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 transverse abdominis activation exercises to help them get (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 was embarrassed. From my embarrassment sprung a determination to learn everything I possibly could about the transversus.
Keep reading to find out all about the transverse abdominis—including how to use transverse abdominis activation to make yourself look inches thinner.
Related: If looking good is just the icing on the cake and you’re really trying to relieve pain, download this free guide to learn 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:
- It keeps all the good stuff (your organs) inside.
- 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.
- 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 vertebrae 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.
How to Master Transverse Abdominis Activation and 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.
The Only Transverse Abdominis Activation Exercise You’ll Need
We’re going to practice the Pilates style of breathing. It’s not very difficult to do, but it’s really important for you to set your body up in the correct position before you begin doing the exercise. If you’re going to strengthen muscles, you want them to be working correctly, right?
We’re going to start breathing sitting up. Then, you’ll move onto your back and breathe there. Finally, you’ll come up onto your hands and knees and breathe there.
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?
1. Seated Breathing
- Sit comfortably next to a wall. Feel yourself connect down to the floor beneath you. Sit up tall.
- 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.
- Inhale through your nose and feel your rib cage expand to the front, sides, and back.
- 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.)
- Exhale through pursed lips and feel your muscles between your ribs and hips evenly draw toward the center of your abdomen.
- Inhale and exhale, feeling how your muscles move away from and toward a central point in the middle of your abdomen.
Feel your waist constrict as you exhale, and you’re doing it right!
2. Breathing on Your Back
- Come onto your back.
- Have your knees bent and your heels about a fist’s distance apart.
- 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.)
- 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 and breathe in through your nose, out through pursed lips.
- Complete several rounds of breathing.
3. Breathing on Your Hands + Knees
- Begin on your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Press the tops of your feet into your mat.
- 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.
- Hold here for several rounds of breath.
Want more transverse abdominis activation exercises?
If you’re searching for even more transversus exercises, check out:
- How to Tell If Your Transverse Abdominis Is Weak (and 3 Easy Exercises to Fix It)
- Pilates Leg Slides–the Essential Exercise for DIY Hip and Back Pain Therapy
- How to Use Pilates Spinal Rotation for Back Pain Relief
Searching for other exercises to relieve your back pain?
Practicing transverse abdominis activation 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).