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March 12, 2022 10 min read

When it comes to ab exercises in popular workout routines, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on the core—and this is for good reason. The core muscles connect our upper and lower bodies together and enable us to efficiently transfer power across our bodies. Not to mention that a  shredded core always looks fantastic.

However, when it comes to these ab workouts, there tends to be a lot of attention placed on the rectus abdominis and oblique muscles. While the former makes up the well-known six-pack abs, the latter rubs down the sides to create a cut silhouette. But there’s one important part missing from this equation.

Enter the transverse abdominis (or TVA) muscle group. It’s one of the most important core muscles, and also one of the most often ignored when trying to develop the core. Although it may not be as sexy as the rectus abdominis or even the obliques, it more than makes up for it with its functionality.

What’s in a Transverse Abdominis?

Also known as the transverse abdominal, transversus abdominis, transversalis, or simply the “TVA,” this muscle makes up the deepest layer of abdominal muscles. It’s found on the forward side of the abdominal wall, sitting right underneath the external oblique muscle and part of the rectus abdominis. It’s known comes from the direction that the muscle fibers are laid out—transversely across your abdomen (horizontally). The transverse abdominis muscle wraps around your sides, spanning from the lower ribs down to your pelvis.

Because of its location and characteristics, it’s also known as the corset muscle. Its main role is in the stabilization and protection of the spine in every single activity you do—whether you’re simply walking around or playing a high contact sport. Along with stabilizing our spine, the TVA muscle also maintains abdominal wall tension and helps to protect internal organs. To better understand how it functions and how to implement it in our training, let’s see what it takes to activate it.

Activating the TVA Muscle

When it comes to mirror muscles like the biceps, it’s easy to know when they’re engaged—all you have to do is flex your arms. This also makes it easy to tell if you’re doing bicep exercises properly because you can physically see them activate during the movement. The same isn’t the case for deeper muscles like the transverse abdominis. If you’re a beginner, it might take some time to learn when the TVA is properly engaged since it lies fairly deep in our abdomen. There are a couple of different methods for learning how to activate your transverse abdominis. 

Method one involves simply trying to engage the correct muscles. Bring your hands down to your lower abdomen, close to your pelvic bone. If you engage your core (but continue breathing normally), you should feel your transverse abdominis contracting slowly. The other method is known as the abdominal drawing-in maneuver, or ADIM. It’s also known as stomach hollowing since you’re meant to draw in your stomach area until it looks hollow.

Begin by lying on the ground with your feet flat on the floor. Put two of your fingers along the top of your hip bones and then move them an inch down and an inch inward. After taking a deep breath and exhaling, engage your abdominal muscles. You should feel your TVA activating as you do this. It’s helpful to imagine trying to bring your belly button towards your spine. However, don’t think of the movement as a breathing-in or sucking-in motion.

Benefits of a Strong TVA

The transverse abdominis is the deepest of the core muscles, and therefore, it’s one of the most foundational for a well-functioning core. This means that strengthening this area can bring plenty of benefits—even ones that might not at first appear too obvious. While it might be a given that training the deepest abdominal muscle can help us with activities that require a strong core, there are even aesthetic factors that can come into play and benefit from a workout routine that gives due diligence to developing the TVA.

Aesthetics

We’ve been talking about how the transverse abdominis isn’t one of your conventional mirror muscles. It’s not going to be obvious to anyone that you’ve got a strong TVA, and it’s definitely not going to “pop.” So, how does it impact aesthetics? Because of the location and direction of this muscle, and the fact that it looks like a corset, the TVA has the ability to make your waist look smaller.

While it’s going to be the rectus abdominis that’s responsible for washboard abs, the transverse abdominis can have a cinching effect on your waist. This can help you achieve the much sought-after V-taper. Add some strong lats into the mix and the effect will be magnified significantly more. But even though there are some aesthetic benefits, that’s not the primary reason you should be including these core exercises in your workout.

Risk of Injuries

The stronger your transverse abdominis, the less prone to injury you’ll be. While this goes for most muscle groups in the body, it’s especially true for the TVA. Since the transverse abdominis is so critical to stabilizing your spine, it’s going to go a long way in keeping it protected from injuries. This becomes particularly important if you’re performing heavy lifts such as squats or deadlifts. Training in this area will also teach you how to properly brace all of your core muscles, which will help when it comes to lifting heavy things in day-to-day life.

When it comes to preventing and alleviating lower back pain, the transverse abdominis is going to play a critical role. With a stronger TVA, your spine will be better supported and you’ll be significantly better protected from  lower back pain. But while this has been seen in many different studies, it’s still not recommended to use TVA exercises as a one-size-fits-all treatment for low back pain. Although it will work in some individuals, only a doctor or health care practitioner should recommend these exercises for medical reasons.

Athletic Performance

We use our core for stability and to optimally transfer power between our lower and upper bodies. It’s an integral part of athletics and the functional movements we perform on a daily basis. And since the transverse abdominis’ primary role is in stabilizing the core itself, it’s going to come into play a lot. Developing the strength of our TVA is going to have great carry-over benefits to other exercises and movements we do.

Heavy lifts in particular will benefit from a stronger core, because not only will a strong TVA keep us safe from potential injuries, but it’ll also help to balance us and to efficiently transfer power. If squats and deadlifts are a regular thing in your workout routines, developing the transverse abdominis may help your performance. The same goes for all sorts of sports that require balance and power.

The Best Transverse Abdominis Exercises

Now that we’re well acquainted with the transverse abdominis, we’ll better understand how to properly engage and develop this area. While these exercises are important, you also want to remember not to overdo it with the core exercises. Most compound movements require the core to be engaged to some degree, so odds are that you’re already getting a core workout from seemingly unrelated exercises.

However, these movements shine in showing us how to properly activate this area and to take it to the next level. Therefore, use these workouts as supplementary movements to add to your routine rather than other, more important compound movements. Without further ado, here are seven of the best core exercises that place an emphasis on the transverse abdominis.

1. Dead Bug

 

Starting the list off strong with a funny-sounding name is the dead bug exercise. This movement is specially tuned to hit the transverse abdominis, and it does this by developing your contra-lateral limb engagement. That’s a fancy way of saying that the exercise works opposing sets of limbs together (for example, your right arm, and your left leg). And this really comes down to watch the core is all about: transferring power between body parts and allowing them to work together. We use this in a manner of activities and sports, such as basketball and football. Like a wormy apple, the dead bug really gets to the core of what the core is supposed to be all about.

To perform the dead bug:

  1. Begin by lying on your back on the floor. Extend your arms straight up and bend your hips and knees 90-degrees—this will be your starting position. Ensure that your core is engaged with your lower back fully in contact with the floor.
  2. Initiate the movement by bringing your right arm up behind you and towards the floor above your head. As you do this, extend your left leg down towards the floor below you. Don’t allow either your hand or your heel to touch the floor, but get as close as you can. Your other limbs should remain perfectly still.
  3. Pause in the bottom position before reversing the movement and alternating sides—this is one repetition.

2. Bird Dog

 

Continuing with the strangely named exercises, we have the bird dog. Along with the TVA muscle, this exercise also hits the erector spinae muscle—another important muscle group for maintaining the stability of our spine. To a lesser degree, you’ll also be engaging the glutes, traps, and delts. The key is to perform this exercise slow and steady to increase the time under tension and elicit more gains.

To perform the bird dog:

  1. Get on your hands and knees. Your hands should be set about shoulder-width apart while your knees should be kept hip-width apart. Make sure that your abdominals are engaged throughout the movement.
  2. Point your left arm straight in front of you while extending the right leg straight behind you. You should aim to form a straight line between your foot and your hand.
  3. Hold this position for a few seconds before reversing the movement and alternating sides to the opposite arm and leg. This will count as one rep.  

3. Donkey Kicks

 

Finishing off our animal kingdom-based exercises is the donkey kick. Along with being a great way to target the abdominals, this exercise is also popular for those working on their glutes. This is a good exercise for beginners to add to their repertoire.

To perform donkey kicks:

  1. Begin on the ground on your hands and knees. Your knees should be hip-width apart while your hands will be shoulder-width apart.
  2. Initiate the movement by lifting up one of your legs by hinging at the hip, keeping the knee bent at the same angle.
  3. Press your foot up towards the ceiling as far as it’ll go. Pause at the top of the movement before bringing it back down and alternating sides.

4. Hollow-Body Hold

 

This is an intermediate-level core exercise that promises to burn through your abdominals. It works because it relies on maximum tension throughout your abdominals, and there are few better ways to develop your stability and core strength. The Pilates 100 movement is another popular exercise performed in Pilates. It’s similar to the hollow body hold but requires some arm movement and breathing techniques. This is how to perform the hollow body hold:

To perform the hollow-body hold:

  1. Lying down on the floor on your back, keep your arms outstretched beside you.
  2. Activate the core and raise your legs about 2 to 3 inches off the ground. As you do this, raise your head 1 to 2 inches off the ground and bring your arms up and behind your head, extending them out without touching the floor.
  3. Maintain contact and balance through your lower back. Hold this position for as long as possible.

5. Russian Twists

 

Unlike all of the bodyweight exercises we’ve had so far, this one can be done using a weight to add an extra level of challenge. Along with your core, Russian twists also hit your shoulders—especially when using a weight. When it comes to the core muscles, they primarily target the obliques and the transverse abdominis.

To perform the Russian twists:

  1. Sit down on the ground with your feet in front of you. Then, lift your feet off the ground while keeping your knees bent. Your back should be in a neutral position and your torso should form a 45-degree angle with your thighs.
  2. Grasping a weight (either dumbbell or kettlebell) in front of you, twist your legs to one side while you twist your arms to the other side. Continue by alternating sides.

6. Scissor Kicks

 

Scissors kicks are a good exercise to hit your entire core, including the transverse abdominis. They also offer a large bang for your buck since they’ll challenge you with some cardio conditioning as well. If you’re looking to shed some belly fat to let the more flashy abdominal muscles shine, scissor kicks are an excellent workout for a well-rounded and shredded core.

To perform scissor kicks:

  1. Begin by lying down on your back with your arms by your sides and legs together.
  2. Lift both legs up off the floor before slightly bringing them apart into a V shape. Your core should be engaged throughout this movement. Also, make sure that your legs are kept straight.
  3. Initiate the movement by bringing your legs together and crossing them, one over the other. Bring them back into the V shape and continue by alternating the top and bottom leg.

7. Planks

 

Planks are one of the most ubiquitous abdominal exercises out there, and for good reason. There’s nothing like the humble plank to ensure that we’re gassing out our abdominal muscles, including the transverse abdominis. However, planks come in a  variety of flavors that all hit your core in a slightly different way. Depending on what you’re going for, different variations will serve your needs better than others. These variations include:

  • Plank to side plank
  • Forearm plank
  • Plank with arm/leg lift
  • Up and down planks
  • Shoulder tap plank

But there are many other variations to pick from. We’ll be looking closer at the forearm plank.

To perform planks:

  1. Get down into a push-up position with your hands below your shoulders. Then, get down on your forearms so that your toes and forearms are supporting your weight.
  2. This is the plank position you’ll have to hold—challenge yourself by holding for as long as you’re able to. Ensure that your abdominals are properly engaged and that your back is kept straight.

A Strong Deep Core for a Stronger Body

The core is an important part of a well-functioning body, and in turn, the transverse abdominis is an important part of a well-functioning core. With properly implemented TVA muscle workouts, you can elevate your core stability and overall wellness. However, to make the most out of these exercises you’re going to need a clean diet and plenty of rest time. You can’t out-train a bad diet, and this goes doubly true for things concerning the core.

You might not be emphasizing the sexiest of the core muscles with these workouts, but you’ll be hitting the “core” of the core. You’re going to need to fuel this progress with the right sources of protein, carbs, and fats. Only once all the basic tenets of a healthy lifestyle have been achieved can we really begin to fully optimize our training—whether we decide to focus on the flashiest of the muscles, or the most foundational.