What Is a Pelvic Floor, Exactly?


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You’ve probably heard the term “pelvic floor” before. It’s a word that gets thrown around quite a bit in the health and fitness space, sometimes without explanation. So what is your pelvic floor, exactly? Essentially it’s is a group of muscles and ligaments that support everything in your pelvic region: your bladder, bowel, and, if you have one, uterus. When your pelvic floor muscles are weak, tight, or impacted by pelvic floor dysfunction, it can cause a range of problems — from incontinence and loss of bowel control to painful sex to constipation.

Needless to say, a strong pelvic floor is important, and there are pelvic floor exercises that can help. But how do you know if you need to do them? How do you know if your pelvic floor is weak, and what does that mean, anyway? These questions might seem basic, but they can also be pretty confusing. Ahead, pelvic floor experts break down everything you need to know about the pelvic floor, plus how to ensure that it’s healthy now and in the future.

What Is a Pelvic Floor?

The pelvic floor is a group of muscles and ligaments that create a “hammock-like sling of support” underneath your pelvis, said Christine King, DPT, PRPC, physical therapist lead for Hoag’s Pelvic Health Program in Newport Beach, CA. The pelvic floor helps to support the bladder, uterus, bowel, and rectum, said pelvic floor physical therapist Heather Jeffcoat, DPT, forming the structure that goes around your urethra, vagina, and anus.

What Does the Pelvic Floor Do?

The pelvic floor serves several important functions, according to King and Jeffcoat:

  • It controls the sphincters of your bowel and bladder, helping to prevent incontinence (leakage of urine or feces).
  • It’s involved in sexual function and the intensity of orgasms.
  • It supports your uterus, bowel, and bladder.
  • It helps to support your spine and is actually considered one of your deep core muscles.

Common Pelvic Floor Problems

Pelvic floor muscle problems can contribute to painful, hard-to-talk-about medical issues, Dr. King told POPSUGAR. Urinary and fecal incontinence is perhaps the most well-known, caused by a weakening or extreme tightening of the pelvic floor muscles and thus a lack of control over the sphincters that control your bowels and bladder. Overall, pelvic floor issues can contribute to:

It’s also worth noting that people without vaginas have pelvic floors as well, though they seem to be most discussed in regard to childbirth. That’s because vaginal delivery has the potential to damage your pelvic floor, explained ob-gyn Geoffrey Cly, MD. The muscles around the vagina “may not be able to contract as well or be as strong and supportive after pregnancy, and that is what leads to pelvic prolapse and urine leakage,” he explained.

How to Strengthen Your Pelvic Floor

Maintaining the health and function of your pelvic floor muscles isn’t just a matter of doing endless Kegel exercises, Dr. King said. These will strengthen your pelvic floor muscles if they’re weak, but that may not actually be an issue. Your pelvic floor muscles can also be too tight, she explained, which is a separate problem with different solutions. “If your muscles are excessively tight and hold trigger points, strengthening them can do more harm than good,” she said, compressing the surrounding nerves and potentially leading to pain and incontinence.

“Instead of blindly strengthening your pelvic floor muscles, it is wise to consult your doctor if you have significant and painful pelvic floor problems,” Dr. King told POPSUGAR. You can also see a pelvic floor physical therapist.

Kegel exercises may be useful if you recently gave birth, Dr. Cly said, as they can help to strengthen the weakened muscles. Here’s more on how to do Kegels correctly (hint: it’s not just about squeezing). However, you should still talk to a doctor or pelvic floor physical therapist before you get started. Many women do Kegel exercises incorrectly when given only verbal instructions, Dr. Jeffcoat said, and these exercises are often overprescribed when it comes to pelvic floor issues. Rather than being weak, “many times the pelvic floor muscles are actually overactive, and require manual therapy before a pelvic floor strengthening program is initiated,” she explained.

According to urogynecologist John Joyce, MD, some exercises that can maintain the health of your pelvic floor include clamshells, hip abduction exercises like the side-lying leg lift, and transverse abdominal marches (like the glute bridge march, but with your butt on the floor). If you experience any symptoms of pelvic floor issues, though, it’s best to consult a doctor or physical therapist before starting these exercises.

Bottom line: if you have or start developing pelvic floor issues, they can be painful, tricky to fix on your own, and embarrassing to talk about. But you’re not alone in the matter. “Just because pelvic pain is difficult to talk about, it doesn’t mean you have to live life suffering from it,” Dr. King said.

If you feel pain or notice any of these pelvic floor problems, see your ob-gyn or a urogynecologist, who specializes in pelvic floor issues.

— Additional reporting by Alexis Jones

Alexis Jones is the senior health editor at POPSUGAR. Her areas of expertise include women’s health, mental health, racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare, diversity in wellness, and chronic conditions. Prior to joining POPSUGAR, she was the senior editor at Health magazine. Her other bylines can be found at Women’s Health, Prevention, Marie Claire, and more.

Maggie Ryan was an assistant editor at POPSUGAR. A longtime runner and athlete, Maggie has nearly four years of experience covering topics in the wellness space, specializing in fitness, sports, nutrition, and mental health.


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