Why it’s important to relax your pelvic floor
Our pelvic floor and deep abdominal muscles are arguably some of the most important muscles in our body.
Your pelvic floor muscles are the layer of muscles on the base of your pelvis that support the pelvic organs: your bladder, uterus (for women), the reproduction organs, small bowel, and rectum. They span from the pubic bone at the front of the pelvis, between the legs to the sit bones and the tail bone.
The pelvic floor muscles are divided into three parts: The main area that we target is known as the Pelvic Diaphragm, which includes the Levator ani muscles (the Puborectalis, Pubococcygeus and Iliococcygeus) and the Coccygeus. Nearby we also have the Urogenital Diaphragm and the Sphincters, all of which make up the pelvic floor.
As you can see from the above diagram, these muscles weave together like a basket supporting your pelvic organs: urinary bladder, uterus (for females) and your intestines. They also maintain continence of the bladder and bowel.
However, they do not work in isolation. Your deep abdominal muscles (consisting of the transverse abdominis, multifidus and internal obliques) work alongside your pelvic floor and diaphragm (or your breathing muscle) to stabilise your lumbar spine and pelvis; and these muscles are collectively known as the core.
Over the last decade, the fitness industry has propagated an “engage your core” phenomenon. It’s all about developing perfect abs, or that awesome ‘six pack.’ In your gym exercise class, you might hear regularly “activate your core!”, in yoga it’s “pull your belly to your spine” or “activate your mula bandha”.
These are all very useful cues that ask us to become aware of and turn on the muscles around our trunk, including our deep pelvic floor muscles.
While it’s imperative that we move and strengthen the muscles in our body, it’s important to be aware that consistent tension in a muscle can also cause ineffectiveness and fatigue.
Basically, all healthy muscles work in a spectrum of being able to activate strongly when required, or relax when appropriate too.
You might have noticed that when you are feeling anxious, stress or under pressure you tend to feel tight in your muscles. This ‘propping’ or ‘holding’ action of our muscle system is probably the most common and obvious physical symptom of anxiety. This physical reaction is all part of the process of preparing our body for potentially dangerous situations.
If you hold any muscle group in a tightened, shortened position habitually, eventually it is likely to become sore, fatigued and not able to perform its job effectively.
This concept is particularly important when it comes to our pelvic floor due to its many roles in supporting the body.
As a Pilates Physiotherapist, I am finding a higher prevalence of tight and weak pelvic floors.
While the ability to activate your pelvic floor is important, so is the ability to relax it.
Due to the importance of the pelvic floor in how we support our torso and spine, it really needs to be assessed prior to beginning any Pilates sessions, using real time ultrasound imaging (similar to when a foetus is observed in the womb, only we angle it over your bladder to the pelvic floor below).
For this reason, an initial pilates consultation at Upwell includes a Real Time Ultrasound of your pelvic floor and deep abdominal muscles so we can observe their engagement.
Our specialist clinical pilates physiotherapists also work alongside women’s health specialists who we can refer to if further investigation is required.
Two ways to relax your pelvic floor
#1 – Sigh out loud
A quick way to relax your pelvic floor is to sigh out loud. Make sure your body is relaxed. Let your mouth soften, your shoulders melt, and your stomach widen. Take a deep breath in, hold it for a couple of seconds, open your mouth and let out the biggest sigh you can! Not only does this action relax your pelvic floor it also helps to regulate and bring awareness to your breath, so a few cathartic sighs out loud each day can do wonders for your body and your mind.
#2 – Breath with your diaphragm
Deep belly (or diaphragmatic) breathing expands the diaphragm which promotes greater blood flow to your brain and all other tissues of your body. Because of where your pelvic floor muscles are positioned relative to your diaphragm (they’re both on the horizontal plane of your body, see diagram below), when you take a deep belly breath allowing air to fill your lungs your abdominopelvic cavity expands and the pelvic floor muscles drop down/lengthen.
When you exhale, you will notice that your pelvic floor muscles contract. So, diaphragm breathing is a gentle process of relaxing and contracting these important muscles. Take just five minutes every day to sit (or lay) quietly and focus on breathing. It might help to place a hand on your belly and feel your belly rise beneath it with your breath.
You might also consider counting your breath. For example, inhale for four then exhale for four.
It’s important to make sure that you’re balancing all this relaxation with activation.
A pilates class once or twice weekly will help you bring awareness to these muscles and others in your body. Click here to book your Upwell Clinical Pilates Initial Assessment with a specialist clinical pilates physiotherapist, which includes a Real Time Ultrasound of your pelvic floor.