The importance of strengthening your body’s natural corset.
What is the transverse abdominis?
The transverse abdominis (TVA) is one of the four muscles that make up your abdominals – alongside the rectus abdominis, external obliques and internal obliques. The deepest layer of your core, the TVA is situated between your ribs and pelvis and runs horizontally from front to back, meaning it looks and acts very similar to a built-in corset or a set of muscular Spanxx.
Why is the transverse abdominis important?
While each abdominal muscle offers it own contribution towards a strong core, the TVA is the most important in the role of stabilization. When contracted, the TVA draws the core in and up to flatten the abdominal wall, compress the midsection, and stabilize the lumbar spine. This allows the body to “brace” itself and create a more solid midsection when performing movements that require you to push, pull, jump or lift a heavy object.
And this isn’t just beneficial for working out, it’s also essential for staying strong and balanced while performing day-to-day activities, like reaching for that bag of rice that’s sitting on the top shelf, moving the couch two inches to the left, or carrying that giant box of cat litter out from the car.
In the case of a weak TVA, movements that would otherwise require you to brace your core end up recruiting a different set of muscles to do the same job. Rather than using the abdominals to stabilize, the body instead transfers this activation into areas that are easier to engage, like the low back, the hip flexors and the upper shoulders and traps. So it’s no surprise then that a weak TVA is often associated with increased tension through the hips and neck, as well as the all-too-common experience of low back pain.
What causes a weak TVA?
The following factors may contribute to a weak transverse abdominis:
- Inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle
- Pregnancy or postpartum
- Surgical procedures (such as Caesarian sections, hysterectomies or hernias)
- Improper core training
Why is the TVA so neglected?
Though the TVA is arguably one of the most important muscles in your body, it’s also one of the most neglected (along with the pelvic floor) due to the fact that it can be really challenging to activate when you’re first starting out.
Whereas you can tell pretty quickly when you’re using your other abdominal muscles – for example, if you’re doing a set of bicycles correctly, you can see and feel your obliques firing right away – the TVA is such a deep muscle that it can be hard to recognize what engagement actually feels like.
And not only is it hard to connect to, it also requires a lot more mental and physical effort to strengthen due to its role in resisting movement, rather than creating it. While you can passively target the rectus abdominis and obliques with any flexion or twisting movement, you have to be more intentional with your TVA and purposefully turn it on during exercise in order to build strength in this area.
Hence the reason why so many people struggle to properly connect with their core.
How to activate the transverse abdominis
To really get in touch with your deep core muscles, move through this process sequentially and focus on progressing slowly. It’s common to feel a low level of sensation when you first start trying to activate your TVA but, as your body starts to create the mind-muscle connection, the intensity will begin to increase. Be patient with yourself throughout this process and keep practicing.
Step 1: Find your TVA
Before you can begin to strengthen this muscle, it’s helpful to learn what it feels like to contract it.
- Start lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor
- Place your fingers on your hip bones then slide them in and down until just above your hip crease
- Take a deep breath in
- Exhale while making a “sssss” sound and draw your belly button gently toward your spine
- You should feel some light tension building up below your fingers (this is your TVA)
- Relax on the inhale and try again on the next exhale
Step 2: Contract and hold
Once you’ve learned to activate the right muscle, try and see if you can maintain that contraction.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and eyes closed
- Slowly contract the TVA progressively stronger for a count of 3
- Hold the contraction for 3 seconds*
- Slowly release the activation for a count of 3
- Slowly increase the length of the hold, up to 10 seconds, as the muscle gets stronger
*Breathe normally into your ribcage as you hold this contraction.
Step 3: Add movement
While you continue to hold the activation, use just your core to gently lift one knee up into a tabletop position. If you felt you could do this without the help of your hip flexors, brace the core even more and lift the other leg up to meet the first. Gently lower one leg back down, then the other. Repeat.
Step 4: Change position
If you master the engagement, breathing and movement while lying on your back, try to find the same sensation while seated, standing and walking.
Strengthening the TVA
After you’ve mastered TVA activation, progress it’s use into a few basic core exercises. Try it out with a plank, a dead bug and hollow-body hold to start. When it feels like you’re able to comfortably engage the muscle, begin incorporating it into other non-core-specific exercises, like a squat, a row or a pushup. For an added benefit, complete the exercise grouping above as a warm-up prior to your workouts to ensure that your TVA is firing properly throughout your full routine.
With your core strength and bracing technique improving, you might be surprised at how different an exercise can feel or how much more weight you can lift or reps you can perform. You might even be able to tackle more challenging exercises or even integrate some unstable surfaces into your workouts (such as a bosu ball).
Training your TVA during pregnancy
During pregnancy, the TVA is an especially important structure to know. Being the deepest muscle of the core, it’s the closest one to the baby and is responsible for the majority of the pushing stage of labour. Creating a strong TVA is also important for reducing low back and pelvic pain by stabilizing the lumbar spine and can reduce the effects of diastasis recti following childbirth.
To include TVA work in your prenatal exercise program, start in a standing position and work on engagement. A great visual for this is to use your core to “pull your baby up and in and hug them high and tight”. Your shoulders and jaw should stay relaxed while you do this and, if you’re activating it properly, you’ll be able to see your full belly move.