If you have urinary incontinence, prolapse, pelvic pain, hip pain or back pain, your physical therapist or other fitness professional may have recommended training the transverse abdominals as part of your recovery.

What is the transverse abdominals and why does this muscle matter more than other abdominal and core muscles (or does it)?

What are my abdominal muscles?

We have four different abdominal muscle groups:

  1. Rectus abdominis
  2. External oblique
  3. Internal oblique
  4. Transversus abdominis
Illustration of the abdominal wall

Image courtesy of Pelvic Guru

There are multiple layers of muscles. The deepest layer stabilizes us and our superficial muscles (the muscles closer to the skin) move us. The deep muscles are called local muscles and the superficial muscles are called global muscles.

The superficial muscles of the abdomen are the:

  • external obliques
  • internal obliques
  • rectus abdominus.

These muscles are responsible for flexing (like when you do a crunch) and rotating the trunk.

The deepest layer closest to the abdominal organs is the transverse abdominals. You’ll hear people refer to them as the TrA or TA.

The transverse abdominals start in your back at the thoracolumbar fascia and wrap around to the front of your body, underneath the linea alba.

Their role is to stabilize the back and pelvis by compressing the lower abdomen and narrowing the waist. When your TrA contracts, it pulls your abdominal contents in, acting like a corset.

The linea alba is the center line of the abdomen, separating the two muscle bellies of the rectus abdominus. This is also the site where diastasis rectus abdominus, or DRA, occurs. Diastasis rectus abdominus is when the normal distance between the two sides of the rectus abdominis, or “6-pack muscle,” widens. One may notice it’s more difficult to get out of bed and notice “tenting” of the abdomen. This can happen to people of any gender and age.

The TrA extend up to the ribs and down to the hip crest. To activate the transverse abdominals, we focus on the lower aspect of the belly so that we don’t overuse the obliques by using the cue, “pull in your lower belly.”.

The “canister” of core support

The transverse abdominals at the abdomen, along with three other deep muscle groups, create an abdominal “canister” of stability:

  • transverse abdominals in the front
  • multifidus in the back
  • diaphragm on the top (and continues up to the glottis)
  • pelvic floor muscles on the bottom

Jellyfish

Our diaphragm expands similarly to how a jellyfish moves through water.

As you have read in my previous blogs, this is what naturally happens when you inhale:

  • diaphragm descends, shortening it’s muscle fibers
  • pelvic floor muscles descend in response to intra-abdominal pressure
  • transverse abdominals lengthen as the belly expands

What do these muscles have in common? They all “pre-fire” in anticipation of movement.

The second you think about extending your arm to grab a book, your diaphragm, transverse abdominals, and pelvic floor muscles will hop online to stabilize your trunk.

If they all fire in anticipation, then why do we need to train them?

Sometimes, life events can interrupt the optimal function of the abdominal wall. This may include bloating associated with irritable bowel syndrome, SIBO, endometriosis, and other challenges. Pregnancy and the postpartum period also challenges the transverse abdominals to function after they have become elongated.

We want to cue the deepest layer to come back online so we can increase the automatic response.

How do I cue the transverse abdominals?

Pick a position to work in. This can be sitting, standing, or laying down. Inhale to prepare and then pull your transverse abdominals in by imagining one of the following cues as you exhale:

  • bringing your ASIS (anterior superior iliac spine)—or hip bones—together.
  • Zipping up a pair of low hip hugger pants
  • Pulling your lower abdomen toward your spine
  • Your lower abs are squeezing in like a sponge
  • Vocalizing shhhh to encourage a low belly pull in