What do a flat belly, small waist, great posture, and pain-free lower back have in common? A strong transverse abdominis.
What comes to mind when you hear “core strength?” Is it washboard abs, lots of crunches, or maybe balance while hiking?
For years, I spent hours obsessed with different crunch and sit up variations – chasing the elusive “core strength.”
I wanted to feel at home in my body: strong, balanced, graceful – and I wanted my outer form to mirror those inner feelings.
As I progressed in my practice, learning more about anatomy and my own individual limits I began delving deeper into the function of the body’s core, specifically the TVA or transverse abdominis.
If you’re anything like me you have never heard the term “transverse abdominis” before and don’t know how they might apply to or help you. When I began learning to work with and strengthen the transverse abdominis I began making great strides toward my goals of feeling strong and balanced in my body and, the more I focused internally on sensation through these exercises, the more I came to love my body as it is and appreciate and encourage my growth in a positive way.
Let’s back it up and talk about the core or ab muscles that many folks are most familiar with – the muscles and tissues that sit on top of the belly traveling from below the rib cage to the pubic line. These are the muscles that we see often in body builders and are also the muscles responsible for creating that oh, so desirable and elusive “six pack.” This group of muscle is called the rectus abdominis – and it plays an important role – it’s a protective layer over the belly and supports us in expansive and contraction motions forward and backward. Common ways to engage the rectus abdominis include the infamous “crunch” and several variations of this exercise in which our chest comes toward our knees as we engage the rectus abdominis muscles. These can be useful – and there are good things to be said for having a strong rectus abdominis – it sure looks fancy in those gym selfies. However, there are some challenges that come with an over engagement of these muscles – which is easy to do because they are relatively small and thin.
When we focus solely on crunch-like exercises, which target the rectus abdominis, we can create postural issues that span the entire body and exacerbate the very issues we aim to resolve by strengthening our core.
The reason for this lies in the too often forgotten fact that the body is one interconnected entity and not simply the sum of various parts. When we focus too intensely on a single portion of the body, we create imbalance in the whole. In the case of chasing our six-pack dream by overworking the rectus abdominis through various crunch-like exercises, we compress the muscles along the front of the torso by pulling the belly in tighter. This, in turn, causes the shoulders to be pulled forward and down, creating strain in the back which is now stretched further than is ideal. This overstretching in the back adds strain to the quadratus lumborum (QL), the muscles which support the lower back in the lumbar spine. The tension created in these muscles can cause the pelvis to tilt, drawing the connective points of the hamstrings up and back and creating strain and tension along the back of the legs – ultimately straining the lower connective point of the hamstrings and creating knee pain.
Whoa, those are a lot of terms and a whole lot happening that can be difficult to wrap our brains around without being able to see these moving parts of our bodies. Here’s a diagram to put it in context for my fellow visual learners:
Quite the domino effect, eh?
So what do we do? How do we strengthen our core in a way that supports total body wellness? The answer is simpler than you might think.
As it turns out, the rectus abdominis – though it creates quite the pretty picture in our bathing suits – is not actually intended to do all the work in the body’s core.
That’s where the transverse abdominis comes in. The transverse abdominis, sometimes referred to as TA or TVA for short, is one of the body’s largest muscles by surface area. This tube-like muscle connects down the midline underneath the rectus abdominis, wrapping all the way around the midsection to the back. This means that our “core” is less about the front of the body and more similar to the core of an apple. Engaging and strengthening the TVA does a number of wonderful things for our fitness, wellbeing, and gym selfie goals:
- Pulls the belly in, acting as an internal girdle (read: smaller waist size)
- Elongates to create space between the pelvis and ribcage (read: goodbye lower spine pain; hello stellar posture)
- Supports integrity of the connective tissues in the rectus abdominis reducing and eliminating diastasis recti (read: goodbye baby and beer bellies; hello flat tummy)
As an added bonus to functional movement, engaging a strong TVA during other exercises, such as weight lifting, allows the body to stabilize itself and reduces our susceptibility to injury.
Here’s the positive side of that domino effect for my visual folks:
All of this from one muscle?!
I know what you’re thinking – it must be really hard work. Sounds great but I’m not sure I’m up for hours in the gym and all that sweat.
But we’re in luck! We’re working with the body’s natural processes and inclinations here which means we can benefit a great deal from just a little bit of effort.
So, how do we do it? What’s the secret to targeting and strengthening the TVA and reaping all of these benefits?
Here is the best news yet: the exercises that are most helpful can be done anywhere, in just a few minutes a day – and with absolutely no equipment necessary. You don’t even need yoga pants.
With that said, let’s get after it!
Exercise #1: The Set Point
Lie down flat on your back and bring your knees into your chest. Slowly lift the knees away from the chest, keeping the knees bent. Move the knees forward, paying close attention to your lower back. When you feel your lower back begin to lift off the floor stop the movement and bring the knees slightly back, just to the point before you began to feel your lower back lift up. Pause here and hold for 30-45 seconds. Try that for 5-6 reps. Once a day is a great starting place; work up from there.
*Note* This is a very small movement for most folks. Don’t give into the temptation to look fancier by extending the knees further out; you’ll miss engaging the TVA that way.
If you’ve never specifically targeted the TVA you may not be able to feel or see the muscle engage at first. That’s okay. As you increase the strength and tone of the muscle and practice paying attention to the sensations in your body through the exercise you will expand your awareness and begin to notice the engagement. The sensation of TVA engagement feels like a pulling inward on the sides and lower front of the torso.
Exercise #2: The L-Sit
The temptation to focus on looking fancy in this exercise is huge – but giving in will inhibit your growth. I recommend sticking with the set point exercise and building up stamina for a week or two before attempting any L-Sit work. This allows you to strengthen the TVA and build the body awareness needed to allow you to accurately gauge whether you are engaging the TVA during the L-Sit.
Begin in a seated position with both legs fully extended, together, in front of you. (For my yogis: dandasana or staff pose) Place your hands on either side of your hips, flat on the floor with fingers spread wide. Press down into the floor and lift very slightly, shifting the hips backward as far as possible. It’s the shift back here that matters, not the lift. In order to engage the TVA, the hips must be behind the wrists. Lifting up without moving the hips back behind the wrists is also a great exercise, it just won’t engage the TVA and you’ll end up with some great shoulder and center back strength but miss out on the benefits you’re aiming for with TVA work.
Hold this pulled-back position for as long as you are able: aiming for 10-30 seconds and repeating 5-8 times. This exercise can feel incredibly difficult in the moment; however, the muscle we’re engaging here is quite large so you’ll be able to do a lot more than you expect without feeling any soreness the next day.
If you’re not able to lift up from the floor don’t worry about it – you can create some additional space by using yoga blocks or books to lift yourself until you’ve built enough strength in the TVA to allow the additional space.
No one’s arms, legs, or torso are the wrong size for this so don’t fret. No matter where you begin or what shape your body is, you will create additional space and the movement will become easier over time.
A note on using supports here: it’s likely that you will experience wrist pain initially. If you do, please find a harder surface to practice on. Foam blocks and plush carpet seem like a nice way to ease the wrists but soft surfaces actually work against you here by allowing the weight of the body to dump into the wrists joints whereas a harder surface (such as tile or a cork yoga block) will require your fingers to press more firmly into the surface, building strength in the hands and forearms, which ultimately will allow the body to lift weight away from the wrist joints, keeping them safe and happy.
With enough practice you’ll be able to lift your feet off the floor as well. This is fun but completely unnecessary so keep your focus on pulling those hips back and you’ll be stronger, slimmer, and taller in no time!
For tips, demonstrations, and a step by step guide to building strength in the TVA visit my YouTube channel where I have a free 30 day challenge for developing TVA strength and working your way up from the floor to catching some L-Sit air time. This playlist also includes tips for reducing wrist pain that can help with all sorts of exercise.