengthening the pelvic floor muscles, pelvic floor physical therapy can help identify potential risk factors for prolapse, including changes in hormones or activities that lead to increased intra-abdominal pressure:

  • Heavy lifting
  • Excessive pushing and straining
  • Holding your breath

Once risk factors are identified, pelvic floor physical therapists can create a plan to help maintain and prevent worsening symptoms:

  • Postural corrections
  • Pelvic floor muscle strengthening
  • Body mechanics training

What are the benefits of pelvic floor exercises for men?

Men can also experience pelvic floor dysfunction, including:

  • Urinary and bowel incontinence
  • Constipation
  • Pelvic pain

Depending on the diagnosis, men may benefit from strengthening exercises to help improve urinary or bowel control or stretching exercises to promote muscle relaxation and alleviate pain.

How can you do pelvic floor exercises at home?

The best part of pelvic floor training is that you can exercise anywhere. Your physical therapist will teach you how to use your muscles properly so you can use additional equipment like free weights, resistance bands, Pilates reformers and more. Your routine will be tailored to your body.

Physical therapists also educate people on body mechanics and bladder and bowel health habits. Having improved awareness of these aspects of your body helps reduce various symptoms, so you can feel better each day. 

A pelvic floor therapist can create an exercise plan for you and your unique needs. Connect with one today.

About the Author

Carylea Coffey, PT, DPT, is a women’s health therapist and prenatal and postpartum corrective exercise specialist (PCES) at Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation – McKinney-Lake Forest.

Paula McKenzie, PT, is a women’s health therapist who specializes in abdominopelvic health and orthopedics at Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation – McKinney-Lake Forest.

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