Have you ever been in a workout class and heard “engage your core”? What do you do when you hear this?
You may flex your abdominal muscles. Your belly button moves back toward your spine. Maybe you squeeze your glutes. Or maybe you push your lower back into the floor.
But what does “engage your core” really mean? The cue to engage your core likely refers to activating the transverse abdominis (TrA).
The rectus abdominis/ “six pack abs” and obliques get a lot of attention in the commercial workout world, but the transverse abdominis really should be the stars of the show.
Located under the external obliques, internal obliques, and rectus abdominis, the transverse abdominis have attachments on the back at the iliac crest (what you may think of as your “hip bone”), between ribs 7-12, and along the thick connective tissue of the spine. In the front, the transverse abdominis links the sternum all the way down through the midline to the pubic bone and inguinal region (groin).
Think of the core as a canister. The diaphragm functions at the lid to the canister. The pelvic floor forms the base of the canister and the cylindrical walls of the canister are formed by the transverse abdominis and multifidus (along the spine). The canister image can be seen below.
The muscles of the canister stabilize your body with movement. The transverse abdominis also assists in breathing, pressure regulation, and supporting the viscera (organs).
In the past few years, awareness of diastasis recti has been growing. We are seeing women come into the clinic via direct access, referrals from midwives and physicians, and even recommendations from community fitness professionals.
Diastasis rehabilitation requires good motor control and activation of the transverse abdominis. But exercising the TrA isn’t just for women with diastasis.
A weak transverse abdominis can contribute to a plethora of issues like low back pain, hip pain, SI joint dysfunction, incontinence, prolapse, constipation, and pelvic pain just to name a few. Everyone can benefit from training the transverse.
Now how exactly do you activate the transverse abdominis?
Try this exercise at home:
Lay on your back and bend your knees
Place your thumbs just inside the hip bones
Take a gentle breath in and as you exhale imagine drawing your hip points toward each other
You should feel GENTLE tension under your fingers. If you feel a very strong muscle contraction, you likely are activating your obliques rather than the transverse.
If the cue to draw the hip points toward each other doesn’t work for you try the following cues:
- Imagine that your zipping up a tight pair of jeans
- Shrinkwrap your internal organs
- Draw your uterus (if you have one) back toward your spine
- Draw baby back toward your spine (if you are pregnant)
- Feel the tension in your abdomen when you perform a pelvic floor contraction. Let go of the kegel but keep the tension in your abdomen
Now try this:
Hold your breath and do a crunch.
Does your stomach puff out? Is there more pressure on the pelvic floor? Do you leak?
Now pre-engage the the transverse abdominis and crunch and exhale while you crunch up.
Is your stomach flatter? How does your pelvic floor feel? Do you feel stronger?
The second movement strategy is pelvic floor friendly. By engaging the transverse abdominis and exhaling with movement, you help regulate intra-abdominal pressure (pressure inside your abdomen).
We don’t live life laying on our backs; practice engaging the TrA in different positions and while moving. Try it in quadruped (hands in knees). Pre-engage as you roll in bed. Next time you lift your toddler up, engage the transverse abdominis and exhale.
It’s not just individuals rehabbing diastasis recti that need strong transverse abdominis muscles. Train the TrA and your pelvic floor, back, pelvis, and hips will thank you.
-Megan Fosko PT, DPT