What is your pelvic floor and why does it matter? The pelvic floor is a sling of muscles that runs inside the pelvis. It works dynamically with the diaphragm and abdominals to dictate pressure during breaths. The pelvic floor also has intimate connections to the sphincters of your urogenital structures. These structures are important for 3 vital human functions: peeing, pooping and sex.
Yea, I said it. The stuff that no one wants to talk about.
Some men and women experience incontinence or urinary urgency but think that is “just something that happens” with age or high level activity. This simply is not true. Others may have pelvic floor dysfunction symptoms including low back/hip pain, constipation, painful sex or feelings of incomplete voiding.
Every time you breathe, your pelvic floor is moving and contracting. The way in which you stand and move has a direct effect on the ability of the pelvic floor or contract and work in synergy with the rest of the deep core. What if you could change a few daily habits and have decreased pelvic symptoms? Check out these 7 common habits and see what applies to you:
1. Ab gripping- Whether it is to make your tummy look flatter, for stabilization during everyday movements or due to overtraining abs at the gym, ab gripping is adding constant and unbalanced pressure to your pelvic floor. When you are simply moving throughout your daily activities, your belly should be relaxed! I give you permission to fight the social stigma of a less-then-flat abdomen and give your pelvic floor a break. Let the belly go!
2. Preventive peeing- Many people have the habit of trying to urinate when their body is not signaling that they need to void, usually right before leaving the house or on a scheduled break at school/work. This “peeing just in case” can also lead to pelvic floor dysfunction or worsen existing issues. Your bladder will now have a different set point of when it thinks it’s full! Now the pelvic floor muscles never have to be coordinated to control a full bladder and fight the urge for 30 minutes before you get home.
3. Hovering- Believe me, I’ve been at music festivals and used a porta-potty that was so gnarly I didn’t want to touch the handle! What I am about to say does not apply to that situation--I would not recommend that you ever sit in that. However, when using the restroom in public, many women will hover over the toilet while urinating. This is not doing your pelvic floor any favors. Remember, the hip musculature and pelvic floor have connections so while you are holding an isometric air squat, do you think your pelvic floor is relaxed? Hell no, it’s holding on for dear life. Take your time when peeing and try to sit whenever possible. Most bathrooms these days have those little paper covers for the toilet seat. Use that! And take your time, giving your pelvic floor time to relax and the bladder to completely empty.
4. Breath-holding- As I mentioned before, the diaphragm and the pelvic floor work together. So breath holding will also increase pressure on the pelvic floor and increase the likelihood of leaks. Those who use breath holding as a strategy while moving light object or bending over, usually do so to avoid a leak or feeling of urgency. However, this increased pressure increases the likelihood of a leak! I understand that there are times breath holding is essential- lifting heavy weights. There are alternate strategies to avoid leaks in these situations—outside the depth of this post!
5. Butt clenching- This goes right along with ab gripping- relax! Deep hip muscles have fascial connections with the pelvic floor, so a tight booty = a tight pelvic floor. But tight means strong, right? No, in this sense I mean tight as in over-recruited. Your pelvic floor is on high guard all day from increased pressures and over-recruitment. Then you expect it to hold on tighter with a violent sneeze or a couple dozen box jumps? It is tired! The pelvic floor function and intimate relationship is more about timing and synergy than strength. Ladies- be careful when are trying to look sassy in those heels on Saturday nights. High heels can also cause women to unconsciously hold their pelvis in a tucked position or butt clench.
6. Poor posture- So I have said a lot about pressure, particularly imbalances and increased amounts. However, posture is often the prequel to the alternate recruitment strategies discussed above. If your diaphragm and pelvic floor are not stacked on top of each other, then they are at a disadvantage for working together. In appropriate synergy = pelvic floor dysfunction. The best way to check this is to look at your posture in the mirror or have a friend take a picture. You want your rib cage and your pelvis in line. Poor posture indicators are your lower ribs poking forward, nipple trajectory pointing upward rather than straight, hip bones much further forward than your lower ribs.
7. Sitting all day- Sitting is just bad for you, plain and simple. But it has particular effects on the pelvic floor from both a myofascial and alignment standpoint. The glutes and your pelvic floor are buddies, they like to work together. When you sit on your glutes all day, the fascial layers become compressed and unable to slide as easily. As far as alignment, who can actually sit with good posture for 8 hours? Not me. I don’t think I would trust someone that could- they are probably an alien. Those deeper hip muscles that have connections to the pelvic floor can become tensioned and tight which could lead to a tighter pelvic floor- remember tight doesn’t equal strong! That being said, as you sit slumped over a computer, your alignment of ribs over hips is likely disrupted. Then we are back at the beginning with an imbalance of pressure. Don’t you see, it is a never-ending cycle?!
** Allergies/coughing/sneezing- Ok, so this isn’t a habit per se but worth noting on this subject! Women and men with persistent allergies causing frequent cough and sneeze episodes may also see increased pelvic floor dysfunction due to the frequent pressure changes. If this sounds like you, be sure to find some medicine that works for you or talk to a physician about possible allergies. If the coughing is from smoking, well that is absolutely a habit that you can direct effect!
I think it’s safe to say everyone could find at least one habit that applies to them. Take some time to be more aware of your posture and how you are holding your muscles when they should be relaxing! Stress urinary incontinence and urgency is not normal but it is common. You never know, a few simple habit fixes may resolve your symptoms. If not, reach out to us at Athletes’ Potential, we would love to help!
Dr. Jackie Varnum DPT
Midline stabilization is heralded as the foundation of safe and successful weightlifting. But have we been ignoring a part of the “core”? The pelvic floor is a topic that tends to be avoided. Most people do not casually discuss urinary frequency over coffee or admit to their coach that they pee every time they perform double-unders. Men- if you think this one is just for the women, stick around!
I only realized the prevalence of leakage after CrossFit HQ posted a video following regionals. All of these women were saying “It’s ok, I pee during workouts too. It’s normal!” Please do not confuse normal and common. Urinary incontinence may be common in certain populations, especially of heavy lifters, but it is absolutely not normal.
The pelvic floor includes a group of muscles that attach from your coccyx (tail bone) and sacrum to your pelvic ring.
These muscles are important for bowel and bladder function, organ support, and stability of the pelvis. Although pelvic floor dysfunction (PFD) was thought to be largely a problem of women, it is becoming apparent that men have similar issues. The pelvic floor may seem very foreign and uncomfortable to discuss, but when it properly functions it can improve your workouts. Here’s how:
I like Mary Massery’s description of the core as a “soda-pop can”. The front of the can is the abs, the back is the multifidi, the pop top is the glottis and the bottom of the can is the pelvic floor. The core pressure is maintained by a functioning glottis and pelvic floor, with the diaphragm acting as a pressure regulator.
When you take a breath in, the diaphragm descends. This requires the pelvic floor muscles to descend and lengthen. When you exhale the diaphragm rises and the pelvic floor rises and tightens.
In fit individuals, (notice I said individuals and not just women), a common pelvic floor problem is overactive muscles. Very strong back or abdominal muscles can cause increased inward pressure. It’s been shown that when your deep abdominals contract, so does your pelvic floor.
Imagine squeezing the can from both sides with the pressure maintained. The bottom and top will have to withstand more pressure and bulge. If your abdominals are always squeezing in then your pelvic floor is always pushing up to withstand the pressure. It’s overworked! The diaphragm is pretty darn good at its job. If it does not work, we have a bigger issue on our hands.
So often, when something’s ‘gotta give’- it’s the pelvic floor. When all of these muscles work in concert, your canister and the force it can produce is maximized. Thus, your workout improves.
A conversation about breathing techniques regarding the glottis and diaphragm is essential to training the entire core. Here I am simply touching on one contribution but remember it does not work alone.
Keep in mind, PFD can also manifest in ways such as pelvic pain, painful intercourse, low back pain, urinary frequency or even the dreaded butt wink. It is not just urinary incontinence.
“ Pelvic floor pain is only caused by pregnancy, right?”
Wrong. There has been no correlation shown between PFD and post-partum women. Sure, some moms experience issues but again, it is not normal for any population. Weakness and/or tightness of the pelvic floor can be caused by poor postural habits, extended periods of sitting, over training of the abdominals and pregnancy. Excluding pregnancy of course, men are susceptible to all of the other risk factors.
“Ok, so I pee on myself at the gym and it’s not normal. What do I do to stop it?”
Thanks for reading!
-Dr. Jackie, DPT
Sapsford, Ruth R, Hodges, Paul W. Contraction of the Pelvic Floor Muscles during Abdominal Maneuvers. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 2001, Vol.82(8), pp.1081-1088.
Presentation at CSM 2016 by Mary Massery: referencing Massery 2005 & 2006.
Dr. Danny and Dr. Jackie's views on performance improvement, injury prevention and sometimes other random thoughts.