Abdominals.  So important.  We all want them.  But what do they actually do and how can we most effectively build them?  So glad you asked.  The abs are a conundrum to most people and carry with them a plethora of questions.  I find even people who workout regularly rarely understand which muscles to engage and why they are doing it.  And quite frankly there are few muscle groups that are so key to our health and success as a pain free person.  Abs are what stabilize our spine and pelvis and therefore our appendages.  It prevents our back pain.  It protects us in car accidents.  It keeps us able to be active and fit well into our golden years.  People these guys have magical powers on our body!!  So let's break it down.

We have three layers of abs:

1. Rectus Abdominus (aka 6-pack)

2. Obliques (external and internal)

3. Transversus Abdominus

We are going to take these fellas one at a time.  This week we start with one of the most important layers and that is the transversus abdominus (TVA).

What is it?

Transversus Abdominis: This muscle is often referred to as the "corset muscle" because upon contraction it acts in that same way, bringing the abdomen tight into the middle of the body.  The TVA acts to stabilize the spine and pelvis, compresses the ribs and viscera, and aids in correct breathing.  Without a stable spine, one aided by proper contraction of the TVA, the nervous system fails to recruit muscles in the extremities efficiently and properly.

Cross section of trunk

Cross section of trunk


Where is it?

TVA is our deepest layer of abs and its origin attachment point starts at the iliac crest (top part of pelvic bone) to last six ribs.  Then its insertion attachment points are the posterior lumbar aponeurosis (layers of flat, broad tendons that connect to back extensor muscles), anterior rectus sheath (layers of flat, broad tendons that connect TVA and obliques), and pubic crest (pubic bone).  It looks and acts like a corset or support belt around the abdomen.

Why are they important?

Two reasons:

1) The health of your body.  If you don't know how to engage and keep this muscle strong, study after study shows you will be among the many with chronic back, pelvic, groin pain and increased chance of injury.

2) Looks:  These are what create the smooth, supermodel stomach muscle look.  If you're not focusing with all your strength on engaging these suckers, then you are probably using your 6-pack muscles which creates poochie muscles (we'll get into this more when we cover the rectus abdominis).  Not pretty folks.  So those flat, toned ab muscles you're looking for?  Yes that's the TVA, so listen up on how to attain such flat stomach beauty!


How do I engage my transverse abs?

So we talked before about when the TVA contracts it moves in towards the center of your body like a corset that's being tightened.  So you will feel your ribs moving towards each other; you'll feel your ribs pressing down towards your hips (like you're trying to put your ribs into your pant pockets), and most importantly you'll feel your abs pressing in towards your spine (almost a scooped feeling-NOT SUCKING IN!! -just engaged down towards the spine).  That's how we engage our TVA.  How about an exercise that strengthens it?


Transverse Abdominal Exercises:

30 Second Hold

  • Position: Seated with body weight centered over pelvis and shoulders aligned over pelvis, practice pulling belly button to the spine without allowing ribcage to shear forward.  Make sure you are sitting on pelvic floor muscles (between pubic bone and tailbone)!!! Sitting slouched back on your sitz bones can SERIOUSLY hurt your back and weaken your muscles!!!! These can also be done laying down with legs bent and arms by your side.

  • Action: Begin with a belly breath (breath in as belly expands out like a loaf of bread rising), then exhale and move the belly button all the way to the spine.  Hold it here for 30 counts (count out loud to make sure you’re breathing properly).  End with a belly breath.

  • Repetitions: Five 30 count holds/day


Contracting Transverse

  • Position: Same as above.

  • Action: Inhale and expand belly.  Exhale and engage all the way to the spine, hold for a count and then release belly button half way (DO NOT RELEASE ALL THE WAY!) and repeat.

  • Repetitions: 2 sets of 50/day


Dangers to Watch Out For:

Most people have weak transverse muscles.  It takes a lot of concentration to zone in on the correct muscle group.  Watch out for trying to do exercises with other muscles (stronger muscles will ALWAYS want to take over).  The two main culprits are our rectus abdominis (6-pack) and back extensor muscles.  How do you know if you're using them?  If your stomach pooches out when you do any ab exercises, ladies and gents that is our 6-pack muscle.  You will create a poochie muscle if you allow this to happen.  The second culprit is our back extensor muscles (muscles that run along the sides of the spine), and if you find yourself arching your back, that is you trying to use your back.  That will result in injury.  So keep on your guard!  Stay frosty people!

Arching back

Arching back


These are some of the most important exercises you will ever do.  We use the transverse abdominals in EVERY exercise in Pilates class, running, at the gym, in sports, you name it!  And if you begin to become more mindful as you work out and actively recruit your TVA you will find you become a stronger, slimmer individual with strength and power in your back pocket.  And those moments that promised impending doom on your life such as a slip on the ice, or picking up that box, or jumping awkwardly to grab that ball won't send you into bed with an ice pack and a couple of Advil.  Oh no, friends.  Your days of core instability are over!  So let today be the first day you discover your transverse abs.  Try just a couple of the exercises.  The first few times you try them it will feel weird and you may not be entirely sure you're doing it right.  But stay patient!  Before you know it you will be able to connect right into your TVA and then you will build up to the recommended reps.  You'll know you are nailing this when you start to feel a good ol' fashion burn after a single set.  And really you can do these exercises anywhere as long as you're sitting up straight and not slouched back onto tailbone (at work, in bed, on the train, etc.)  Like always consistency is key.  If I could have all my clients do just one exercises daily, without a doubt it would be this guy.  It's incredible how bodies change when my clients learn to man-handle their transversus!!