For a long time the 6-pack glamour of the rectus abdominis reigned supreme. But lately a new muscle has taken the stage as the darling of the core training community for its "slimming, toning, firming" potential. No wonder it's called the corset muscle. I'm talking about a sheet of tissue called the transverse abdominis. Now this is a weird conversation starter, but I get asked by A LOT of women concerned with their figure:
"How do I strengthen my transverse abdominis?"
To which I cringe, cover my ears, and cry a little. I'm good at social situations like that. However, in all seriousness this tinkertoy, piecemeal approach to training sets you up for frustration, stalled progress, and pain. Before we explore why let's make sure we're on the same page here.
What Is The Transverse Abdominis?
This deep layer of muscle goes by many names: Transverse Abdominis Muscle (TVA), Transversus Abdominis (TrA), transversalis muscle, and more.
As the deepest layer of abdominal muscle the transverse abdominis plays a role in many functions, including breathing & speaking (1). Its most important function may be that of spinal stabilization. As a rule the musculature of the trunk is responsible for management of force, AKA keeping the spine safe (2).
If the spinal column isn't safe, your nerves aren't safe, and if your nerves aren't safe, you're screwed. How's that for functional anatomy?
The Trick of TVA Function
Now here's an interesting note about the transverse abdominis. All of its functions are reflexive & involuntary in nature. That is, they occur below the level of conscious control. That alone should give you a clue as to why the infamous stomach vacuum exercise may not be your best bet for transverse abdominis strength.
See, strengthening a muscle that doesn't know how to work properly only reinforces it being both strong AND stupid. Suck it in as much as you want-it still doesn't know how to do its job. If you want a body that works like a body should, you need to train it like one.
The Curse Of Modern Fitness
These days we're really good at taking puzzles apart. Not so much putting them back together. This tendency is particularly common in the worlds of personal training & physical therapy. We like to look at & blame pieces (like the transverse abdominis). It makes things simple.
The truth is a bit messier.
The nervous system, your command center for any & all movement, works in terms of patterns. Not pieces. The most crucial of these patterns are solidified during your early development...you know when you were learning to crawl, walk, and cause trouble. The most effective program for core strength should naturally take these patterns into account.
Use the following movements as the backbone of your core training to keep your literal backbone in check. You'll also find HUGE carryover into more athletic movements once the prerequisite of spinal stability is met.
Find your way onto your back with knees bent. Notice where you feel contact with the ground (admit it: it's kinda nice to lie down). You'll likely feel pressure under the back of the head, the shoulder blades, the pelvis, and the feet. Pay attention to the curves of the spine, particularly under the low back. Notice if you're holding any tension here before you begin. If yes, pause for a few more breaths and release before continuing.
It's crucial to release excess tension before moving on. If not, you're simply adding tension to an already strained system, and reinforcing those patterns of muscular holding. Not good.
Begin to press your low back into the ground, and tune in to the contraction through the front of the body. Next, arch the back and exaggerate the low back curve. Move between this flexion & extension up to 25 times, and pause. After you finish, scan through the body and notice any subtle shifts that may have occurred.
Make an X on the floor, on your back. We're going to think of the body in quadrants here. Left hip & leg, right hip & leg, right shoulder & arm, left shoulder & arm. Here's where it gets tricky. You'll roll yourself from your back to your stomach (and back again) with each of these limbs. Aim for 5 times through on each limb.
No momentum. Slow & steady. You'll likely fail the first few attempts.
If you're struggling to make the transition, prop a rolled up towel under the reaching limb to give yourself a handicap. Gradually work to reduce this boost.
Crawling is my hands-down favorite movement for strengthening the musculature of the trunk and tying all four limbs together. We'll explore the hand-knee (6-point) crawl to start.
Begin on hands and knees with left hand & knee closer together, right hand & knee a bit farther apart. Take literal baby steps forward, moving opposite limbs together. It may be clumsy at first, but you'll quickly get the hang of it.
When hand-knee crawling becomes easy, switch to hand-foot crawling for added challenge by floating the knees off of the ground.
Putting It Together
When you train your body like a body, it begins to work like a body should. The tinkertoy, piecemeal approach is convenient to describe, but rarely describes movement in the real world. Any efforts to strengthen the transverse abdominis--or any muscle--must keep in mind that muscles function within patterns of human movement. Only then do we keep ourselves supple & strong, naturally.
- A. De Troyer et al. "Transversus abdominis muscle function in humans."Journal of Applied Physiology, 1990.
- P. Hodges & C. Richardson. "Inefficient Muscular Stabilization of the Lumbar Spine Associated With Low Back Pain: A Motor Control Evaluation of Transversus Abdominis." Spine, 1996.