Article by Sylvia Lampe, President of the Callanetics Teachers Association of South Africa
Sylvia Lampe has been working in the health and fitness industry since 1981 and teaching Callanetics since 1991. She offers Callanetics teachers training courses and workshops in South Africa and teaches the SA Callanetics Programme at her studio in Randburg, Johannesburg.
Sylvia is also a registered therapeutic reflexologist.
The pelvic floor – a most important, but often misunderstood muscle group, has a host of benefits if well trained, and at the same time it can lead to many unnecessary health problems if neglected or exercised the wrong way.
Training the pelvic floor the correct way is an investment in your health with guaranteed returns for the rest of your life. The ability to hold the contents of the bladder in moments of straining, like coughing, sneezing, lifting, running etc. depends on the coordinated cooperation of selected muscles, nerves and ligaments that make up the pelvic floor.
The anatomy and function of the pelvic floor muscles is very similar in men and women. A pre-requisite for the lasting success of pelvic floor training is the consistent connecting of the pelvic floor muscles with the back, abdominal, hip and thigh muscles. The musculature has to be trained dynamically – a strong contracting of the muscles is as important as is their conscious relaxation.
The training has to be integrated into everyday life, until the pelvic floor muscles respond automatically in a correct way. Then the deep muscle layers practically exercise by themselves.
In the SA Callanetics programme clients learn to exercise the pelvic floor lying down, sitting, standing and whilst walking. This training can then be integrated in any type of exercise or sport, therefore protecting joints and organs.
Muscles which are strengthened whilst maintaining optimum posture are the ideal protection from injuries and prevent wear and tear through wrong use. When the pelvic floor is well trained and activated, the torso does not hang heavily in the legs, but floats as if it were being carried by the pelvic floor. The shoulders feel lighter, the head is poised sublimely, the spine feels longer, lighter and stretched. The legs move as if of their own accord. The feet feel totally different. And as you walk it feels as if your buttocks are being lifted by invisible hands.
It is not gravity which causes us to become shorter. We ourselves are the cause of that, as we no longer know how to use our body correctly. Therefore pelvic floor training is also an anti-aging precaution. A trained pelvic floor fulfils its function without a problem.
An interesting study conducted in 2002 by the German urologist Frank Sommer, who compared the effects of Viagra with those of pelvic floor training in 120 men, showed that the group of men who trained the deep muscles of the pelvic floor achieved better results than the Viagra group*
Benefits of pelvic floor training include:
- Keeps the organs of the lower body young.
- Prevents/improves/corrects prolapse of lower body organs, hernias, incontinence, and other problems in this area.
- Protects men from prostate enlargements and erectile dysfunction (if due to physical causes).
- Prevents/improves haemorrhoids
- Intensifies orgasms – in men and women.
- Improves posture.
- Relieves hip and lower back pain.
- Relieves the joints of the lower back, hips and legs during walking and running.
- Improves cellulite, shapes the legs and lifts the buttocks, diminishes ‘saddle bags’.
Anatomy of the pelvic floor:
The pelvic floor is approximately the size and thickness of the palm of your hand and consists of seven muscles which are attached to the hip bones, the pubic bone and the coccyx. They are a muscle plate of criss-crossing muscles, and this muscle group is, as the name implies, the floor of the torso. It consists of three layers each with its specific function.
- The first (outer) layer of the Pelvic floor:
This layer winds itself like a net around the sphincter muscles (ureter, vagina and anus in the female; root of penis, ureter and anus in the male). In both male and female the muscles cross over in the perineum. Many women have a relatively well trained outer layer. If you can hold urine back midstream, you activate the sphincter muscles. This muscle layer does not need any specific training, on the contrary: if you concentrate on this layer only, it can lead to haemorrhoids or worsen existing ones. In females it can also lead to painful intercourse, if the muscles of the vagina are trained too much whilst the rest of the pelvic floor remains untrained.
Awareness exercise for the outer layer of the pelvic floor:
Sit on a soft surface like an exercise ball or a cushioned chair. Place one hand under the perineum and cough strongly. The centre of the pelvic floor – the perineum – is where you feel the air pushing the body outwards, against your hand.
Now pull the air back into the body. You should feel a small movement in the palm of your hand.
2. The second (middle) layer of the pelvic floor:
This layer is stretched like a trampoline between the joints of the upper thighs and the pubic bone. This muscle plate consists of a criss-cross of fibres. Through strengthening this level, the legs become toned and slim, the inner thigh muscles lift, and the upper thigh muscles become ‘suspended’. Top athletes use this level automatically, like the batting of an eye lid.
Awareness exercise for the middle layer:
Pull the sitting bones towards the perineum and pull the perineum up a little, expanding this feeling like a star. When you place your finger tips very lightly against the hip joints, you should feel a slight pulling.
3. The third (inner) layer of the pelvic floor:
This is the largest level of the pelvic floor. It braces the coccyx with the femurs. It opens up like a fan consisting of six parts. When activating this level, you can see it. The hamstring muscles are tightened through this level and even stubborn cellulite improves with some patience and regular training.
Awareness exercise for the inner layer:
First sit with your fingertips under your sitting bones and contract your pelvic floor to the deepest level, until you can feel the sitting bones moving towards each other – do this several times Then stand in front of a long mirror and tighten the pelvic floor to the deepest level again until the sitting bones move closer together. Your hips will narrow noticeably. This innermost level, which is the actual pelvic floor, pulls the hip joints and sitting bones together and tightens the base of the buttocks muscles, lifting the buttocks. This little exercise alone can already cause an intensive tingling around the testicles in men. Some men report that the testicles pull tight against the body without sexual arousal.
The pelvic floor and a healthy back
Without the anchoring of the pelvic floor muscles one cannot maintain a healthy back in the long term. The pelvic floor muscles make the stability and flexibility of the pelvic bones possible. In many cases back pain soon disappears with the help of correct pelvic floor training. The reason is that the innermost layer of the pelvic floor pulls the whole lower pelvic opening together and therefore opening the upper rim of the pelvis. The pelvis becomes wider, like a funnel. This creates more room for the sacrum, and the lumbar vertebrae and coccyx can now lengthen and stretch vertically. At the same time the hip joints are being pulled together, enlarging the gap in the joints to the head of the femur and the joint sockets. This is quite comforting for people suffering from arthritis.
It is important to keep the pelvis in an upright, straight position, neither tilted forward nor back, or the pelvic floor cannot be activated correctly.
Some simple exercises to get you started:
- To make sure that it is the pelvic floor muscles you work and you are not merely clenching the buttocks:
Stand in front of a long mirror with your feet hip wide apart, bend your knees slightly and lean your upper body forward until your torso is parallel to the floor. Do not tilt the pelvis forward. There should be a straight line between your coccyx and the crown of your head– like a table top. Place your fingertips on your sitting bones (you will always find them in the middle of the horizontal folds at the base of the buttocks). Dig into your buttocks until you can clearly feel the sitting bones (which are the protruding ends of the pelvic bones). Pull the sitting bones strongly towards each other. What you feel between these two bones is the collective pelvic floor. Alternately pull the sitting bones together and release them a few times, until you feel a distinct movement.
- To integrate pelvic floor training into everyday life:
Do this contracting exercise standing up, while sitting and lying down, as often as possible throughout the day. Use periods of waiting in queues, talking on the phone, brushing teeth, driving the car etc. to contract and release the pelvic floor muscles as often as possible. Once you feel the pelvic floor strengthening, you can add one of the following variations:
- Tighten the pelvic floor as deep as possible and pulse the sitting bones towards each other – up to a hundred times.
- From a completely relaxed pelvic floor, tighten it in three stages – you should feel three distinct movements. Then release the pelvic floor in three stages, until it is completely relaxed again – do this at least three times.
- Tighten one side of the pelvic floor, then the other side, ie: you pull the left sitting bone towards the perineum, release it again, then do the same with the right sitting bone – as often as you want, up to a hundred times.
Remember: it is important to have a ‘floor like’ feeling and not a ‘tube like’ feeling. If you get a ‘tube like’ feeling, you are only working the outer layer of the pelvic floor with the muscles surrounding the vagina. In that case, relax completely, then start again, concentrating that you feel the sitting bones, as described above.
It takes about five to seven weeks of conscious, daily training until the pelvic floor begins to take over its natural function automatically once again – the results will be well worth the effort!
If you would like to learn more about the pelvic floor, how to integrate the pelvic floor into exercises and specific movement patterns and how to get an ‘advanced’ pelvic floor, please contact the Callanetics Teachers Association of South Africa for classes, workshops, teachers training and DVDs on: firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.ctasa.org.za
- Spiraldynamik®: intelligent movement (Dr med. Christian Larsen), Switzerland www.spiraldynamik.com (Vitales Becken – schmerzfrei und beweglich, Trias publishers)
- ‘Tiger Feeling’ by Benita Cantieni (www.cantienica.com)
- *www.maennergesundheit.info/pdf/Vigorrobic-viagra-placebo-English.pdf (Dr Frank Sommer)