Transversus Abdominis: The Forgotten Abdominal Muscle

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Written By: Morgan Vasiliu, ATC, SPT

Reviewed By: Austin Current, CSCS, Pn1

 

One of the greatest realizations I had during my undergraduate schooling was when one of my mentors told me, “You can have a six-pack and never learn how to truly activate your core correctly.” And that’s when it hit me. Having a six-pack and being able to properly activate and engage your core (specifically the transversus abdominis) both in training and everyday demands, are two very distinct things.

So, how do we achieve both? Let’s discuss the basic anatomy of the transversus abdominis, the role it plays in stability and injury prevention, and some basic exercises you can incorporate in your training routine to practice properly activating and engaging this muscle.

 

The Anatomy

There are four muscles that make up your “core,” all of which have slightly different actions:

  • Rectus Abdominis: Runs from the bottom of your chest down to your pubic bone. When working, it helps bring your belly button towards your chest, i.e. trunk flexion.
  • External Oblique: Begins at your ribs and inserts at the pubic bone helps flex the trunk alongside the Rectus, and brings your shoulder to your opposite knee, i.e. contralateral trunk rotation.
  • Internal Oblique: Runs in opposite directions from the external oblique, originating at the top of the hip and inserting at the ribs. This muscle helps bring your same side shoulder to the same knee, i.e. lateral trunk flexion.
  • Transversus Abdominis (TA): The TA is the deepest of the four muscles and assists in tensing the other three abdominal muscles during contraction for stabilization during movements.

abdominal muscles diagram

Stability and Training

Our core is the centerpiece of all movement. Whether it be lifting while training, sitting at a desk, or even walking, the core works to provide stability for our upper and lower body to move. When we have adequate control and stability from our core, we can perform movements more efficiently, and in every plane of movement.

The transversus abdominis is the often-forgotten abdominal muscle because it does not have a direct action like trunk flexion or rotation. You can go about your training and daily life without proper activation and engagement of the transversus abdominis, and never feel limited in movement or experience immediate consequences. Nevertheless, it is critical in developing a strong and stable core, as it plays a major role in stabilization of the core as a whole during functional movement.

Part of creating a stable core for our upper and lower body to move off of is being able to properly activate and engage your transversus abdominis i.e., being able to turn the muscle on and keep it on. If we do not have proper activation, then we cannot properly tense the other three abdominal muscles to create overall core stability.

Think about deadlifting. When we deadlift, we have to coordinate activating our hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors simultaneously to complete the lift. If you go to pick up the bar and you haven’t properly activated those muscles, you’ll know right away – you struggle to pull the bar up, your form gives out, or you fail at the lift entirely.

The transversus abdominis acts more silently. If you fail to properly activate them, the big muscles around your core (hip flexors and extensors, or spinal erectors) will automatically pick up the slack and complete the movement. But over time, when we continuously rely on those surroundings muscles to compensate for the lack of activation and engagement under large loads, not only do we revert to inefficient movement patterns, but injuries can also begin to develop.[1]

 

Isolation Exercises for the Transversus Abdominis

When training our transversus abdominis in an isolated movement, we want to be aware of the other three abdominal muscles taking over the movement, on top of those larger surrounding muscles mentioned above.

If we want to truly train our transversus abdominis, we must begin with at the base level, focusing solely on activation and engagement. As we improve, we will better able to utilize this muscle and create the strongest, most stable core for training or everyday tasks.

 

Start with Activation:

Starting position: Lying on your back, with your knees bent

Cue: Flatten your back to the floor and draw your belly button to your spine

Sets/Reps: Start with holding this position for 5 -10 seconds for 10-12 reps, 2-3 sets, 2x per week

transversus abdominis activation

Progress with dynamic movements:

Dead-Bug progression – arms or legs only: In the same starting position as above, alternate raising each arm over your head or extending one leg at a time while maintaining a flat back and a drawn-in belly button.

Dead-Bug: The final progression is to lift one arm and extend the opposite leg at the same time while maintaining that activated core.

dead bug transversus abdominis

Tips for success:

  1. Record Yourself on Video!

Record your self performing the exercises to ensure that your back is flat and you are keeping your belly button pulled into your spine. Watching the video will give you a better idea of whether or not you are properly activating and maintaining position.

  1. BREATH

When in the activated position, people often resort to holding their breath, which gives a similar sensation as activating your transversus abdominis, without truly activating and strengthening the muscle. To ensure true engagement, make sure you are inhaling and exhaling throughout the entirety of the exercise.

  1. Don’t Rush Progression

It can be easy to do one set of these activation exercises and to feel like an expert and want to move on with the progression. But like any other movement, we do in our training, it’s necessary to build a solid foundation, which is built during those basic movements. Be slower, rather than quicker to progress, and do so only when you have complete activation and control for >20 seconds in the movement.

Yes, core training can sometimes seem tedious and unnecessary and remains at the top of the “I-don’t-want-to-train-this” list. BUT, our core—and specifically our Transversus Abdominis—is like any other muscle and needs to be included in our training regimen. By breaking down and mastering the movement at its base level, we can learn proper activation, sustained engagement, and therefore move efficiently in our training and everyday life.

 

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References:

[1] Research has shown that low back pain often correlates to a weakened TA. See Huxel Bliven K. & Anderson BE. Core stability training for injury prevention. Sports health. 2013; 5(6): 514-522

 

Written By: Morgan Vasiliu, ATC, SPT

Reviewed By: Austin Current, CSCS, Pn1

 

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