Thirty-one pounds. That’s what Tatyana Kozhevnikova, a middle-aged Russian mom, lifted in 2009 in order to secure the title of World’s Strongest Vagina.
We’ll spare you the details, but she lifted the weight using only her pelvic floor muscles. It’s safe to say she’s done her fair share of kegels in the 20 years of training that went into finally completing the feat—and kind of amazing to think about the amount of focus that it took to exercise that oft overlooked body part.
Sure, you’re probably not going to need to do heavy lifting with your genitals any time soon, but there are real benefits to working the pelvic floor. It’s one of those smaller muscle groups that supports the function of other major body parts. These smaller areas are easy to forget—most gym-goers are focusing on how to define biceps, etch a six-pack into abs, or tighten a saggy tush—but seriously important to overall health. Here are a few that you’re probably skipping over during your regular workouts, and how to strengthen them. (We promise, no vaginal weight-lifting required!)
Muscle group: Adductors
Includes: Inner thighs
Ah, the dreaded inner thigh. This is a body part that many are genuinely interested in toning up—but it’s not just some glamour muscle. The adductors, the group of muscles that make up the inner thighs, equal about 22 percent of the mass of your lower body. Yeah, that’s a lot. Their main function is to move the leg closer to the midline of the body, aka adduction. The adductors are also responsible for stabilizing the pelvis when it comes to side-to-side movement—for example, when you’re climbing out of your car or channeling your inner Shakira on the dance floor.
For most of us, these muscles are super weak, and not strengthening them often results in lower-back pain, hip injury, and even knee instability during exercise, which can lead to ligament tears.
The move: Inner thigh squeeze
One of the easiest exercises you can do to isolate and strengthen the adductors involves gripping a ball, yoga block, or pillow between the knees. Lay flat on your back, and extend the legs straight up towards the ceiling until they are completely straight. With the ball/block/pillow between your knees, squeeze and hold for 10 seconds, then release. Repeat 15 times to feel your inner thighs quaking!
Want more inner thigh burning? Try this lower body workout!
Muscle group: Gluteus medius
Includes: “Love handles”, hip stabilizers
Are you one of those people who always rolls their ankles? Heels, sneakers, flats, it doesn’t seem to matter what you’re wearing—somehow you end up with a sprain (or worse). Before you blame your “weak” ankles, it might be worth investigating how strong your gluteus medius is.
Yes, it’s a cousin of the gluteus maximus—the biggest of the butt muscles—but it’s far smaller. You can find it by putting your hands on your hips like you’re about to throw a temper tantrum. Feel where your thumbs are at the back of your waist, behind your hip bones? That’s about where this neglected muscle sits. It weaves under the gluteus maximus, though, so it’s difficult to feel individually. Some would call it the “love handle” region—so even if you don’t have ankle issues, you still want to work this area!
The primary function of the muscle is to support the body when weight is on one leg, like during walking or running. So even though it’s relatively small, it’s also pretty important to keeping the body in alignment. In fact, research has linked weak gluteus medius muscles to ankle and knee instability—which can cause serious, recurrent injury.
The move: Side plank with a leg lift
Strengthen the gluteus medius with side-lying, leg-lifting exercises. Our favorite? Come into a side-plank position, then lift the top leg about one foot up with toes pointing straight forward, keeping your hips high. Repeat this 10 times on each side.
Muscle group: Quadrates lumborum
Includes: Lower back
Pain or achiness a few inches to the side of your lower spine might not actually be back pain—it might be ab pain. The quadratus lumborum, or QL, is one of the deepest layers of abdominal tissue. It’s a big, thick muscle that runs parallel to the spine and controls the movement of the trunk; basically, it keeps your body upright. But it can grow weak as other surrounding muscles get stronger, and the more the QL is ignored, the more likely lower-back pain or hip instability is to set in. Because it’s such a deep muscle, it’s really challenging to activate and strengthen—regular crunches won’t do much for an injured or weak QL. According to celebrity trainer, Kara Griffin, “To strengthen the QL, it's important to move laterally with weight--whether it's your bodyweight or bringing in extra weight in the form of a dumbbell or kettlebell. You'll likely feel your obliques the most in these exercises since they're usually stronger than the QL, but it’s assisting the movement so it'll inherently get stronger.”
The move: Plank rolls
Whip the QL into shape with plank rolls: Start in a forearm plank, bracing down into your elbows with abs pulled up and in toward your spine. Rock to your right side, bringing your left hand off the floor as you tap your right hip down to the ground gently. Slowly come back to the center, and repeat this on the other side. That’s one rep—repeat 20 times to really feel the deep abdominal wall fire.
Muscle group: Pelvic floor
Includes: The pelvic floor
Finally, the pelvic floor. The thing that controls bladder leakage, improves sexual health, increases core strength—and apparently could lift dumbbells up to 30 pounds.
Consisting of small muscles, ligaments, tissues, and nerves, the pelvic floor takes up the space between your pubic bone and tailbone, acting like a hammock for the bladder, uterus, rectum, and vagina. It’s especially important for women to strengthen this area, because it helps with labor and delivery.
Most people already know about Kegel exercises, isometric movements that contract the pelvic floor muscles. But there’s another easy exercise you should add to your gym routine to work this important grouping of muscles and activate the lower abdominals.
The move: Hip bridges
Laying flat on your back with your knees bent and feet pressed firmly into the ground, activate your pelvic floor (imagine you have to pee really badly and you’re clenching to hold it). Now lift your hips up towards the sky, still maintaining an active pelvic floor, and gently lower down to your starting position, releasing as you roll down. Repeat 30 times.
There you have it. Four seriously neglected body parts that have a major impact on your posture, strength, and athleticism, and four easy exercises you can do to support them—no vaginal weights required.
Illustration by Karley Koenig