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:
- Rectus abdominis
- External oblique
- Internal oblique
- Transversus abdominis
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
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
Everyone is different and it’s best to try the cue that works for you.
Finding your pelvic floor muscles
You might have noticed that if you engaged the transverse abdominals your pelvic floor muscles also activated, or vice versa. This is exactly what we want to happen!
Sometimes, often when postpartum, we will start training in isolation, one at a time. The goal is progressing to being able to engage both the transverse abdominals and the pelvic floor muscles without holding your breath and during movements like picking up your baby or a bag of groceries.
Finding your pelvic floor muscles again can be equally as challenging. Inhale, then as you exhale, contract your pelvic floor muscles up and in (as in a kegel).
Pull your pelvic floor muscles in by imagining:
- Pulling your tailbone towards your pubic bone
- Pulling your tailbone up towards your belly button
- Lifting a lentil with the labia
- Stopping the flow of urine
- Stopping the flow of gas
Do I only need to practice contracting my transverse abdominals?
Nope! Like life, it’s about balance.
We want to make sure the deepest stabilizing layer pulls its weight but we also want to make sure we are able to flex our trunk, like crunching to get out of bed (if you are cleared to not roll to your side first). We also want to have enough strength to rotate our spine and control the counter-rotation.
You can practice pulling your lower belly in while:
- you are in arm leg extension
- abdominal wall progressions (see safe exercise progressions for diastasis rectus abdominus)
- coming in and out of Chair Pose (which is hopefully how you lift up groceries!)
Can I over do it?
Yes, you can over-train your transverse abdominals, especially if you are experiencing pelvic pain.
Sometimes we hold in our belly all day (like when I was a professional dancer) and never letting the muscles rest. This can lead to over gripping strategies in the abdomen and pelvic floor. Much like you wouldn’t want to hold your hand in a fist all day, it’s not ideal to hold your abdomen or pelvic floor in all day.
Again, it comes back to balance, what the individual body needs, and how we can best support their system. If you have any questions about how your pelvic floor muscles and abdominal wall are working together, please see your local physical or occupational therapist.
For more yoga-inspired core exercises, check out
Optimizing Bladder Control
Each clearly-demonstrated movement is designed to increase core strength and coordination to optimize bladder function and strengthen your pelvic floor.