Working the abdominal muscles is about more than trying to get rock-hard abs. Your core muscles offer stability and support during both heavy compound movements and daily activities. Training these muscles can help prevent back pain and help you set that next PR.
Of your abdominal muscles, the transverse abdominis is the deepest and plays a pivotal role when squatting and deadlifting. Here’s what you need to know about activating and strengthening your TVA.
Can I Feel My Transverse Abdominis?
Your transverse abdominis runs from your ribs to your pelvis at the anterior (front) of your body. However, they’re well hidden beneath your external obliques, internal obliques, and rectus abdominis.
You won’t see the transverse abdominis, even if you’re shredded, and you won’t feel it in the way you can touch the other ab muscles.
You can, however, feel it working.
If you do a pelvic tilt, pulling your belly button into your spine, it’s the transverse abdominis that creates that pulling motion. You’ll know your transverse abdominis is engaged if your lower back is flat on the floor when you lay down.
How Do I Engage My Transverse Abdominis?
While the pelvic tilt motion mentioned above is an effective way to create a mind-muscle connection with your transverse abdominis, it’s no longer believed to be the most effective way to activate those muscles.
If you’ve participated in fitness classes before, the instructor may have instructed you to tilt your pelvis forward and pull in your belly button. This motion is called “hollowing”. The problem with hollowing is that it attempts to isolate the TVA instead of using it to support the entire core.
On the other hand, bracing activates the TVA and the surrounding core muscles for better trunk stability.
While powerlifters and strength athletes have been practicing this technique for some time, recent studies have proven the theory by measuring the TVA muscle activation in both hollow and bracing movements.
How to Brace:
- Take a deep breath into your belly. This can take practice to retrain your breathing, but the goal is to expand your abdomen without lifting or shrugging your shoulders and chest.
- Create tension in your abdominal muscles, pushing them outward. A common athletic cue is to prepare for a punch in the abdomen by protecting your organs.
- Place one hand on the front of your abdomen and one on the side. Both should feel extended. If your obliques have not expanded, try again.
That’s it; your TVA is activated. As simple as it seems, proper bracing takes practice. Work on the breathing component before progressing to the abdominal expansion.
What Exercises Work My Transverse Abdominis?
Compound movements like barbell squats and deadlifts are some of the best transverse abdominis exercises with weights. These compound exercises rely on your TVA for stability and spinal protection.
However, there are targeted core exercises that help strengthen and activate the TVA.
Here are five effective transverse abdominis exercises to add to your training routine.
1. Dead Bugs
The dead bug movement looks deceptively easy, but it’s a powerful bodyweight exercise for transverse abdominis strengthening and activation. This movement is meant to be performed slowly with control.
- Lie flat on your back with your knees bent, engaging your core so that your back lies flat.
- Extend your arms toward the ceiling and lift your feet off the ground, keeping your knees bent. Your arms and upper legs should be perpendicular to the floor. Your shins should be parallel to the floor. This is the starting position.
- Keeping a flat back, extend your right arm and left leg toward the floor, slowly unbending your leg.
- Pause at the end of your range of motion, slightly above the floor, with your arm and leg fully extended.
- Reverse the movement until you reach the starting position. Repeat with the left arm and right leg. That’s one rep.
Don’t worry about the proximity to the floor throughout this lift. Your range of motion ends when your lower back starts to arch away from the floor. As your TVA gets stronger, this will become less of an issue.
2. Hollow Holds
I know what you’re thinking: “didn’t I just read that the hollow movement is outdated?”. The word hollow here refers to creating a hollow with your body— you can use core bracing throughout the movement to activate your TVA, obliques, and rectus abdominis. This compound bodyweight abdominal exercise helps improve core muscle strength and activation.
- Lie on your back with your arms and legs extended on the floor. Place your hands together with palms touching and your feet together, side by side.
- Brace and contract your core so that your back is flat, then lift your legs, arms, and head off the floor. Your legs should be about six inches off the floor. Your shoulders should be against your ears.
- Tuck your chin to protect your spine and prevent neck tension, then hold.
Beginners should try holding for 15 seconds at a time, followed by a 30-second break. Increase the time as your core strength improves. Over time, you can also progress into a hollow hold rock.
3. Single-Leg Slow Lowers
This unilateral movement is another simple bodyweight transverse abs exercise that’s more challenging than it looks. In addition to working your TVA, you’ll feel the burn in your rectus abdominis. If you’re looking for transverse abdominis exercises for a flat stomach or ab definition, this is it.
- Lay flat on your back on the floor with legs extended. Place your hands palm down by your sides.
- Engage your core and lift both legs, extending them toward the ceiling with feet touching. They should be perpendicular to the floor. This is the starting position.
- Keep the right leg stationary while slowly lowering the left leg toward the floor.
- Stop at the end of your range of motion, not allowing your low back to lose contact with the floor. Pause, and reverse the movement until you reach the starting position.
- Complete all of your reps with one leg before switching to the other.
You can modify this movement to create one of the most effective transverse abdominis exercises for beginners by using a resistance band around the extended foot and holding it in an upright position with your hands.
4. Forearm (Half) Plank
Planks and plank variations have long been a go-to abdominal exercise. However, the forearm or half plank is the most effective for activating the TVA and engaging the core. Proper form is essential for engaging the transverse abdominis.
- Rest your forearms on the ground, with your shoulders stacked over your elbows. Extend your legs behind you with feet together and toes in an athletic position.
- Push yourself up so that your body is in a straight line from head to toe, with your core engaged. Practice that bracing exercise!
- Hold the position, keeping your eyes facing the floor to maintain a neutral spine. Focus on squeezing your glutes inward, pushing your hips slightly forward.
- Hold for as long as prescribed or until your form starts to fail.
The most common planking form failures are an arched upper back, sunken hips, or unnecessary neck extension. Use a camera or have someone experienced watch you to determine if you need to correct your posture.
5. Barbell Rollout
The barbell rollout is an effective strength-building exercise for the transverse abdominis. It’s also one of the most challenging on this list. If you’ve nailed the basics and want to take it up a notch, try a barbell rollout. You can also complete this exercise with an ab roller or swiss ball.
- Kneel on the floor with a barbell in front of you, grasped in an overhand grip, with your shoulders stacked over your wrists.
- Brace your core, and slowly roll the barbell outward, allowing your arms to extend forward.
- Extend to the end of your range of motion, where you can maintain proper form (arms straight and back flat). Do not let your belly touch the floor.
- Slowly reverse the motion while keeping your arms extended and your core engaged until you reach the starting position. That’s one rep.
You may not be able to extend very far on your first attempts. Don’t let your ego get in the way of focusing on quality movement.
Transversus abdominal exercises can help you build a strong core that will improve your heavy lifting form. You can also use these transverse abdominis exercises for back pain prevention by creating a stronger trunk that supports the activities of daily living.
Work to improve the mind-muscle connection with your transverse abdominis, and practice bracing to get the best possible results from these useful exercises.