Transverse abdominis exercises

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 the importance of strengthening 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 your abs

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)

Drawing in maneuver, tummy vacuums

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.

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

Foot-hand bear crawl exercise
Copyright Jennifer Regan

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

Forward ball roll exercise
Paul Chek performing 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.

  • Do you train the transverse abdominis? If you do, what are YOUR favorite TVA exercises?

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

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Photo credits

  1. Pearson Education, Inc.

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Author Details
Founder and CEO of BambooCore
Jennifer is a certified NASM Personal Trainer, MovNat Trainer, and a C.H.E.K Holistic Lifestyle/Nutrition Coach. As the Founder and CEO of BambooCore Fitness, she delivers sustainable lifestyle, nutrition and movement strategies to people looking to improve their health and performance.

When she is not slaying fat and building muscle, Jennifer can be found trekking barefoot, traveling, cooking and refining her photography skills. She also enjoys reading and writing about food culture, history and the science of human movement.
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Founder and CEO of BambooCore
Jennifer is a certified NASM Personal Trainer, MovNat Trainer, and a C.H.E.K Holistic Lifestyle/Nutrition Coach. As the Founder and CEO of BambooCore Fitness, she delivers sustainable lifestyle, nutrition and movement strategies to people looking to improve their health and performance.

When she is not slaying fat and building muscle, Jennifer can be found trekking barefoot, traveling, cooking and refining her photography skills. She also enjoys reading and writing about food culture, history and the science of human movement.

Comments

  1. GIOVANNI PISANO MEDRANO

    hi i have low back pain when standing, sitting and even sleeping on my back i have a protruding belly, i made some x-rays of lumbar spine and i dont have hyperlordosis? that means i have a weak TVA??

    1. Hi Giovanni, thanks for your comment. So sorry to hear that you are in pain. It’s possible that you may have a weak TVA, but I wouldn’t be able to come to that conclusion without assessing you in person and learning more about your health history. I recommend that if you haven’t already, consult with professionals in your area who can do a full body assessment as well as recommend any necessary strength, mobility and flexibility programs. There are many causes of back pain and several medical/health conditions that could cause a protruding belly. I would also take a look at your nutrition to rule out possible food intolerances and allergies that may be causing systemic inflammation within your body and gut.

  2. Ted

    Are any of these TVA exercises especially good or bad for men with inguinal hernia?
    Thanks!

  3. David

    What are some common injures that can happen to transversus abdominis and how can you heal form those injuries?

    1. Hi David, thank you for your question. I’d say that the most common injury would be an abdominal muscle strain. Any of your abdominal muscles are susceptible to strains.

      Causes of abdominal strains: The abdominal wall muscles (rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, and transverse abdominis) are often injured by direct blows to the abdomen or by sudden or repetitive trunk movement, either rotation or flexion/extension.

      Classifications of strains: Abdominal strains vary in severity – from a mild pull to a full rupture. To help you understand this, here are the classifications of abdominal strains:

      1. 1st degree abdominal strain: This is a mild stretching/pull of the abdominal muscle which can result in localized pain, mild swelling, as well as pain with movement, laughing, coughing, deep inhalation, or sneezing.

      2. 2nd degree abdominal strain: This is a more severe injury to the abdominal muscle. It usually means that there is a partial tear in the abdominal muscle. Depending on the amount of fibers torn, this injury may be very debilitating. Symptoms of a 2nd degree strain include sudden abdominal pain, point tenderness, localized swelling, and bruising/discoloration. Any and all movements of the individual may be painful.

      3. 3rd degree abdominal strain: A 3rd degree muscle strain is the most severe injury and is diagnosed as a complete muscle rupture either. The rupture can happen at the TVA’s insertion, origin, or midsection. Ruptures usually involve sharp and sudden pain. Along with the symptoms of a 2nd degree muscle strain, the injured individual may also experience symptoms of shock including nausea, vomiting, pale skin, excess perspiration, difficulty breathing, and a shallow or rapid heart rate.

      Treatment of abdominal strains is dependent on the degree of the strain. The first thing is to have a medical professional assess the strain so that they can prescribe an appropriate recovery program for you. In general, the immediate treatment of all abdominal strains often involves using the P.R.I.C.E. principle: “Protection, Rest, Icing, Compression, Elevation” and begins with the application of ice for twenty minutes. The ice pack can be reapplied every two hours for the first 24-36 hours days post-injury.

      After substantial rest and once pain has subsided, the goal is to slowly strengthen and heal the tissue. Gentle stretching combined with isometric contractions of the muscle is typically advised (such as light tummy vacs which are mentioned in the above article). Once there is pain-free ROM in the individual’s trunk and good stabilization and strength is evident, functional exercises which mimic everyday activities and/or sports are usually prescribed (again – ONLY if there is NO longer pain).

      Often, gentle and deep tissue massage is applied to the area increase blood flow and reduce knots/scar tissue in the area.

      With rehabilitation and recovery, it is important to remain slow and steady so that you give the body time to heal. Rest is often the best thing to do… and take your time doing it. To aid in healing, it is also important to focus on healthy nutrition – I’d recommend eating an anti-inflammatory diet to help encourage the healing process.

      Every individual is unique and treatment depends on the individual and the severity of the strain. When dealing with a potential strain, seeking professional help is recommended.

      Hope this helps answer your questions! Take care!

  4. Jim

    Hi, great article! I was wondering if I might have a weak TVA. I’ve always had issues with my stomach sticking out, mainly my upper abs. It’s not fat because my abs are rock hard (except for the very bottom). A lot of people say it could be anterior pelvic tilt, however my back isn’t really arched much more than it should be so I’m having doubts about that. Otherwise it could just be visceral fat. For a long time I’ve had tons of trouble deciding whether it’s visceral fat, posture problems, or a weak core.
    Also, a follow up question…
    Does the TVA help hold your organs in tightly? For example, would a weak TVA cause my organs to push my stomach outwards, making me look fatter?

    1. Hi Jim,

      Thanks for commenting. There are many factors that could contribute to your stomach “sticking out” and yes, a weak transverse abdominis could be one. Unfortunately, it is difficult for me to assess what the cause is without knowing more about you and without performing a functional movement screen and postural assessment. Have you received an opinion from a fitness or medical professional?

      To answer your follow-up question, yes, the TVA helps to hold in your organs. A weak TVA can absolutely cause your internal organs to push forward, thus creating an “abdominal pooch.”

      Do you include TVA strengthening exercises in your daily routine? If not, I recommend that you do… and then you can see if they help. Thanks again for reaching out and please let me know if you have any more questions. If you want to dive deeper, I also offer online coaching. Feel free to send me an email at info@bamboocorefitness.com.

      Thanks and good luck!
      – Jen

  5. Paula

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

  6. 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!

  7. 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

  8. 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?

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