We’ve all heard of a bicep curl or shoulder press. The benefits of strength training and weight lifting are undisputed.
You can flip tires or swing Kettlebells, you can squat in a studio or bench press in your basement.
But what about lifting weights with your vagina?
Screeeeech! Back the truck up.
Did you read that right? Yes, yes you did.
Vaginal weights go by many names including Kegel Balls or Yoni eggs. And while the intent is to insert these weights and hold them inside your vagina as you complete daily tasks for 10-15 minutes in order to strengthen the muscles, some women take it a step further.
Kim Anami is a sex and relationship expert who is Instagram-famous for using jade eggs with a string tied around them to lift a variety of objects with her vagina including a bunch of mangoes, a trophy, a chandelier, and even a surfboard.
Most vagina-owners are probably familiar with Kegels, named after Arnold Kegel, an American gynecologist who invented the exercise (or at least coined the term) for engaging the muscles of the pelvic floor in an attempt to treat urinary incontinence and muscle weakness without surgery.
I prefer calling them pelvic floor contractions because it is more descriptive, and like most other exercises (abdominal curl, tricep dips, squats) is more helpful than crediting a last name.
But did you know there’s over 10 different types of Kegel exercises?!
This is because there are 3 different layers of pelvic floor muscles (first, second, and third layer) and 2 different fiber types (fast twitch and slow twitch), 2 different phases of a muscle contraction (contraction and relaxation), 2 different movements (concentric and eccentric), 7 different muscles, and lots of positions that can engage your parts differently, and I could go on.
So generically telling a woman to squeeze the muscles “down there” like she is stopping the flow of urine is only a fraction of what’s needed.
Plus, an estimated number of 30% of women are not even doing these exercises correctly. After 10 years in a clinic setting as a Women’s Health Physical Therapist, I observed women bearing down instead of lifting up, using tummy and butt muscles in place of the pelvic floor, squeezing inner thighs, and even doing things like elevating their shoulders (and sometimes eyebrows) or curling their toes in an attempt to get these delicate but powerful muscles to move.
I’ve also seen women who know how to contract their pelvic floor but not necessarily how to relax or have heard women describe doing these exercises while actually urinating (a no-no in the world of pelvic health).
And should everyone do pelvic floor contractions?
The answer is no. We may pass out Kegels like candy on Halloween, but some vagina-owners would benefit from learning to RELAX these muscles first. For example, if there is a history of painful vaginal penetration (either via intercourse or attempted tampon insertion) this might be an indication that the muscles in the pelvic floor are over-active. And some women with urge urinary incontinence (sudden strong urge to urinate, feeling of incomplete emptying, and urinary frequency) may need to work less on contracting the pelvic floor and more on RELAXING.
Another group of women who could afford some attention to getting these muscles to relax and lengthen are pregnant women. While the pelvic floor functions are easily remembered by the “S’s”: Sphincteric, Supportive, and Sexual, we can’t forget about another “S” which is Sliding the baby out! Pregnant women probably need to work on strengthening as well, BUT teaching the pelvic floor muscles to relax will serve them well during a vaginal birth.
All that being said, a majority of female-bodied people will most likely benefit from pelvic floor exercises as long as they follow each contraction by an equally important relaxation.
But should they be lifting weights with these muscles?
Kim Anami (the vaginal weight lifter) uses this analogy to explain why she thinks lifting weights with her vagina is superior to Kegels: “If you want to build your bicep, do you flap your arm up and down 60 times? Or do you pick up a weight and then methodically pump your arm?”
But can we really compare the muscles of the pelvic floor with the long and short head of the biceps brachii muscle group?
I don’t think so.
You have muscles all over your body and exercises should be designed to help them function better in your day-to-day life. The muscles of your eyes do not require weights to stay active. And while the pelvic floor muscles need to help support the weight of the organs that live in your pelvis, we are talking about 40-60 grams, not surfboards.
I do, however, agree that Kegels are failing millions of women around the world because they teach the muscles to “hold” which might be helpful if you want to stop leaking with laughing or coughing, but that’s not going to help you when you go running out in to the street after a wayward basketball or when you’re jumping on the trampoline with your kids.
That’s because pelvic floor muscles do not work in a vacuum, and while it is important to learn to isolate them at first to be sure that the “bigger” muscles like the gluteals and hamstrings and abdominal muscles aren’t doing all the work, the pelvic floor muscles actually work in harmony with all the other muscles of the hips and pelvis and should be eventually trained to work together as a team.
OK, great, so how does one do this?
As a Women’s Health Physical Therapist, I cannot recommend getting a thorough intravaginal evaluation by a trained specialist highly enough. There are certain things that can’t be addressed with exercises alone. For example, if your pelvic floor is hypertonic (higher than normal muscle tone), a physical therapist can make that determination either with manual palpation or biofeedback or both.
If you are having a hard time isolating these muscles, the same tools can determine that. If you have trigger points in the muscles of the pelvic floor that are preventing full contraction or relaxation, there are manual techniques to address those issues. If scar tissue from perineal injury or previous episiotomies or muscle spasms are a limiting factor, scar massage and gentle stretching and even vaginal dilators can be utilized to improve those limitations.
Ruling these things out is an important first step in your journey to pelvic floor strengthening.
It wasn’t until I left the clinic and entered the community that I could dedicate the time and attention that was needed to developing exercise programs to help properly and comprehensively strengthen the pelvic floor muscles.
Every client has unique needs and goals which need to be considered in order to customize a program specific to them; however, there are a few basic principles that can be utilized with most vagina owners whether they are entering puberty, preparing for pregnancy, recovering from birth, or entering perimenopause and beyond.
Step One: Understand that the pelvic floor is one of 4 groups of muscles that make up your core. It is literally the foundation of your core and needs to be an integral part of every exercise program regardless of age.
Step Two: Learn the breath sequence that goes along with a pelvic floor contraction. The diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles need to work together in synergy which means inhaling to relax the pelvic floor and exhaling as you contract. Sounds easy, but over 90% of the women I see are doing the reverse and this is the missing link in most pelvic floor rehab programs in my humble (but highly qualified) opinion.
Step Three: Start in static positions to get the basics down right. Learn to work into the different layers of muscles, practice longer hold contractions and shorter pumps and spend just as much time learning to relax as you do in learning to contract these muscles.
Step Four: Bring it into your daily life. I don’t just mean doing Kegels when you brush your teeth or wait at red lights. I mean appreciating the moments in your day when you introduce increased amounts of intra-abdominal pressure and begin to activate the pelvic floor prior to those increases. For example, start contracting your pelvic floor muscles before getting up from a seated position, before lifting the heavy crock pot out from the bottom shelf of the cabinet, before moving the heavy case of water from the bottom of your cart to your trunk, and before coughing and sneezing.
Step Five: Teach the pelvic floor to play nice in the sandbox. Train the muscles to participate and share in the workload of other movements such as squatting, lunging, and yes even upper body work like reaching and curling and pressing.
Step Six: Start advancing the workload if you want!
Which brings us back to the weights. I think once you’ve reached Step 6, you might be able to incorporate a little extra workload IF YOU WANT. I don’t think it is 100% necessary to lift weights with your vagina to enjoy the benefits of a functioning pelvic floor including urinary continence, support for your organs, and sexual health. But perhaps vaginal weights could be one tool used for certain women who want to give it a try. I would only recommend using them with the guidance of a Women’s Health Physical Therapist who can check in with you from time to time to ensure that you are not creating a hypertonic pelvic floor and advise you about increasing weight and frequency of use to meet your specific goals.
But let’s stick to light vaginal weights and save the coffee cups, coconuts, and pineapples for the professionals