The importance of strengthening your body’s natural corset.
The transverse abdominis muscle (TVA) is just one of the muscles that make up your abdominals – alongside the rectus abdominis, external obliques and internal obliques. Of these four muscles, the TVA is the deepest layer and is often referred to as the “corset” muscle for the way in which it wraps around your midsection.
Located between the ribs and the pelvis and running horizontally from front to back, the TVA works somewhat like a tight set of muscular Spanxx. As you begin to engage the transverse abdominis, the muscle starts to compress inward and increases the pressure within your abdomen in order to strengthen through the core and stabilize the lumbar spine.
The importance of the transverse abdominis
Each abdominal muscle provides its own unique contribution toward creating a strong and stable core and the TVA, specifically, plays a major role in flattening the abdominal wall, compressing the internal organs and aiding in forced exhalation from the lungs. This allows the body to “brace” itself when performing movements such as pushing, pulling, bounding or lifting heavy objects.
In the case of a weak TVA, movements that require a strong bracing component become compromised and the body will take the path of least resistance to find agonist muscles in other areas to help with stability. And what muscles are often recruited when this happens? You guessed it: the overworked back muscles. It’s not a surprise then that a weak TVA will often contribute to an increase in strain on the lumbar spine and lead to the all-too-common experience of low back pain.
Strengthening the TVA
The challenge with strengthening the transverse abdominis lies in the fact that, like all stabilizing muscles, it can be hard to know when you’re actually activating it.
Unlike the other three abdominal muscles, you don’t engage the TVA through movement. While you use the rectus abdominis to flex the trunk forward (like when you do a crunch or sit-up) and you use the internal and external obliques to cause the trunk to twist and flex at the same time (like when you perform an ab bicycle), the TVA is activated more intrinsically and is actually responsible for resisting movement rather than creating it.
This, by contrast, means you have to be a lot more internally aware in order to build awareness and strength through the transverse abdominis than you would with the other three abdominal muscles.
Learning to activate the transverse abdominis
The TVA is a very neglected muscle so it’s very common to feel a very low degree of sensation when you first start trying to activate it. It may take a fair amount of both mental and physical effort to engage it properly but as your body starts to create the mind-muscle connection, the intensity will begin to increase. Be sure to be patient with yourself throughout this process and keep practicing – it will feel natural in no time!
Lie on your back with your feet flat on the ground and place your fingers on your hip bones. Slide your fingers slightly inward and down, just above the crease of your hip flexors.
Start by taking a deep breath then exhale while making a “sssss” sound, drawing your lower abdomen gently towards the spine and pelvic floor upward. You should now feel some light tension building up below your fingers – this is your TVA.
Check to see if your belly is sticking out while you exhale, as this would indicate activity in your outer abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis, obliques) – something you want to try to avoid.
Relax on the inhale and try again on the next exhale. Repeat.
Once you feel you can do this without sticking out your belly, try to hold the TVA engagement longer as you continue to breathe normally into your ribcage.
If you master the engagement and breathing while lying on your back, try to find the same sensation while seated, standing and walking.
Progressing your TVA strengthening
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 and, when that feels good, begin incorporating it into other non-core specific exercises. For an added benefit, complete the 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).
Using your TVA in real life
As a final and very practical benefit, try using this activation in your normal daily routine to provide a bit more support for your back throughout the day. Begin to consciously activate your TVA while lifting objects, closing or opening heavy doors, or reaching for things on a high shelf and see if that begins to make a difference either in alleviating low back pain or in simply feeling strong and stable.