Lift those weights!

Kegeling promises to help prevent incontinence and "enhance physical intimacy."

Published July 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Once upon a time, a gynecologist named Arnold Kegel invented an exercise. To do this particular exercise, you clenched your pubococcygeus muscle over and over. The pubococcygeus controls the bladder's escape hatch, making the exercise particularly useful for women whose hatches have a tendency to leak. Kegel named his workout Kegeling, inextricably linking himself to pubic squeezing and ensuring an obituary that would gloss over all other salient aspects of his career.

As the months went by, some of Kegel's patients confided a secret. For the first time in their lives, they were having orgasms. Intrigued, Kegel linked up with a sexologist named Marilyn Fithian, who was doing a study on non-orgasmic women. Throughout the early 1970s, the two of them took their show on the road, preaching the benefits of Kegeling to doctors in 20 cities coast-to-coast and making Kegeling a household word.

I spoke with Fithian last week, because I wanted her opinion on Kegeling's newest wrinkle: vaginal weight lifting. (I didn't call Kegel because he's dead.) The principle behind pubococcygeus weight lifting is the same as with any other muscle: progressive resistance training is the best and fastest way to build strength. You don't just squeeze your biceps if you want strong arms, so why should you just squeeze your, as they say, feminine muscles? (Well, for one thing, because you have to insert a one-pound weight into your vagina, but we'll get to that later.)

Although Fithian, 77, remains a devoted Kegeler, she hadn't heard of the Feminine Personal Trainer, which is a one-pound stainless steel weight that comes with a video and a Discreet Hard Shell Carrying Case. Fithian did not, however, deem it an extreme or nutty thing. Although this could have to do with all those years spent working alongside Arnold Kegel. Kegel was a gynecologist who dared to go where no gynecologist had gone before, or at least where no gynecologist had gone with dental plaster. Kegel made life casts of vaginas, called mulages, to show the effects of diligent Kegeling. "You had to be sure to get the plaster out before it got hard," recalled Fithian. If you dawdled, the plaster chunk would become trapped, and no amount of pelvic floor muscle strength was going to help you. "You had to break it inside the vagina," said Fithian matter-of-factly.

Kegel also invented a device to measure pubococcygeus muscle strength, called a perineometer. Using this, he and Fithian gathered scientific evidence for what his patients had been telling him. "A large percentage of the (non-orgasmic) women that we saw back then had very loose, gaping vaginas," said Fithian. The more toned the women's muscles became from squeezing, the less likely the women were to be frigid.

Imagine what weight-lifting could do for a gal.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Feminine Personal Trainer Web site isn't oriented toward sexual pleasure. One page shows a woman with gray hair, the kind of woman you could talk to about your bladder control issues and know that she would understand. At the bottom of the Enhanced Sexual Intimacy page is the company slogan, "A tree planted by streams of water," which I took to be some sort of bladder control symbolism.

I called the company, Ralston Enterprises outside Selma, Ala., and spoke with a man named Tim Stewart, who helped design the FPT. Stewart said that while incontinent women were indeed the FPT's main audience, it was also being sold to women who wished to, as he put it, "enhance physical intimacy."

He went on to say that men could also benefit from the FPT. In his soft-as-cornsilk Alabama accent, he said, "A stronger vaginal embrace is going to help the male partner." I asked him whether men could do resistance Kegeling, too. Marilyn Fithian had said that men could do regular Kegeling, by squeezing for a count of three and "flicking lightly."

"Actually," Stewart began, "I have heard that a man can hang a washcloth off the end of his penis and then perform a pelvic floor muscle contraction and lift the cloth."

"That would be a wet washcloth."

"That's right."

"And the man would have to have ... "

"You figured that out."

Stewart said he hadn't tried this, but that his wife had tried the weights and he was enjoying the improved "embrace." Then he asked me whether the site appealed to me "as a woman in my age group." Meaning, as a woman who was too young to be incontinent and therefore must be barking up a different tree, a tree far away from streams of water.

I told him they needed to work on their image. I told him that the Web site was not saying "intense, mind-blowing orgasms." I brought up the gray-haired woman and the streams of water. Stewart seemed puzzled. "Our slogan hasn't got anything to do with incontinence. It's from Psalms 1." He apparently had a Bible close at hand. "A person who reflects upon the word of God will be like a tree planted by streams of water that brings forth fruit in its season ..." Stewart stopped. "We're a Christian organization," he said, using the same mouth that had just been in the shower stall hanging wet terrycloth off of stiffies.

"That's interesting," I replied, "given the, you know, 'enhanced physical intimacy' aspects of your product."

"We believe that sex was one of God's greatest ideas," said Stewart. "He wants us to enjoy it."

So that I could please God better, I had Stewart ship out an FPT. I opened the Discreet Hard Shell Carrying Case to find a polished stainless-steel, knob-ended object and a slip of paper telling me not to be overwhelmed by the weight of the FPT. I wasn't. I was overwhelmed by the size of the FPT. I think it is safe to say that this is the only workout on Earth that calls for vaginal lubricant. The directions ask you to insert and contract, causing the FPT to rise up inside you until all that can be seen protruding is a rounded piece of steel, as though you are giving birth to a hardware store.

If you are, to quote Marilyn Fithian, "loose and gaping," you start out lying down. If not, you sit up partway. If you're very good, you can stand up and hold it in there while you walk around, doing the dishes, talking on the phone (they'll never guess!). To avoid gaping of the ocular variety, you definitely want to limit this activity to times when no one else is at home.

I do not for a moment doubt the efficacy of the FPT. However, as with all my weight-training projects, I am having motivation problems. The FPT has found its way to my desk, where it serves as a paperweight/conversation piece, as I imagine Arnold Kegel's mulages once served him.

By Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

MORE FROM Mary Roach

Related Topics ------------------------------------------