“Hot Bod” is an exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
While catching up recently with a fitness-hound friend, I asked if she’d returned to her beloved in-person classes. Yes, she had, but there was a problem. Suddenly and unexpectedly, in the middle of a strength-training class, she felt absolutely physically turned on. It was, she told me, “a complete betrayal.”
My friend’s announcement was both slightly shocking and also … kinda logical? Doing hip thrusts and pelvic squeezes have always been evocative of sex to some degree. It makes sense the body might get confused!
My turned-on pal is also far from alone. Experiencing arousal during exercise hasn’t been studied in a large-scale, systematic way. But according to a 2012 paper, about 8 percent of men and 10 percent of women have reported experiencing a “coregasm,” a thrilling portmanteau referring to a full-on orgasm while working out. It’s a common enough experience that a recent SNL sketch featured Dan Levy as an unfortunately horny gymgoer.
“It’s weird to be in a body. Period,” says Nina Endrst, the founder of movement and meditation program the SoulUnity. “And not being around people for a year and a half, it’s even more confusing for a lot of people.” She guesses that working out in public again might evoke new experiences — and not all of them predictable or desired. “When people start to move and be freer in their body, sometimes all bets are off. That can be a good thing but also a scary thing.”
To learn more about arousal during exercise, I spoke with researchers, doctors, women’s health specialists, and physical therapists about what’s happening in the body and brain.
Why do people get turned on while working out?
Experts surmise that a few different causes are behind this experience. The big reason is that the pudendal nerve, which is responsible for sensation in the genitalia, also passes through a set of muscles often at work in core exercises, according to Liz Miracle, a women’s health clinical specialist and board certified pelvic floor specialist with Origin Way. The nerve starts at the sacrum — the triangular bone in the lower back located between the hip bones — and weaves through various muscles around the pelvis, hips, and inner core.
“If you look at all the muscles the nerve is sifting through, if those muscles are tight or pulling on the nerve, it can create tension or compression,” says Miracle. “A lot of people exercising are contracting and tightening pelvic floor muscles. If that [pudendal] nerve gets compressed or has tension on it — and it’s supplying the genitalia — it can cause a sense of arousal.”
Another factor is that when you’re working out, your blood is pumping! “If you’re going to get increased blood flow, it’s going to reach the pelvic floor. And some women are more disposed to more blood flowing down to that area,” says core-exercise specialist Erica Ziel. “It’s never one thing: It’s a correlation of everything.”
It’s also possible that the regular hormonal surge of analgesics and endorphins released by working out could induce responses similar to arousal, she says. “If you’re having this happen it could be a sign your body is healthy and your hormones are balanced,” notes Ziel. “It’s your body saying: I have enough estrogen, progesterone, some testosterone.”
With all this going on in your body, it’s almost a wonder it’s not crazy common. Rachel Welch, founder of the Revolution Motherhood fitness method and a post-natal fitness expert, supposes that about half of her clients experience some turned-on feelings during her program. Welch’s exercise classes specifically focus on deep core-work that comes very close to the erogenous zones. “Especially rehabilitating postpartum, we spend time around the vaginal wall, the perineum, and the urethra which is right around the clitoris,” Welch says. “When someone intentionally revitalizes these muscle groups, they’re anatomically contracting-and-releasing, contracting-and-releasing, which mimics sexual arousal.”
So then, what’s going on in your mind?
Often, nothing. The author of that paper on exercise-induced orgasms, Dr. Debra Herbenick, is the director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University Bloomington and has been studying this experience for years. She noted in her research that sexy images, thoughts, or fantasies were “rarely reported.”
The reaction to getting turned on suddenly by working out, however, can be mixed. Dr. Herbenick regularly hears from women with this experience, including a few training for the military who need to pass rigorous and closely-monitored fitness tests to graduate from training. Big arousal feelings in front of a drill sergeant with a notebook seems like a horror-movie-level stress dream.
But “most people, they’re really amazed by their bodies, they’re excited by their bodies and proud of them,” Dr. Herbenick tells me. “Or, they think it’s no big deal. It’s a nice surprise, it’s a nice benefit.”
Which exercises can induce arousal?
Exercises that regionally approach genitalia are often the culprits: workouts that go deep into lower abs (like reverse crunches or V-sits), engage pelvic floor (like hip bridges), or that involve a lot of core activation like lifting weights or cycling. “The pelvic floor is this base of the pleasure center for our body, and all the fascia from the pelvic floor connects through the vaginal cavity,” says Ziel.
It’s also likely that sudden arousal will occur later in a workout, especially for people who have a tighter pelvic floor. “People with a tighter pelvic floor might never ‘release’ their muscles for an entire exercise routine,” says Miracle. For people who are never relaxing their core, sensations will continue to heighten throughout the exercise.
If you’re not into all of this, how do you avoid it?
Because the pelvic floor is likely involved in feeling physically turned on, Miracle recommends calming it in order to stave off unwanted feelings of arousal. Something like happy-baby pose will release the sacrum (where the pudendal nerve originates) as well as open the hips. Miracle also recommends belly breathing to slow the heartbeat and lower blood pressure. Whether or not you have a tight pelvic floor, says Miracle, “if you intermittently intersperse these between your exercises, it might help the pelvic floor from getting too wound up and allow you to release.”
And let’s not forget about the body’s mind. In a pinch, you can also try some mental overriding. “The brain is very visual,” says Ziel, who suggests a quick solution could be just thinking hard about something not related to sex.
If this is happening, what is your body telling you?
It could be your body saying, Hey! Listen to me! In her research, Dr. Herbenick has heard stories of people learning from their sensations, even though the context wasn’t their ideal. “For many women, they’ve been able to expand their experiences of sexual arousal when they’re having sex. Your body can teach you things if you listen to it.” Your body might be teaching you, simply and hornily: Ooooo holding myself in this way is very appealing! Maybe try this later, if you would like!
“When people are engaged fully in an exercise, they’re actually in it and not just going through the motions of a pilates leg movement,” says Welch. “They’re paying undivided attention to themselves. When you get in your body, you start experiencing yourself, especially the part of your body that needs attention most.”
We all have embarrassing bodies. They’re doing so much, and sometimes not what we expect them to, but how else are they going to get us to listen to them?