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. 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 other muscles in other areas to help stabilize. 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 most 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 simultaneously twist and flex (like when you perform an ab bicycle), the TVA is activated more intrinsically and is responsible for resisting movement rather than creating it.
This, by contrast, means you have to be a lot more body aware in order to activate and strengthen 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 common to feel a low level 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 patient with yourself throughout this process and keep practicing – it will feel natural in no time.
If you’re currently pregnant, we’ve included some TVA training specifics for pregnancy below.
Step 1 – Activate
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.
Step 2 – Hold
Once you feel you can do this without sticking out your belly, try to hold the TVA engagement longer. Continue to breathe normally into your ribcage as you hold through the core.
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.
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.
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. 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).
Using your TVA in daily life
As another very practical benefit, try using this activation in your normal daily routine to provide a bit more support for your back. This is especially important if you experience SI joint pain, sciatic pain, low back pain or pelvic/pubic pain.
To do this, try and hold about a 60% TVA engagement as you navigate through your day. It’s also important to consciously engage your TVA while lifting objects, closing or opening heavy doors, and reaching for things on a high shelf.