The Ultimate Guide to Kegel Exercises

There are many reasons to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles, from preventing embarrassing leaks to having more pleasurable sex.

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It's a five-minute workout you can squeeze in anytime, anywhere — whether that's in the office or in the bedroom. No one will notice you're exercising, but you'll be strengthening important muscles that control everything from embarrassing urine leakage to boast-worthy orgasms. We're talking Kegels.

"Everyone should do Kegel exercises. Everyone. There's no one who shouldn't actively work on strengthening the pelvic floor," says Marsha K. Guess, MD, MS, assistant professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine.

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What Are Kegel Exercises, Anyway?

Named after Dr. Arnold Kegel who created the pelvic floor routine in 1948, Kegel exercises are a series of muscle contractions originally developed to treat stress urinary incontinence — also known as poor bladder control — following childbirth.

What Causes the Vaginal Muscles to Weaken?

Both childbirth and aging can weaken the vaginal muscles that hold the bladder and urethra in place, and any added pressure — a laugh, cough, sneeze or strain — can cause urine to leak. Half of women who suffer from urinary incontinence don't report the disorder to a doctor. The good news is that a Kegel workout can be an effective nonsurgical treatment option, according to guidelines from the American College of Physicians.

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Why a Strong Pelvic Floor Is Beneficial

A strong pelvic floor is also important for women who work jobs that require heavy lifting, says Dr. Guess, as the stress put on the pelvic floor can sometimes cause prolapse — a condition that occurs when a woman's uterus starts to fall out of place. But the exercises aren't just beneficial for women at risk for pelvic floor disorder.

"It's just like working out. There's no one who shouldn't do it, although some people are extra motivated based on their circumstance while others can get away with not doing it very much," Guess explains. "We do know that even among healthy women, Kegels can help prevent disorders from ever developing."

Whether you plan to have children or not, women of all ages can benefit from a regular Kegel routine as a form of healthy preventive care, according to Guess, who notes the vaginal muscles can weaken with age, independent of childbirth.

Need one more reason to squeeze on the regular? In a 2010 study published in the International Urogynecology Journal, researchers found that orgasms and even sexual arousal can improve with strong pelvic floor muscles.

"Pelvic floor exercises can help some women who have a hard time relaxing the muscles during intercourse, which may make sex more pleasurable," Guess says.

How to Get Your Kegel On

First things first: Say hello to your pelvic floor. If you're not sure where your pelvic muscles are, there are a couple ways you can discover them:

  • One option is to schedule an appointment with an OBGYN who will insert a finger into your vagina, ask you to squeeze, and course correct as necessary.
  • Alternatively, practice while you pee. The same muscles you use to stop a stream of urine — without moving your legs — are the pelvic floor muscles you'll be training during your Kegel workout. If pee is coming out while you squeeze, you're probably pushing down not up—the opposite of what you want in order to strengthen the muscle, says Guess.

Once you've identified your pelvic muscles, you're almost ready to go. Before you begin, unload your bladder and find a quiet, calm space where you can focus.

"Eventually you may find yourself doing Kegel exercises at the grocery store, but when you start out, you really want to be in an environment that's conducive to focusing on the muscle," Guess says.

How to Do Basic Kegel Exercises

Here's a traditional Kegel workout Guess recommends to her clients:

  1. Sit comfortably with your feet and knees wide apart.
  2. Lean forward and place your elbows on your knees.
  3. Remember to keep breathing throughout and keep your stomach, legs and butt muscles relaxed.
  4. Contract the pelvic floor muscles and hold for 3 to 5 seconds.
  5. Relax the muscles completely for a count of 3 to 5 seconds.
  6. Perform 10 of these squeeze-and-release contractions.
  7. Repeat three sets of the exercise, three times a day — morning, afternoon and evening — for a total of 90 contractions per day.

Guess recommends practicing Kegel exercises twice a week. The goal? Increasing the amount of time you hold and release the pelvic floor muscles from 3 to 5 seconds to a maximum of 10 seconds for each contraction.

Take Your Kegel Exercises Up a Notch

Once you're comfortable with the basic Kegel routine, you may want to explore different positions. Try performing the exercises lying down on a bed or recliner with your legs stretched out in a relaxed position, or even on your side with your legs slightly bent, Guess suggests.

Devices like biofeedback exercisers present another approach, Guess says. The at-home device is inserted into the vagina and then tracks your contractions and indicates a job well done.

When to Expect Results

"It's all about trial and error and discovering what works best for you," Guess says. "The most important thing is not to set unrealistic expectations. The pelvic floor is a muscle like any other. It takes time to strengthen, and results are not instant."

Some women see improvements within two to four weeks, but it could take three months to see results, according to Guess.

Adding Kegels into your daily routine can help make them second nature, says Guess, who often recommends her clients add the 5- to 10-minute workout to the end of their gym routine.

If you're having trouble, Guess recommends meeting with a pelvic floor physical therapist. Just as a personal trainer at the gym can help you squat safely in order to reach your goals, a session with a pelvic floor physical therapist can introduce you to a suitable Kegel workout based on your current strength level.

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