Transverse Abdominis Training
To activate your transverse abdominis, pull your belly inwards. Do this without allowing your ribcage to lift. When you pull your belly inwards using your transverse abdominis you should cause an exhale. Relaxing your transverse abdominis so that your belly expands, you should find that you naturally inhale.
Knowing when your transverse abdominis is activated
When pulling your belly inwards, a good hint that you are activating your transverse abdominis is that you can pull your belly inwards past the border of your ribcage and pelvis. If you find that you inhale when doing this then you aren't using your transverse abdominis. Instead, you are pulling your ribcage up and using suction to pull your belly inwards.
Generally, this type of activation, sucking the belly inwards, is accompanied by an inhale.
Using the transverse abdominis to pull the belly in should cause an exhale.
One way to get around this is to pull the front of your chest downwards as you pull your belly inwards. Once you get used to doing this (and exhaling while doing it), you can work towards keeping your ribcage still as you pull your belly in so that you can practice transverse abdominis activation in relative isolation.
The key point to note here is that using the transverse abdominis to pull the belly inwards should be accompanied by an exhale.
Why is the Transverse Abdominis Important?
If you keep your ribcage and pelvis still while pulling your belly in past the border of your ribcage and hip bones, you'll actually be using your transverse abdominis to lengthen the overlying obliques and rectus abdominis.
As you use your transverse abdominis to lengthen the obliques and rectus abdominis, they will activate to resist being stretched. This then gives you some control of the rate at which you pull your belly in. That's because the transverse abdominis works against the external obliques and/or rectus abdominis muscles.
This opposing muscle activation also creates sensation that allows you to feel your belly as you pull it inwards.
So, when you activate your transverse abdominis, not only do you get sensation, you get rectus abdominis and external oblique activation for free. And that means that you get stability of the hip bones, SI joints, ribcage, and lumbar spine as a side affect or "free bonus".
Keeping your transverse abdominis active while bending and twisting your spine
One advantage of using the transverse abdominis is that you can activate it easily and keep it activated no matter if the spine is bending, straightening, being kept neutral, or twisting.
One way that you can think of the transverse abdominis is that it allows you to adjust the operating length of the other abdominal muscles so that they can activate effectively when required, no matter what the spine is doing. This then allows you to stabilize the lumbar spine, hip bones and ribcage and to keep them stable.
Because the transverse abdominis doesn't directly affect the relationship between ribcage and hip bones (it does so via the obliques and rectus abdominis) this means that it is less affected by changes in the position of elements of the spine relative to each other.
Using your transverse abdominis during respiration
One way of training yourself in both feeling and controlling your transverse abdominis is using while breathing. You can activate your transverse abdominis to cause an exhale and then relax it to inhale.
Once you are used to activating your transverse abdominis to drive an inhale you can use this in various breathing patterns.
Breathing pattern options that utilize transverse abdominis activation
Some sample breathing patterns that can be used for transverse abdominis training include:
- Activating transverse abdominis to cause an exhale
- Relax to allow an exhale
- Activating transverse abdominis to cause an exhale
- Expanding ribcage to cause an inhale
- Relax both actions to exhale
- Expand ribcage or chest to cause an inhale
- Pull belly in to cause an exhale
- Relax both actions to continue the exhale
- Actively expand your belly using the respiratory diaphragm to inhale
- Pull your belly in using your transverse abdominis to cause an exhale
Using transverse abdominis control to pull your front ribs down
While activating and relaxing your transverse abdominis, one thing you can notice is how it affects your ribcage. Assuming your aren't deliberately keeping your ribcage still, what you may notice is that when you pull your belly inwards, you chest sinks down a slight amount. You can thus turn this into an exercise:
You can activate your transverse abdominis and use that activation to create a slight downwards pull on the front of your ribcage. When relaxing, allow your chest to lift.
Using transverse abdominis activation to pull upwards on ASICs and pubic bone
Another thing that you can notice is how repeated activation and relaxation of your transverse abdominis affects the forward-back tilt of your hip bones. Assuming you aren't deliberately keeping your pelvis still, when you activate your transverse abdominis you should be able to notice that your ASICs and pubic bone are pulled slightly upwards causing your hip bones to tilt backwards a slight amount. When you relax, the opposite movement occurs. You can turn this action into a transverse abdominis training exercise:
Activating your transverse abdominis, keep your ribcage still and pull upwards on your ASICs and/or pubic bone. When relaxing, allow these points to lower and return to their initial position.
Creating a stronger upwards pull on the front of your hip bones
To create a stronger upwards pull on the front of one or both hip bones, you can experiment with lifting your chest first and then pulling your belly inwards. While it can be easy to assume that the higher you lift your chest, the stronger the upwards pull you can generate on your ASICs and or pubic bone, play around with varying the amount of lift you give your ribcage.
Initially, try lifting your chest maximally, as high as possible, and then, subsequently, prevent your ribcage from moving while activating your transverse abdominis and creating an upwards pull on ASICs and pubic bone.
To further test your transverse abdominis, and your ability to keep your chest lift, try shifting to one foot and lifting a knee.
In the starting position my weight is over my back foot!
Note that with my leg lifted, my pelvis isn't level.
I'd suggest adjusting not for a level pelvis but so that both sides of your belly (and your lumbar spine) feel even.
A variation is to straighten the knee after lifting it. Or alternatively, lift the leg with the knee straight.
Note the sartorius activation. Another "benefit" of using the transverse abdominis is it can help to anchor hip flexors like the sartorius.
Particularly when lifting the leg with the knee straight, make sure that you activate your transverse abdominis first. Then, to make it easier to keep the action, gradually lift your leg while keeping the knee straight.
The standing knee can be bent or straight!
Repeat this basic hip flexing exercise with your chest lifted to varying degrees to find the optimum amount of chest lift.
Basic Transverse Abdominis training
A very basic transverse abdominis training exercise is to practice activating and then relaxing it in isolation.
While standing (with knees slightly bent to begin with) or sitting comfortably upright, slowly pull your belly in. Pause. Then slowly relax your belly.
1. Transverse Abdominis relaxed.
2.Transverse Abdominis activation so that Belly is pulled in.
To begin with, focus on keeping both your ribcage and your pelvis stationary while doing this.
I'd also suggest inhaling and exhaling through your nose.
When you pull your belly in, you should cause an exhale.
When releasing your belly, you should find yourself inhaling.
If you want to work at holding your belly pulled in, then allow your chest to lift and lower as you inhale and exhale.
Standing Side Bend
You can practice activating and relaxing your transverse abdominis while doing a standing side bend. Adjust the forward and backward tilt of your ribcage and hip bones so that your hips and lower back (and all other parts of your spine) are comfortable, and then maintain that position while activating and relaxing your transverse abdominis.
Don't be afraid to adjust the front/back tilt of your ribcage or hip bones.
An adjustment is a slight change in position. And actually, it can be repeated slight changes in position, like moving a radio tuning know one way and then the other, repeatedly to find the position of "best reception".
Try standing side bend with arms down first, it can make it easier to activate your transverse abdominis. Then when you add the arms, work at keeping it engaged.
You can try the same transverse abdominis exercise in a standing twist. With feet parallel or slightly turned out, turn your pelvis, and your ribcage and your head. Pull your belly in and see if you can deepen your twist gradually.
Once you get used to keeping your transverse abdominis engaged in the standing twist, work at lengthening your sacrum and thoracic spine to give them "feel". Use the feel, which is generated by activated muscles, to deepen your twist.
Flexing your Lumbar Spine
A variation of tilting your hip bones when pulling your belly in is to focus on feeling your lumbar spine "flattening" as you focus on lifting your pubic bone and/or ASICs.
The basic movement is the same, it's the focus, what you focus on "feeling" or "sensing" that changes.
On All Fours
On all fours you can try the same action, drawing your belly in so that your lumbar spine flattens.
Once you can do this comfortably, try lifting your knees after a full contraction.
You'll have to look closely at the picture to see that my knees are actually lifted. A good test of general awareness and control is to try to lift your knees just clear off of the floor.
From all Fours to Plank
From all fours, another option is to step back to plank after having activated your transverse abdominis.
It can be difficult to activate your transverse abdominis while you are in plank. The following steps can make it easier to activate your transverse abdominis and then keep it active as you move into plank.
The steps are:
- Pull your belly in
- Protract your shoulder blades
- Keep your ribcage and pelvis still as you step one foot back at a time.
Hold for a few breaths, then release and repeat.
Step your feet back slowly, so that it is easier to keep your torso still and your transverse abdominis engaged.
Lying on your back with knees bent and hips lifted, here too you can pull your belly in to activate your transverse abdominis.
Note the sensations that occur in your lumbar spine but also at the lower "rim" of your ribcage.
With your belly pulled in you can work at lifting your hips higher or otherwise deepening your spinal backbend.