Stop Engaging Muscles (Without Dating Them First)

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When well-meaning instructors prod you to “Engage Your Abs (Your Core, Your Pelvic Floor, Your Quads, Your Calves…) does it seem like you’re being thrown into an arranged marriage with muscles or body parts you don’t know well? Is consciously grabbing hold of those muscles til death do you part the pathway to bliss or to a short-lived honeymoon?

What Turns You On?

Let’s ask our muscles. If we sat down with them and asked, “What really turns you on?”, they’d answer: “Actions.”

More than words?


Our muscles want movement. Not any ol’ come-what-may, generic movements, but the specific kinds of movement that turns THEM on.

Are Your Needs Being Met?

So if a muscle isn’t turning on, instead of yelling at it to “Engage!” (or calling it lazy), maybe we ought to ask it what it needs and investigate whether it’s being proprioceptively fed that motion.

Take the pelvic floor muscles (the levator ani and the coccygeus muscles that provide support for the pelvic viscera and help control incontinence), for instance.

If you’re experiencing leaking or if someone is tracing your low back pain, knee pain, ankle instability or neck tension to pelvic floor weakness, you might be told “Engage Your Pelvic Floor!”

But if you sat down with the Pelvic Floor Muscles over a quiet dinner and asked, “What turns you on?” one of the things you might hear about is the Pelvic Floor’s good friend, Obturator Internus. The obturator internus (OI) decelerates internal rotation of the femur, hip adduction and hip flexion AND its fascia provides an origination for the some of the pelvic floor musculature. You could say it’s connected at the hip with the pelvic floor, in a manner of speaking.

“So, wait a minute: you’ve stopped hearing from the Obturator Internus?”


“But you’ve always counted on Obturator to help lift you up.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Geez, no wonder you’re down.”

“Yeah.” (Sniffle.)

“We gotta do something about that.”

Putting in the Work

Granted, for teachers of movement, it requires more work to trace the movement patterns of a body in motion than it does to verbally cue muscles we suspect aren’t working. Calling on muscles to engage may sometimes produce a desired effect in that moment, but ultimately, muscle function is meant to be subconscious.

We can’t monitor our clients’ movements 24-7 and we don’t want them doing that either. Everyone’s to-do list is long enough without having to drop your shoulders, stabilize your shoulder blades, tuck your tummy in, cinch the transverse abdominal belt, lift the pelvic floor and soften your knees. We need a better solution – one with a subconscious carryover.

This is where knowledge of the body’s chain reaction biomechanics (an awareness of how forces move domino-like through the body) can come in handy. It allows you to select movements or sequences that will subconsciously engage (eccentrically lengthen and concentrically contract) muscles that weren’t previously responding.

Applying that strategy to awaken the pelvic floor, one scenario would involve creating internal and external rotation and side to side frontal plane movement in both hips. This might be done in positions that had the practitioner’s hips flexed (as they are in a lunge) or in extension (as occurs in bridge pose). The pelvic floor’s friend, the obturator internus, would be turned on in all of these movements and its activation would in kind help turn on the pelvic floor without any need for the practitioner to engage, fire, trigger, lift, squeeze or draw up on anything.

A Lifetime of Listening

Creating optimal relationships among the muscles and other connective tissues in order to facilitate optimal movement is always ‘best efforts’ work. This alternative approach to verbally cuing muscles, borne from the evolving understandings of functional anatomy, certainly has its strengths (and is not without its limitations). By continually listening to what the body has to say about what it needs and how it gets turned on, we’ll be well-positioned to help practitioners and teacher we work with achieve their goals.

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