For this week’s post I’d like to shine the light on our transverse abdominis, or TVA for short. The poor TVA is a misunderstood muscle that really doesn’t receive the love and attention it deserves.
When people train their abs, more often than not they hit the rectus abdominis, or the six pack abs, and the obliques. They might focus on the lower abs by doing some leg raises and the like as well, but there’s rarely any thought given to the transverse abdominis!
Why should you care about the transverse abdominis?
The TVA is a deep abdominal muscle that runs across the front half of our abdomen, stabilizing the trunk by compressing the ribs and internal organs. When we successfully contract our TVA during movements such as squatting, deadlifting, and overhead pressing, we are able to recruit the other small muscles that assist in keeping our bodies stable as well. Essentially, the transverse abdominis keeps us safe.
Which is all fine and dandy, but what about if you want ABS?
Think of the transverse abdominis as Mother Nature’s girdle.
In addition to keeping us safe while we perform every day tasks and badass movements in the gym, the TVA also acts as a natural corset, keeping the stomach flat. I see all these articles in magazines and on the internet about how to get a flat belly, and while some do include exercises that strengthen the TVA, if you don’t know how to activate it properly you’re not going to reap the benefits of the exercise.
Crunches and twists may get you a six pack and a pair of obliques, but if you have a weak TVA your stomach is still going to protrude. Not only that, how “shredded” our abs look largely depends on genetics, but also on our body fat percentages. Much to many women’s dismay, working on only the superficial abdominal muscles like the rectus abdominis and obliques without strengthening the transverse abdominis and reducing body fat can lead to a stomach that kind of just….bulges.
So how do you strengthen the transverse abdominis?
Strengthening the TVA is a little different than working all of the other abdominal muscles, but you’re not going to be doing millions of crunches so you can thank me later.
I like to begin training the TVA by practicing deep breathing techniques. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet planted on the ground. Gently place your hands on your stomach and as you take a biiiiig deep breath in, let your stomach fill with air and watch your hands rise. Don’t forcefully push your stomach out, but let it stick out as far as it will naturally as you inhale. As you exhale, imagine you’re pulling your bellybutton back into your spine, and watch your hands lower.
Repeat for at least 10 cycles of breath; more won’t hurt! This is a great way to cool down and relax at the end of a workout, or during a stressful day. Practicing these deep belly breaths not only helps us learn to activate the TVA, but also calms the nervous system and helps ease tension within our bodies.
Really pay attention to how your midsection feels when you’re imagining your bellybutton being drawn to your spine; that’s how your stomach should feel when you’re practicing any abdominal movement. I see people in the gym all the time doing flutter kicks, bicycles, and even basic crunches with their stomachs sticking out. This is not effective! Work at keeping that navel drawn in.
Once you’ve got the breathing technique, we can add some movement to the exercise. Don’t worry if it takes you a few days to get the hang of it – coordinating our breaths with movement can be a challenge for many!
Lying on the floor in the same position, we can now begin to raise one foot off the ground during the inhale, keeping the bend in the knee. As you exhale and pull that bellybutton in, slowly release your foot back to the ground. Don’t let your stomach stick out as you lower your leg! Perform 10 reps for each leg, for a total of 20 reps.
Feeling too easy? You can lie on your back and bring both feet off the ground, keeping your legs in a table top position. After you inhale and fill your stomach with air, exhale, draw the navel in, and lower one foot to the ground. Inhale to bring it back to starting position, and repeat on the other side. Again, 10 reps each side for a total of 20 leg drops.
If this is still feeling too easy for your, try to watch yourself in a mirror while doing this. Does your stomach rise up even the slightest amount as you drop your leg? If so, you aren’t performing the movement correctly and need to regress a bit. Which is totally okay! Many people don’t even know the TVA exists, let alone work at training it. But the great thing about training a new muscle is that often responds quickly so it won’t be long before you notice increases in its strength!
As your TVA gets stronger you can begin to drop both feet at the same time, and then add arm movements. There are tons of different variations to this exercise! The breathing technique can be practiced anywhere, at any time of day. While lying down is most effective for training purposes in my opinion, you can practice it seated or standing. I find it’s especially effective at calming me down when I’m super crazy stressed.
Incorporate these movements into your training routine, and you’ll soon find yourself feeling more stable during your heavy lifts and admiring your flatter stomach.
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