If you want a strong core, you have to work all your core muscles. That’s why transverse abdominis exercises are so important, since lots of people tend to forget about those deep core muscles when focusing on their abs.
Even though there are a ton of great abs exercises out there, many tend to favor your rectus abdominis (the muscles running vertically on the front of your abdomen) or your obliques (which run along the sides of your abdomen). But focusing on your transverse abdominis—located beneath your obliques—can help you build well-balanced core strength.
“The transverse abdominis is an intrinsic core stabilizer, which means it helps stabilize your core and spine to help your body function correctly,” Cori Lefkowith, Orange County, California–based personal trainer and founder of Redefining Strength, tells SELF.
This muscle is the deepest of the abdominal muscles and is often referred to as the “corset muscle,” because it wraps around your sides and spine, Lefkowith explains. (It doesn’t actually attach to your spine though.)
Strong transverse abdominis muscles also play an important role in keeping your back safe when you perform big, compound-move lifts during your workout, like deadlifts or squats, Baltimore-based personal trainer Sivan Fagan, owner of Strong With Sivan, tells SELF. “In order for you to perform these movements, you have to co-contract all the muscles of the core to maintain spine stiffness,” she says. “Think of the transverse like a built-in belt, so contracting it allows you to maintain proper pressure in the core.”
Stabilizing your spine also helps ensure that movement comes from your hips for these moves, not from your back. This translates into injury prevention in your everyday life too, like when you’re hoisting a bag of groceries or picking something up off the floor: “If you’re able to brace your core and move from your hips, then you’re reducing your risk of injury at your lumbar spine,” Fagan says.
How to activate your transverse abdominis
It can be difficult to recognize when you’re actually activating stabilizing muscles, like the transverse abdominis, explains Lefkowith. Whereas you can tell pretty quickly when you’re using some of your other muscles—for example, if you’re doing bicycle crunches properly, you’ll feel it in your obliques pretty quickly—it can be very difficult to know whether or not you’re engaging the deep muscles you can’t see or feel.
Lefkowith offers two suggestions for making sure you’re targeting the important but hidden muscles. “If you think about hollowing out your belly and drawing your belly button in toward your spine, you can learn to engage the muscle correctly,” she says. You can also try bracing to get it working. “You know you are engaging your core and contracting your transverse abdominis correctly when you tighten your stomach as if preparing to be punched in the gut,” says Lefkowith. “That reflexive tightening engages your abdominal muscles correctly.”
Aim to create that sensation the next time you do core or compound exercises. Since this muscle is often neglected, you really have to make a mental and physical effort to engage it, she adds.
The best transverse abdominis exercises
1. Dead Bug