Ever wonder the secret to flat abs, zero low back pain, and the answer to every body problem you’ve ever had? The secret is..firing your transversus abdominis.
I’m not even kidding about the last section, a properly firing transversus can prevent almost any injury! Hip, shoulder, knee, ankle wrist, you name it! All because it plays the most important role in your kinetic chain.
So how many layers of abdominals do you have in your body? 1, 2….not sure? Get ready to learn my friend!
(On a side note, if you’re a fan of video learning, you can always check this lesson out in my Free Foundations Course, sign-up and the videos will magically appear in your inbox!)
Where is the Transversus Abdominis and How do I Turn it ON?
It appears the abdominals are one strong sheet of muscle with that 6-pack looking ripple effect (on low body fat models that is). However, there are actually 4 layers of abdominals!
The deep abdominal layers fire best with a “mind-body connection,” where our brain literally communicates with these muscles to fire.
Initially, depending on a students’ mind-body awareness, kinesthetic sense or athleticism, this communication may be easily accessed or may need some extra work. The communication can easily be compared to as a telephone line going from the brain to specific muscles (or even more specifically, fascial tissue) we want to fire. Thus, the name “mind-body” exercise came about.
Mind-body exercise, such as Pilates, requires these connections and create the mindful movements and quality exercises we perform.
For example: The biceps femoris (bicep muscle- think Popeye), will fire if you simply put a dumbbell in your hand and bend your elbow- no phone lines required. The transversus abdominis on the other hand, not so much.
Why Transversus Abdominis is SOOO IMPORTANT:
The transversus abdominis (I’ll call the TA for short) is what I like to call your “personal corset.”
If you visualize a skeleton for a moment: at the bottom of the ribs, there is a big space, and then the hips begin. Within that space, there are your spinal vertebra, carefully stacked on one another, with a few squishy disks in between. Since there are no other bones in that space (besides our vertebra,) we have no structural support. Therefore; our “corset” is crucial for support and better be STRONG!
Why do you think most of the physical injuries and chronic pain are in the lumbar spine (lower back- aka that space I was just talking about.)
This corset, our TA, gets strong by:
- Being able to fire it up with a mind-body connection
- Challenging it with resistance.
I created a Pilates video with the resistance band where you can use the straight legs to challenge the TA but have some support from the band as well.
How to Fire up the TA
To turn on the TA, think about gently drawing the belly button towards the spine. Not in a “hollowing” or a “sucking-in” kind-of-way, but in a tough tightening kind of way (as if you were getting punched in the stomach at the same time).
My favorite cues for firing up the TA:
- Imagine you are “zipping” yourself into a small pair of pants
- Imagine cling wrap is tightening across the tummy
- Imagine I am pulling your corset strings super tight
- Feel a seat belt tightening across your lower tummy
- Draw your hip bones together on the front of your body
One thing you will notice with all of these cues, is that the tummy is essentially flattening and tightening. You will be able to see this happening by seeing the abdominal wall or belly button draw closer. If you are performing these in front of a mirror you will see wrinkles showing up in the shirt.
You can also see my video demonstration and explanation on this in my free 6-day Foundations Course.
Emergency: When you can see that your TA is NOT ENGAGED!
If you are doing abdominal exercises with the legs out in the air and see the abdominals mounding up like a loaf of bread raising- your TA is NOT ENGAGED!!! “Zip” or draw it in closer ASAP! I demonstrate this on video in lesson #2.
If you cannot “zip”, the leg load in the air is too heavy for your TA and you need to shorten the lever by bending your knees (bringing the legs into a 90 degree bend- we call “tabletop.”) Get the TA stronger there, then move on to straight legs once it is strong enough to be zipped. This is important to create a quality movement and strengthen the TA appropriately for it’s strength level- all ego aside here folks.
The most important thing to note while doing this TA engagement is that the spine and pelvis do not move- AT ALL! No tucking your butt or smashing your lower back down! (I don’t care how many times you have heard to do that before abdominal exercises, but we’re trying to re-train the brain now).
This “TA zipping” occurs as the abdominal wall is drawing close to the spine without any boney structure moving. While watching yourself in a mirror, there is no sign of movement except the tissue drawing closer- absolutely nothing else moves.
TA fires under low loads:
An interesting quality about the TA similar to some other local stabilizing muscles is that it prefers light loads. That’s right all my heavy-lifting, body building, gung-hoe fitness friends- we must use light loads to fire and strengthen this all important TA. It will completely shut down and turn off if the load is too heavy.
For example, straight legs that are low to the ground and flutter kicking to work your abs and the TA not being able to ‘zip-up’ means the legs are too heavy. Start small with this muscle. Re-connect if you are already on to heavy weights and have a weak TA. You can accomplish this by bringing the legs to 90 degrees or adding a resistance band to your straight legs. Your lumbar spine (lower back) will sigh with relief and will thank you later.
Exhale to fire the Transversus Abdominis:
Lastly, the TA engages best when we do a proper exhale. In Pilates we exhale through pursed lips as if we are blowing out a cake full of 100 candles. That type of exhale encourages TA engagement.
In Yoga, the exhale is typically through the nose and I do not find it to be as effective in firing the TA, therefore, if I am doing and abdominal series, plank, or chattaranga, I switch to the “pursed lips exhale”- personal preference based on my research and application 🙂 For a detailed post on the way you should breathe, click here.
Lets take it to the streets. Give this a try:
- Lay on the floor with the knees bent and try to turn on the transverses. Exhale through pursed lips and draw abdominals closer towards your spine (what I call “zipping.”) See how it feels: lay your hand on your tummy for tactile feedback, and feel the abdominals sink towards the floor while your back stays still.
- Now, get on all 4’s, hands and knees, with the hands shoulders directly over the hands and hips directly over the knees. Engage the TA in this position on your exhale. Again, nothing should move except a tiny bit of fleshy tissue at the tummy pulling up towards the ceiling. No boney movement means your back should not round up like a scared halloween cat. Additionally, the pelvis should not move, as if the tail were tucking under. Look at your side view in the mirror to ensure your body is doing exactly what you think it is and what I am describing.
- To add more resistance, you can lay on the back again and start to engage TA while lifting one leg- or both. Start bent, remember, low loads. If you feel strong maybe start to straighten the leg, but if the abdominals start mounding up, and you can’t flatten it out- it’s too heavy. If it’s too heavy, back off and stick with bent legs. There is no shame in backing off, leave the ego aside and respect your body.
- I do all of these on video in my foundations course, if you missed it, click here.
Make it a habit:
Keep the TA in mind when you are doing planks and other exercises as well. While performing a traditional plank you can’t see the torso to know if it is “popping up,” but if you get familiar with it, you can apply the “zip up” motion in this orientation to ensure it is engaging. Starting in a modified plank with the knees bent is a great way to start with a lighter load- which as we discussed- makes the TA happy!
While doing any other resistance training, fire the TA on the exhale 1 second before the actual movement it performed. You will experience a whole new level of strength and support from your core.
How about a Video:
If you are more of a visual learner like me, I have a video discussing the TA and concepts in this post! It’s the second lesson video in my Foundations Course, which I linked up below. Best part is, it’s a $65.00 value, for FREE! If you haven’t signed up get, click on the course links in the text or on the form below and you’ll see a video covering the TA concept in the Deep Core lesson 🙂