The Pelvic Floor is the main supportive base for our pelvic organs, namely the bladder and the bowel. In women the pelvic floor also supports the uterus so this is why it is perhaps more pertinent for women to be concerned with their pelvic floor than males. Women have much more awareness of the pelvic floor as it is a vital part of birth function and support. But it also presents a very valuable understanding in support of the lumbar spine when lifting. Hence we all should try and understand how to control and use our pelvic floor in various activities and movements.
Whenever we talk about pelvic floor, inevitably we begin to talk about sphincters and the defecation system. The Pelvic floor muscles control and support the pelvic floor organs. They ensure the supportive ‘trampoline’ if you like of the lower organs of Bladder, bowel and uterus. They also create openings for the organs passageways (the anus, urethra and in women the vagina) to pass through which then allows the body to discharge waste product. These openings have their own circular muscles or sphincters that control the opening of the passages for defecation but it is the pelvic floor that wraps quite firmly around the passages as the first point of muscular control.
There are other applications of the pelvic floor that relate directly to the diaphragm and internal pressure and breath control. Many singers are well aware of the control needed in the pelvic floor when involved in high notes or long breath cycles. Utilising the pelvic floor can help with using the least amount of air needed for vocal control. There is a wonderful story of a well known actor going for a note as Gaston in Beauty and The Beast where he has to quickly let the note go and then run off stage to be changed out of his costume!
The pelvic floor, like any muscle can (and should) be trained to be tight and healthy to assist internal pressure and function of the abodimno-pelvic cavity. The main concern with dysfunction of the pelvic floor is incontinence or loss of bladder control. This is more acute in women at a senior age and post childbirth as the birthing process can damage the pelvic floor and weakening it for later in life. For men the weakness can come about after surgery for the prostate. A weak pelvic floor may result in loss of bladder control in actions such as sneezing or laughing – as Jane Fonda aptly put it in context ‘I think I just peed on Ryan Gosling’
This structure also helps in supporting the lower spine and the back muscles. The pelvic floor provides the inferior border (bottom floor) of the abdomino-pelvic cavity. Imagine if you will, the pelvis is like a balloon – a three dimensional sphere that has to contract and release according to what is required in movement and bodily function. The most important aspect of this internal pressure is most obvious when involved in lifting heavy loads. The internal pressure of the abdomino-pelvic cavity creates the supportive base for the supporting muscles of the lower back and pelvis to push against.
In much the same way that the scapula acts as the base for the shoulder, so to can the abdomino-pelvic area serve as the base of movement support for the lumbar spine. The pelvic floor muscles act directly with the Multifidus and deep abdominals (transverse abdominus/obliquous) to support the load bearing of the lumbar spine. This is known as a ‘feed forward’ (as opposed to feedback) system whereby the support base engages directly in a pre-defined way under load or stress. The Pelvic Floor can thus be vital to anyone involved in lifting heavy loads or high impact exercise.
The pelvic floor has three distinct layers:
1. Superficial Perineal Layer – Bulbocavernous, Ischiocavernosus, Superficial Transverse Perineal, External Anal Sphincter
2. Deep Urogenital Diaghram – Comperssor Urethra, Uretrovaginal Sphincter, Deep Trasverse Perineal
3. Pelvic Diaghram – Levator Ani, Piriformus, Obturator Internus
These muscles span from the coccyx in the back to the pubic symphesis in the front and side to side from the ischial tuberosities. There are two openings in the ‘floor’ for men for the urethra and anus and 3 in women with an extra opening for the vagina.
There are a number of influences that can loosen the Pelvic Floor namely child birth for women and heavy lifting in the general population. High intense exercise as well as straining on the toilet and even chronic coughing can all have adverse effects on the pelvic floor. As with any muscle group, weakness requires training to tone and strengthen the muscles. Likewise you can also have too much tension in the pelvic floor, which can create pain and difficulty with bladder and bowel movement as well as pain in sexual activity.
Essentially the exercise for training your pelvic floor is the ‘Inward Up and Lift’. To identify these muscles, it can be likened to trying to stop the flow of urine. Lifting ‘up and in’ will cause the pelvic floor to contract and restrict flow of the bladder. It is not recommended to do this often, but that sensation can help to understand how to identify the pelvic floor muscles.
Once you have identified these muscles, then actively lifting ‘up and in’ for a series of 8 to 10 seconds can assist in training the pelvic floor. The trick is to do this without involving the buttocks or gluteals. It’s an internal pressure contraction and shouldn’t be a contraction of any of the moving muscles in the pelvis or hips. Performing the 8 second hold for a series of 8-12 repetitions over 3 sets whilst sitting or lying on the ground (to ensure relaxed muscles of the hip and abdominals) is advised for those who need to strengthen their pelvic floor. There are qualified professionals such as physiotherapists that can assist with instructing these exercises.
So it’s not just the women that have to worry about the pelvic floor. And it’s not just the women that can control their pelvic floor. They just might be better at it! But it is something that all of us should be aware of and understand particularly if we are involved in resistance lifting and intense exercise and be ready to articulate and train when it is necessary.