Basic Core Training: The Transversus Abdominis

Guest post by Stephanie Caudle

You’re probably thinking “What’s a transversus abdominis?” and “Do I even have one?”.  The transversus abdominis (TrA) muscle is a commonly underappreciated muscle in your core.  To visualize the muscle, imagine a corset wrapping around your midsection, compressing your abdominal contents.  Now your question is probably, “If I didn’t even know I had a transversus abdominis, how can it be important enough to train?”.  If you’re interested in any of the following, TrA training is for you:

  • Preventing back pain
  • Improving posture
  • Lifting heavier

Preventing Back Pain

There is a strong relationship between the incidence of low back pain and the inability to sufficiently activate the TrA muscle. While the mechanism for this is not 100% understood, the basics are pretty simple. The TrA compresses the contents of the abdomen, and the resulting abdominal pressure helps stabilize the spinal column, which leads to better low back posture, fewer injuries, and less pain.

Improving Posture

As a result of sitting all day long, most of us have overly tight hip flexors, which results in excessive lower back arch (lordosis) when standing.  When the TrA is activated, it forces the spine into a neutral position.  It is advantageous to correct this posture as a more neutral spine leads to increased stability, less pain, and the appearance of a thinner midsection and fuller chest.  The activation exercises for the TrA listed below help improve posture by pulling the lower back into a more neutral position.

Lifting Heavier

Without proper activation of the TrA, prime movers and accessory muscles must act not only to perform their intended function but also to stabilize the core beneath large loads, heavy squats for example.  By placing the spine in neutral through activation of the TrA, we allow our prime movers to be focused toward proper execution of exercises like squats or deadlifts.

How do I train my TrA?

  • Basic activation (Abdominal Clocks or “Drawing In”)
    Lie on the floor with your knees bent.  Imagine your abdomen as a clock with your belly button at the center and 12:00 overhead.  Draw your navel and pelvis toward 12:00.  You may also visualize drawing your navel towards the floor.  When you do this, the small of your back should flatten toward the floor.  Hold this position for several seconds, rest and repeat for 5-8 total repetitions.
  • Adding limb movements
    Once you are able to perform a proper isolated contraction of the TrA, it is important to make the activation functional.  Perform the activation exercise that works best for you and then add movements of the extremities while contracting the TrA.  You can start with holding your arms by your sides, keeping them raised just off the floor, move your arms in gentle, up and down motion.  Another way to add limb movement to the activation is to perform gentle marching (lift one foot about 6 inches off the floor, then the other) while maintaining your TrA contraction.

In Conclusion

I include some transversus activation work in every warm-up to prepare for exercise.  Try adding it in for a few weeks, especially if you ever experience back pain.  Additionally, you should be sure to maintain TrA core pressure during all major lifts (particularly squats and deadlifts).  Your pain should diminish, and your lifts should go up!

Post author Stephanie Caudle is a physical therapy student at the University of South Carolina with a BA in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina.