The Transverse Abdominis – The Spanx Of Your Abdominal Muscles

As we push past winter storms and frigid temperatures, we cling onto the hope that spring and summer temps are on the horizon. Warmer weather signals a time for school vacations, less clothing and the beach. I think you know where I am going with this. Before you know it, we will be entering bathing suit season!

If you are looking to firm up your stomach, prevent or reduce low back pain, prepare for childbirth, recover postpartum or just want to look good on the beach, continue reading.

In this article, I explain why it is important to strengthen an abdominal muscle known as the transverse abdominis. You will learn why I call the transverse abdominis the “Spanx” of your stomach muscles and will be given five exercises that you can do to tone-up your tummy.

The Transverse Abdominis - The Spanx of Your Abdominal Muscles

What  is the transverse abdominis?

The transverse abdominis, also known as the TVA muscle, is the deepest innermost layer of all abdominal muscles and is located underneath your rectus abdominis (the six-pack stomach muscle). The transverse abdominis muscle runs horizontally across the abdomen and is recruited almost any time a limb moves.

The Transverse Abdominis - The Spanx of Your Abdominal Muscles

What does the TVA do?

The transverse abdominis helps with the breathing process by assisting in exhalation and compressing the internal organs. However, its main function is to activate the core musculature and stabilize the pelvis and low back prior to movement of the body. It acts as a natural “weight belt” or muscular girdle by resisting flexion of the lumbar spine (lower back). The TVA keeps the cervical spine (neck) in a neutral position during core training and helps to improve posture, muscle balance and stabilization. A strong TVA provides a solid foundation for any movement.

So why care about the transverse abdominis?

Since the TVA acts as a muscular girdle, it stabilizes your pelvis and provides support against outside forces. It defends against repetitive physical stresses from various motions your body makes such as twisting, bending, running, squatting, etc. A strong TVA will help you transfer force more efficiently through the muscles, rather than through your back and joints, thus aiding in the reduction of aches and pains (and injuries) caused by related stresses.


This all sounds good, but what about that bikini/beach-ready body that was mentioned in the first part of this article?

Well, not only does a developed transverse abdominis muscle help protect your back and joints during movement, but a strong and well developed TVA also equates to a tighter, slimmer waist.

What is the difference between the rectus abdominis and the transverse abdominis muscles and how does the TVA aid in the creation of a flatter stomach?

Fit individuals with a washboard or “six-pack” stomach most likely have well developed rectus abdominis muscles. The rectus abdominis muscle is the most superficial of all abdominal muscles. It runs vertically and has the main role of flexing the body forward. Whenever rectus abdominis muscles are developed, they grow outward. This can be good, but depending on your total body fat percentage, this can also be bad.

If you have a very low body fat percentage, a defined rectus can create the infamous six pack stomach look. However, if you have a higher body fat content and a layer of fat over these muscles, your stomach may look as if it bulges outward and will look more bulky.

Building your rectus abdominis muscle and not focusing on strengthening other areas is analogous to letting out your belt, or letting your stomach “pooch” fall forward. While the rectus abdominis muscle responds to strengthening exercises by developing outward, the transverse abdominis muscle develops inward and in effect, as mentioned earlier, is analogous to tightening your belt or wearing a muscular girdle. It is like the Spanx of the abdominal muscles!

Regardless of your current body fat percentage, developing the transverse abdominis muscle will aid in flattening your tummy and will ultimately help you feel better in your clothes. For those who have a lower body fat percentage, a developed TVA muscle will create more definition around your stomach so that you will look and feel better without seeming too bulky or muscular.

To achieve this toned look, you must:

  1. Eat a well balanced, holistic, and nutritional diet geared towards your body-type. Eat whole foods while limiting refined sugars.
  2. Participate in movement activities at least 5 days per week.
  3. Consistently strength train your entire body, not just one part.

What causes a weak transverse abdominis and what are some problems associated with weakness in this muscle?

The following may cause a weak transverse abdominis:

  1. Inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle
  2. Surgical procedures
  3. Lack of neural drive
  4. Improper training of the core musculature/too much flexion and extension

Let’s take a closer look:

1)  In many cases, inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle can cause weakness in the transverse abdominis. If you do not use the muscle, you will lose the muscle.

2) Surgical procedures that involve cutting of the abdominal wall can also create a dysfunctional TVA. Caesarian sections, hysterectomies, hernias, and child-birth can all be responsible for this weakness. During such surgeries, the muscles, nerves, and tissues are cut, causing a loss of neurological impulse (connection from your brain to your muscle). After these surgeries, your brain will try to recruit your stomach muscles to wake them up, but often, they do not answer unless you make extra effort to retrain the neuromuscular system.

3) A lack of neural drive to the core muscles can create the belly to push outward, creating a “pooch belly.” The weaker your TVA is and/or the heavier you are as an individual, the more pronounced this pooch belly will be. A lack of neural drive may be caused by a sedentary lifestyle and/or surgery.

4) Another cause of a weak transverse abdominis is improper training of the core. For many years, people have been taught to train the wrong muscle during abdominal exercises. How many times have you been told to focus on flexion and extension exercises (i.e. crunches) to strengthen your core?*

  • Too much flexion and extension – *For the vast majority of us, abdominal training has involved flexion and extension (bending) movements that focus almost exclusively on the rectus abdominus (crunches). By doing crunches and other bending exercises for your stomach muscles, you are essentially shortening the rectus abdominis and in effect pushing out the abdomen, not pulling it in. If you are not also training your TVA, this can cause problems. A weak TVA can further create poor body movement quality and instability, which may even lead to early degeneration of bones and joints.

Exercises geared towards strengthening the TVA muscle help to reconnect the nervous and muscular systems so that the stomach muscles can again function properly. Once they are firing correctly, you have a greater chance at ridding yourself of a pooch belly.

How do you get a stronger transverse abdominis?

If you dread or despise crunches, you are in luck! To develop and strengthen the transverse abdominis, you do not have to perform flexion or extension exercises. To start building strength in your TVA muscle, you will need to know how to activate it through a series of “draw-in” abdominal maneuvers. “Drawing in your abdominal muscles” is a conscious process and takes a lot of practice, but once you understand it, you will see results like a stronger core, flatter stomach and a beach ready tummy.

Draw in

For many people, learning to draw in the abdominals is a difficult process. As mentioned above, most people are used to working their core by developing the rectus abdominis muscles through conventional methods such as crunches, sit-ups, and other flexion/extension exercises. Remember, these exercises push out the abdominal wall. We want to pull the abdominal wall in. The concept of drawing in is the exact opposite of rectus abdominis training. It is the process where you pull IN your abdominal wall.

Five exercises that focus on drawing in the abdominal muscles include:

  1. The lying draw-in maneuver (tummy vacs)
  2. Foot-hand bear crawl
  3. The forward ball roll
  4. Hollow body holds
  5. Planks

Let’s take a closer look at these exercises:

1) The lying draw-in maneuver (tummy vacs)

My clients are familiar with the movement that I call “tummy vacuums.” I have had people from varying fitness levels and demographics have success with them.

lying draw-in maneuver, tummy vacs
Tummy Vacuum Exercise

The lying draw-in maneuver (tummy vacs) is just one of many exercises that can be used to train and strengthen the TVA. It is a great exercise to add to your fitness program, as it will help you fine-tune your body and abs so that you can feel strong, confident and sexy in your clothes, bikini, and swim trunks year round! A properly functioning transverse abdominis will also help you move better and reduce the risk of injury to your back and spine.

2) Foot-hand bear crawls

The foot-hand crawl, which is known by many as the bear crawl, is an essential skill to add to your fitness program. Apply this exercise to your workout routine and you will build mobility, flexibility, balance, coordination, and strength throughout your body – especially in your core, hips, and shoulders. It will improve your connection with nature and it will also tone and flatten your belly, especially your transverse abdominis.

Consistent crawling practice will help restore your original strength and will enhance your life in many areas. Not only will you be more prepared for a situation when you might need to crawl, but your physical strength will increase, your mobility will improve, your mental focus/acuity will sharpen, your response to stress will better and so will your mood.

3) The forward ball roll

The forward ball roll is an exercise to help strengthen your core musculature, especially your transverse abdominis. Not only will this exercise help you achieve strength, stability and flexibility in your stomach and back muscles, but it will also target your shoulders and triceps muscles.

4) Hollow body holds

Hollow body holds are an awesome way to improve your overall core strength. Mastering these holds will line you up for success with body control in locomotive movements such as running, walking, climbing, and swimming and will help you get stronger with pull-ups and gymnastics moves such as handstands.

  • In the following video, Ryan Hurst from GMB Fitness does a kick-ass job demonstrating how to perform hollow body hold progressions:

5) Planks

The plank exercise improves strength in your core as well as in your upper and mid-body.

  • In the following article, Levi Harrison from Breaking Muscle demonstrates six plank variations that will ensure that you are targeting and firing your transverse abdominis. A three minute video is included as well. Take a look: 6 Plank Variations To Test Your Core Strength

Thoughts?

Please share your thoughts and/or questions in the comment section below this article.

Thanks so much for reading and I look forward to hearing from you!

Photo credits

  1. Pearson Education, Inc.

 

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Comments

  1. Paula

    I just found this by accident. Will definitely be here often! Great post.

  2. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I do not know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

  3. Nicole

    Iwill be trying these exercises to bring in the lower abdomen. My stomach is solid but not flat in lower area. I will be doing these exercises for the next 6 weeks to try to flatten the lower abs

  4. Brenda R

    I started doing squats (about 100 at a time) and it seems like my abs and pelvis is all puffed out! It’s so weird. Is it because I’m doing squats wrong?

    1. Brenda, are you lifting heavy weight or are you squatting with just body weight? Do you include core exercises in your fitness routine?

  5. michelle

    i had an abdominal hyst 14 weeks ago. I am feeling well and have restarted my running routine 4-5 days a week about 2-3 miles. I am 45 and in pretty good shape. I am about 8 lbs over weight and since the surgery feel no core strength. my docs seem clueless about what i should do. No physical therapy offered. what should i do. I need a tangible plan with specific exercises and reps to add to my routine. My stomach really sticks out now! I never had a 6 pack but this is ridiculous

    1. Lois

      Hello!
      I hope things are going very well for you!

      I just had huge uterine fibroids (1780g/4 pounds worth) removed through a vertical incision. I was told to expect my belly to be swollen for up to 6 months. I wonder if that could apply to you as well.

      Wishing you all the best!

  6. R e m

    Question; how good is walking as a platform for strengthening the TVA.

    1. Hi R E M,

      If you walk with mindfulness and practical awareness, you can work on your transverse abdominis muscles. I recommend that you take a look at my Tummy Vacs article and apply this exercise/technique while you are standing and walking. First get used to doing it on your back, with the support of the floor. Once you get the hang of it, mindfully apply the “drawing-in” maneuver when you are walking. The beauty of the draw-in exercise is that you can apply it pretty much anytime, anywhere. Good luck!

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