5 Pilates Transverse Abdominis Exercises That Make You Look Inches Thinner

If your mom was like mine, you were told to “suck in your gut”–a lot. Instead of a one-time, death-grip-style squeeze; my loosey-goosey abs really needed some good Pilates transverse abdominis exercises to help them become (and stay) stronger. By activating this super-important muscle, you can immediately make yourself look inches thinner. Plus, you’ll save yourself from back pain in the future.

The transverse abdominis is such a tricky muscle. It’s hidden deep inside the body. People don’t really seem to talk about it. And, although it can make a huge impact on your daily life and happiness, no one is ever going to compliment you on your strong and healthy transversus. In fact, it wasn’t until I was studying Pilates in my mid-20s before I even knew it existed.

“Activate the transverse abdominis.” This is literally the first step in every single Pilates exercise in the STOTT PILATES training manual. What the heck is the transverse abdominis? I wondered.

I was embarrassed by my ignorance, but from my embarrassment sprung a determination to learn everything I possibly could about the transversus and how to make it strong. Luckily for me, I was in the right place–Pilates has the best transverse abdominis exercises!

Keep reading to find out all about the transverse abdominis and my top five favorite Pilates transverse abdominis exercises that make you look inches thinner.

Related: If looking good is just the icing on the cake and you’re really trying to relieve pain, download your free copy of The Secret to Immediate + Lasting Pain Relief.

What is the transverse abdominis?

The transverse abdominis, also known as the transversus, bridges the gap between your ribs and pelvis. This deep muscle helps support the ribs, pelvis, and vertebrae while serving as an anchor for your other abdominal muscles.

Because of its connection to the ribs, pelvis, and vertebrae; the transverse abdominis is one of many muscles determining whether or not you have back pain.

Many people think of the transverse abdominis muscle as the body’s natural corset. I, however, think of it as more like a sausage casing for three reasons:

  1. It keeps all the good stuff (your organs) inside.
  2. Like sausage casings, this thin muscle can be ripped or develop holes. When this happens, your internal organs can start to spill out through an umbilical hernia.
  3. I would much rather think about eating sausages than think about stuffing myself into a corset.

Aside from helping keep the right amount of space between ribs and hips and keeping your internal organs inside you, the transverse abdominis is an important muscle for breathing.

In fact, breathing is the main form of transverse abdominis activation. This means it’s the main way to work this crucial muscle.

So, whether you’re wanting a trimmer waist immediately or whether you’re wanting to relieve back pain ASAP, take a deep breath and keep reading to find out exactly what to do.

Where is the transverse abdominis?

Every muscle has an origin (starting point) and insertion (ending point).

The origin of the transverse abdominis is the “lateral one-third of the inguinal ligament, anterior two-thirds of inner lip of the iliac crest, thoracolumbar fascia and from the inner edges of the lower 6 costal cartilages.”

It inserts on “the linea alba by its aponeurosis.”

If all of that looked like a whole lot of medical blah, blah, blah don’t worry.

In plain English: Your transverse abdominis runs from the sides of the vertebrae in your low back in the space between the bottom of your rib cage and the top of your pelvis to your linea alba, which is that line that divides you right down the middle of your abdomen to give you six-pack abs.

What does the transversus do?

The transverse abdominis connects to the ribs, pelvis, and (indirectly) the spine. This means it helps stabilize the bony structure in your torso.

But, it’s more than just a skeletal stabilizer. The transversus also serves as a stabilizing structure for the other abdominal muscles. The internal obliques and external obliques (which lay on top of the transversus) can work correctly because of the stability from the transverse abdominis.

Because of the stability it provides and because of this muscle’s type of movement, the transverse abdominis has been called “your body’s natural corset.”

When the transversus contracts, it helps force air out through your nose or mouth. Mind you, I’m not talking about your average run-of-the-mill exhale here.

I’m talking about forced exhalation—the type you use when you cough or blow out candles. This is the amount of force required for transverse abdominis activation, and that’s why a simple exhale isn’t going to cut it.

But, what if this muscle doesn’t work…

When the transverse abdominis is weak or dysfunctional, it doesn’t support your skeletal structure or your other abdominal muscles. It also doesn’t correctly hold your organs inside your body cavity, and this dysfunction has a two-fold effect.

First, a weak transversus can tug on the low back (lumbar spine) and cause back pain. Second, when your internal organs spill out of your body, you look poochy and doughy.

Having a weak transverse abdominis can hurt your low back and your ego, but luckily, it’s a really easy muscle to strengthen.

5 Pilates Transverse Abdominis Exercises that Will Make You Look Inches Thinner

Since we already know the transverse abdominis is activated by breathing, it’s no surprise that breathing is the very best way to engage this important muscle. Specifically, you want to do Pilates breathing, which emphasizes exhaling like you’re blowing out candles.

Pro Tip: It’s incredibly important for you to pay attention to what you are doing as you breathe. Notice the muscles you’re using and make sure you don’t feel any pain in the bottom of your pelvis. If you do feel pain, you need to stop immediately.

1. Pilates breathing

The very best Pilates transverse abdominis exercise is breathing. And, since you need to breathe throughout your workout, it’s easy to strengthen your transverse abdominis during every single Pilates exercise.

Pilates breathing isn’t very difficult to incorporate, but it’s really important for you to set your body up in the correct position before you begin doing your exercise. If you’re going to strengthen muscles, you want them to be working correctly, right?

Below, you’ll learn how to practice Pilates breathing while sitting up, on your back, and on your hands and knees. You might be wondering, Breathing? Really?

Yes, I know it sounds kind of hokey and maybe even too good to be true. But, when you pay attention to your muscles when you’re breathing, you’re focusing on strengthening the one muscle that can control whether or not you look poochy. It’s worth a try, right?

Then, once you’ve mastered Pilates breathing, take what you’ve learned and apply it to the other Pilates transverse abdominis exercises in this list.

Seated Breathing

Just like you’d think, you’ll practice this Pilates transverse abdominis exercise while you’re seated. You can be in a chair, on the floor, driving your car–anywhere you sit.

picture of Sarah Stockett practicing pilates breathing
  1. Sit comfortably next to a wall. Feel yourself connect down to the floor beneath you. Sit up tall.
  2. Make sure to relax the front of your hips. Let your shoulder blades sit on the back of your rib cage like a superhero cape resting on your back.
  3. Inhale through your nose and feel your rib cage expand to the front, sides, and back.
  4. Make sure your rib cage didn’t open forward like it’s spilling out your internal organs. (Not sure what the heck I’m talking about? Check out this post about rib cage placement.)
  5. Exhale through pursed lips and feel your muscles between your ribs and hips evenly draw toward the center of your abdomen.
  6. Inhale and exhale, feeling how your muscles move away from and toward a central point in the middle of your abdomen.

Pro tip: Feel your waist constrict as you exhale, and you’re doing it right!

Breathing on Your Back

Do you ever wake up in the morning and wish you could take a magic pill to have better posture or a smaller waist? If you do, this exercise is for you!

Before you even leave the comfort of your bed, you can practice this Pilates transverse abdominis breathing exercise. Then, when you stand up afterward, you’ll feel like the very best version of yourself!

a picture of Sarah Stockett in a neutral position on her back
  1. Come onto your back.
  2. Have your knees bent and your heels about a fist’s distance apart.
  3. Make sure your rib cage is perfectly aligned so it’s pointing right down to your pelvis. (Check this by placing your hands on the sides of your ribs so your fingers are in the front and your thumbs are around back. Slide your hands along your ribs to see if they’re angled straight down toward your pelvis or if they’re angled more toward your thigh.)
  4. If your ribs are slightly angled up, give yourself a little scratch between your bottom ribs, and the muscle you need should kick in and tuck your ribs. 
  5. Keep your excellent rib-to-hip connection and breathe in through your nose, out through pursed lips.
  6. Complete several rounds of breathing.

Breathing on Your Hands + Knees

Of the three breathing exercises, this one is the hardest. Although we’re not often on our hands and knees during the day (so this isn’t as handy to practice as Seated Breathing), this exercise is still extremely effective to strengthen the transverse abdominis and build core strength.

Sarah Stockett practicing Pilates transverse abdominis activation
  1. Begin on your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
  2. Spread your fingers like starfish, and press the floor away. As you do this, the eyes of your elbows will rotate toward the front of the mat. If the insides of your elbows are facing each other or your thighs, you need to think about opening across the front of your chest and really pushing down into the floor.
  3. Bring your pelvis to a neutral position. When you do this, your SITs bones should be pointing to the wall behind you. (So, it’s going to feel like you’re sticking your butt out at whichever wall is behind you. Just make sure you don’t let your low back get all saggy when you do this.) Stretch from your SITs bones through the top of your head. Make sure that your chin is slightly tucked so that your head is in neutral.
  4. Once your pelvis is in neutral, think of hugging your belly toward that spot you found right in the center of your abdomen. Make sure you don’t move your spine.
  5. Press the tops of your feet into your mat.
  6. Once you’ve got everything set to the best of your ability, breathe in through your nose. Exhale through pursed lips like you’re blowing out candles.
  7. Hold here for several rounds of breath.

2. Pilates Table top

Pilates Table top shows up in the Pilates workout most often as a transition. However, there are absolutely no unimportant steps in a Pilates workout. By mastering Pilates Table top now, you’ll strengthen your transverse abdominis and other core muscles now. Then, when you move on to more challenging exercises, you’ll have a solid foundation of core strength.

Sarah Stockett doing the pilates table top exercise
  1. Begin on your back with your knees bent, heels in line with your SITs bones. (Your SITs bones are your sacral ischial tuberosities, but most people just call them the SITs bones because they’re the bones that press into the mat when you sit on your bottom.) Or, you can just separate your feet a fist’s distance apart.
  2. Relax your shoulders away from your ears.
  3. Make sure your spine is in neutral.
  4. If your abdominals are weak, make a triangle with your hands by connecting your pointer fingers and thumbs. Place this under your tailbone (sacrum) to help keep your pelvis neutral throughout the exercise. Otherwise, let your arms rest by your side.
  5. Take a nice, deep inhale. Feel your torso fill with air.
  6. Completely exhale. Feel the air leave your abdominal cavity and chest, but don’t let your spine move. At the end of your exhale, you should feel completely deflated.
  7. While keeping the muscles active that connect your ribs to your hips, inhale through your nose into the sides of your ribs. I think of trying to close any space between my armpits and my ribs.
  8. As you exhale through pursed lips, lift one leg so the knee is directly over the hip. Make sure the ankle is in line with the knee. Lift the other leg so they match. Either flex, point, or floint your foot at the ankle. (When you floint, your foot looks like it’s wearing an invisible high-heeled shoe. This is a great option for those who get foot cramps.)
  9. Hug your inner thighs (adductors) together so you can feel both your adductors and your abdominals working.
  10. Hold and inhale into the sides of your ribs.
  11. Exhale through pursed lips and set one foot down, then the other.
  12. You can do this exercise as many times as you’d like. It is key, however, to pay attention to your form. As soon as your form starts to deteriorate, it’s time to stop.

3. Hip lift

Hip lift is such a fun exercise! Fighting the urge to let yourself roll through your spine is much harder than you think. But, I promise you, the more you practice, the easier it gets.

Pro tip: The bigger lifts are actually much easier than the small lifts.

picture of Sarah Stockett doing the pilates exercise hip lift
  1. Begin on your back with your knees bent; heels in line with your SITs bones.
  2. Reach your arms by your sides, and broaden your collarbones.
  3. Take a moment to double-check that your spine and pelvis are completely in neutral. You should feel your sacrum (tailbone) press into the floor beneath you.
  4. Notice how your ribs and pelvis form a container of sorts for your internal organs.
  5. Inhale into the sides of your ribs, and activate the abdominal muscles that connect your ribs and hips.
  6. Exhale through pursed lips, press into your feet, and engage your core muscles– especially the glutes. Lift your pelvis and low back up off the floor in one piece. Avoid rolling one vertebra at a time like you would for hip rolls or a Pilates bridge.
  7. Lift however high you’d like while maintaining neutral position.
  8. Inhale into the sides of your ribs.
  9. Exhale and lower straight down. If you feel like your pelvis moves to find neutral, you didn’t quite do the exercise correctly. When you lower down, you should be in your starting position.
  10. Do 5-10 repetitions.

4. Dying bug

Dying bug is one of my absolute favorite Pilates exercises. This is because there are so many variables that you can use to make this exercise as hard or as easy as you’d like. The version below is the very easiest version. Don’t be fooled, though—it’s still really effective.

picture of Sarah Stockett showing how to do a basic dying bug exercise
  1. Come onto your back. Have your knees bent and your heels about a fist’s distance apart.
  2. Make sure your rib cage is perfectly aligned so it’s pointing right down to your pelvis. If your ribs are slightly angled up, give yourself a little scratch between your bottom ribs, and the muscle you need should kick in and tuck your ribs. Keep your excellent rib-to-hip connection throughout the entire exercise.
  3. Reach both arms straight toward the ceiling with your palms facing each other.
  4. Warning: You’re going to do two things at once and your brain is going to have to work.
  5. Inhale through your nose and hinge your right arm so it moves in a straight line toward the ground as your left leg slides out straight.
  6. Exhale through pursed lips and bring your right arm and left leg back to center.
  7. Inhale through your nose and hinge your left arm so it moves in a straight line toward the ground as your right leg slides out straight.
  8. Exhale through pursed lips and bring your left arm and right leg back to center.
  9. This makes one set. Complete about 10 sets.

Pro Tip: Make sure you keep your rib-to-hip connection nice and strong throughout the entire exercise.

5. The Hundred

Plain and simple, the Pilates Hundred exercise is a core-strengthener with a kick!

Yes, this is an ab exercise. However, you also get to squeeze your adductors (inner thighs) together.

This means you get to target two of your four main core muscles. (Sorry, spinal muscles and gluteus maximus, you’ll have to work out later.)

picture of Sarah Stockett doing the pilates hundred exercise
  1. Begin on your back with your knees bent, heels in line with your SITs bones. Make sure your pelvis and your whole spine are in neutral. Arms reach by your sides with broad collarbones and energy reaching out your fingertips.
  2. Let your abdominals completely relax toward your spine.
  3. Inhale into the sides of your ribs, and lightly activate your abdominals to keep this hollowed-out abdominal position. Make sure your spine (including your head and pelvis) have stayed in neutral.
  4. Exhale, lift one leg up to Table top, followed by the other leg.
  5. Hug your inner thighs together to engage your adductors. Fun fact, in 75% of people, there is a direct correlation between adductor and abdominal work. When the adductors work, it sometimes cues your abdominals to work, too.
  6. Inhale into the sides of the ribs and, as you exhale, hinge at the bottom rib to lift your upper body as if you are doing an Ab prep.
  7. If you have a neck injury, leave your head and upper body on the floor. If you are unable to keep your pelvis in neutral with your legs lifted to Table top, place your feet back on the floor. 
  8. Reach your legs out on a forty-five-degree angle without changing the shape of your spine and position of your pelvis. If your spine or pelvis have moved, bring your legs up toward the ceiling, bend your knees or even set your feet back on the floor. What is most important is the position of the spine and pelvis! If you cannot leave these in neutral, don’t extend your legs.
  9. As you inhale and exhale, you will pump your arms by your sides. The movement comes from the shoulders, not the wrists. The arms should not raise above your rib cage and should not drop so low as to touch the floor.
  10. Inhale through your nose for five counts. Exhale through pursed lips for five counts. Five plus five is ten. We do ten sets to make our Hundred.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Pilates Transverse Abdominis

Even though you’ve undoubtedly learned so much about how to use Pilates exercises to strengthen your transverse abdominis, you might still have some questions. Below, I’ve answered the most common questions you might still be wondering about the Pilates transverse abdominis.

1. Does Pilates strengthen the transverse abdominis?

Yes, Pilates absolutely strengthens the transverse abdominis. Breathing is at the root of every Pilates exercise you do. This means that when you breathe in the Pilates style, every single Pilates exercise is working to strengthen your transverse abdominis.

2. What exercise targets the transverse abdominis?

The very best exercise that targets the transverse abdominis is Pilates breathing. It’s easy. It’s safe. But most importantly, you can do it anytime, anywhere.

That being said, once you’ve mastered Pilates breathing, you can use this breath to strengthen your core while doing any of your favorite activities. Working out, paddleboarding, cleaning your house, learning how to solve a Rubik’s cube–any activity can target the transverse abdominis when you use Pilates breathing while doing whatever makes you happy.

3. How do you strengthen your transverse abdominal muscles?

The best way to strengthen your transverse abdominal muscles is to practice the Pilates breathing technique. By specifically exhaling like you’re blowing out birthday candles, you’re activating your transverse abdominis. 

Keep in mind, your normal breath doesn’t activate your transverse abdominis; instead, you’re using a muscle called your diaphragm.

Here’s a link to a video that teaches you how to do Pilates breathing. Then, once you know how to practice this breathing style, you can use it and strengthen your transverse abdominis muscles whenever and wherever you want.

4. What is the TVA in Pilates?

Your TVA is your deepest abdominal muscle, also called the transverse abdominis. The reason why you talk about the TVA in Pilates is because this important (and often ignored muscle) is responsible for your breathing. When you use the Pilates breathing technique, you strengthen the TVA. This breathing technique is what makes it possible to work the TVA in almost every Pilates exercise.

5. Can you overwork your transverse abdominis?

You bet you can! The transverse abdominis is a muscle that helps contain your internal organs within the open area between the bottom of your rib cage and your pelvis. 

When the transverse abdominis is overworked, it can thin and a hole can develop. This hole is called a hernia. If you have a hernia, you will need surgery to have it repaired. 
There’s no way to permanently fix a hernia yourself–trust me, I tried. To learn more about transverse abdominis hernias and my experience with an umbilical hernia, check out Transverse Abdominis Hernia | Are You Going to Need Surgery?.

Want more Pilates transverse abdominis exercises?

If you’re searching for even more transversus exercises, check out:

Searching for other exercises to relieve your back pain?

Practicing the Pilates transverse abdominis exercises that you’ve learned today is just one of several steps to permanently relieve back pain. It’s not hard, but it does take commitment to yourself.

If you’re ready to learn the exercises your body needs to permanently relieve your aches + pains and make you feel younger, check out Spinal Rejuvenation.

Or, if you want a little taste of what Spinal Rejuvenation will teach you, download your free copy of The Secret to Immediate + Lasting Pain Relief.

Thank you to Kenhub.com for the above image and information about the anterior abdominal muscles (such as the transverse abdominis).

About Sarah Stockett

Hi, I'm Sarah! I'm a certified Pilates and yoga instructor with a passion for pain relief. I believe you can use simple exercises to relieve your aches + pains. AND, I believe I can teach you how.


  1. Anna on January 27, 2018 at 11:20 am

    Very useful text. Thank you!

    • Sarah Stockett on January 27, 2018 at 12:41 pm

      Thank you, Anna!