As a Pelvic Health Physiotherapist I have the privilege of working with and helping so many awesome women, many of whom are struggling with incontinence during activities such as running, weightlifting, or sports.
When I first meet these women, I’ve found that so many employ various strategies in order to reduce their leaking during exercise. Some empty their bladder frequently between sets, some squeeze their legs together, and others try to hold a Kegel while they perform each exercise. Though each of these strategies are not ideal, today I want to speak specifically about the strategy of holding a Kegel during an exercise. Let’s take the squat for example: many women I have met will try to perform and hold a Kegel for the entire duration of their squat in order to reduce the amount of leaking they are experiencing.
Is this an effective strategy?
Honestly – the answer is no.
Sure… it may do something. It may help some depending on your level of incontinence, pelvic floor strength, and body awareness. Or it may more help by easing your mind, because you feel you are doing something to help. But the truth is this is almost always an ineffective strategy to both treat and manage your exercise incontinence.
Because it fails to train two very critical aspects of how our pelvic floor should work during activity: descent and relaxation, and unconscious competence.
1. Descent and Relaxation
Our pelvic floors are meant to both contract and relax. For the most part when these muscles contract they ascend upwards and when they relax they descend downwards. Going through relaxation and contraction throughout the day, or throughout an activity, is very important for how effectively and efficiently our muscles can work, especially when extra stress or load is applied to them.
In order to think about this ascent (contraction) and descent (relaxation) of our muscles, I want you to think about catching a baseball for a minute.
When you go to catch a baseball, you don’t just stop your hand abruptly when you catch the ball, nor do you punch your hand forward in to the ball (aka ascend/contract). No, instead you actually absorb some of the pressure, or cushion some of the force by allowing your hand to move backwards with the ball (aka descent/relax). This allows a much smoother catch, doesn’t lead to pain or discomfort, but most importantly makes catching the ball EASIER! It means we actually exert less effort AND have more success.
Now, let’s go back to the example of incontinence during squatting. If you employ the strategy of performing and holding your pelvic floor throughout the entire squat then you are contracting the muscles the entire time… but remember, we need to allow descent of those muscles to cushion the pressure created during the exercise! So, if you aren’t allowing for this your muscles cannot actually work optimally. And though this may perhaps help to some degree in the immediate moment, it will not allow your muscles to work as effectively and efficiently as they should. What this usually translates to is a ceiling effect where maybe this strategy works “a little”, but will never entirely correct the incontinence.
2. Unconscious Competence
This topic – unconscious competence – is something that is very, very important to me. As a pelvic health physiotherapist I am constantly meeting incredible women who almost never stop thinking about their pelvic floor because they are always trying to manage their symptoms. They do Kegels during exercise, try to manage their abdominal pressure in any way possible, are nervous of doing certain exercises, and are basically always thinking about their pelvic floor.
One of my goals for each and every client I work with is getting to the point where you don’t have to THINK about your pelvic floor AT ALL!!! Constantly thinking about what your pelvic floor is doing during activity or exercise is EXHAUSTING! Not only that, truthfully it is not healthy and can drive pretty much anyone to feel anxious, nervous, scared, or even a bit obsessive.
Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a place to think about your pelvic floor during exercise – there absolutely is, especially in the beginning when you are learning about your pelvic floor, what it does, and how it should work. But, this is not a long term solution! This thinking is more short term and is geared to help you learn about your body!
Depending on your symptoms, pelvic floor coordination and body awareness, we will often go back to the basics at the beginning of your pelvic floor rehabilitation and ask you to consciously think about and control your pelvic floor. This is known as conscious competence, simply meaning that when you consciously think about it, you can contract and relax your pelvic floor as desired. However after conscious competence is achieved we must, must, must transition to training unconscious competence!!
This is a critical piece of rehabilitation that I often see skipped: training your pelvic floor to work when and how it should when you are NOT thinking about it!! Holding a Kegel during an exercise, like the squat, does not help you train those muscles to be unconsciously competent.
What to do Instead
I wish I had a cookie-cutter answer for this, but the truth is you need to work with a pelvic health and fitness professional who can guide you, will as we can guide you, give you exercises and techniques to make sure you don’t have to always think about your pelvic floor and can instead start enjoying activities and exercises again!
Once we assess your pelvic floor coordination and general movement we will be well equipped at walking you through the steps to go from conscious incompetence –> conscious competence –> unconscious competence!