I hear instructors throwing the word “Transverse” around in exercise and yoga classes. What is it and who cares?
The transverse abdominis is the deepest layer of abdominal muscles as seen in the picture below where the ribs are exposed on the right side. On top of deep transverse abdominis lies the internal oblique, layered with external oblique and rectus abdominis on top (on the left side).
When we exhale and the diaphragm lifts the belly naturally falls. To feel the transverse muscle first lie on your back and breath, place your hands on your belly and feel the belly rise and fall with the breath. Observe how the belly falls as the air rushes out. At the end of your next exhale let the belly fall then try to draw it in a little deeper, poke around and feel your abdominals gently contract. This drawing in is activating the transverse abdominis.
Many forms of exercise have names for stabilizing the spine. In the Gyrotonic method we call this “narrowing the pelvis;” in yoga “mulabanda;” in PT “draw the belly in”. Yes “drawing in the belly” is simplified, stabilization exercises also engage the pelvic floor muscles. The pelvic floor muscles deserve their own blog, perhaps next week. When people mention “the Core” there are many muscles working from superficial stabilizers (Transverse, multifidi, pelvic floor and diaphragm) to the superficial muscles (adductors, external oblique, latisimus, glute med) depending on the movement. Also intertwined in our complex bodies are fascia, nerves, joints and other structures that assist and resist movement. The transverse abdominis is just one very important part of the body’s orchestra.
In the late 1990’s two researchers, Hodges and Richardson, discovered that the transverse muscle was connected to low back pain. They began doing studies on healthy control subjects and subjects with low back pain to look at the timing of muscle recruitment, also referred to as motor control. They inserted fine-wire electromyography (EMG) electrodes into transverse abdominis (deepest abdominal muscle), the internal oblique and external oblique (the sexy V-shape muscles on the sides of the belly), the rectus abdominis (the “6 pack”) and Multifidi (deep back muscle). First they looked at what happened with these muscles during movements of the hip, then movements of the arms in different directions in healthy people. With each study they found that irrespective of direction the Transversus abdominis contracted BEFORE any movement occurred. In other words the brain said “move arm”, the transverse contracted and then the arm moved.
Yes! A very exciting discovery. Before the muscles of the leg or arm even contracted the transverse abdominis contracted.
Even more exciting in 1996, Hodges and Richardson discovered that the subjects with low back pain had a different pattern, their superficial limb muscles contracted before the transverse abdominis. Hence low back pain had a direct link to the delay in the contraction of the transverse muscle. The poor recruitment of the transverse caused increased sheer and decreased stability of the spine with arm and leg movements. This led to a change in the physical therapy paradigm for treating low back pain. Since this research came out there has been a dramatic shift to lumbar stability programs and a drawing in of the transverse abdominals to stabilize the spine before moving. No longer was physical therapy of the spine just Williams flexion (knees to chest) or McKenzie extension (prone prop), now it is “lumbar stability’! Lumbar stability programs are used to prevent back pain, to correct back pain, and to prevent reoccurrence of back pain. The importance of engaging the transverse muscle before and while moving has become more widely mentioned in the exercise world as well.
How do we get from breathing on the floor to playing tennis again? This is a gradual progression with repetition and practice. Now that you can draw your belly in with the breath. Try to draw your belly in then lift one leg. Then exhale and lift an arm. Gradually add more movement after the drawing in and maintaining the flat belly. Continue to retrain and practice engaging transverse abdominis before moving through out the day.
Here is one progression to get you started:
1) Exhale draw in the abdominal muscles. Flatten your abdominals towards the floor, avoid using your gluteal/buttox muscles to do this. Remember naturally your belly lifts when you inhale and naturally falls when you exhale. On the exhale gently draw the bell in deeper. Repeat 10-20 times until you feel the abdominals contract with out tension in the neck.
2) Exhale draw in abdomen in and slide one leg out along the floor. Feel the whole body elongate with the heel slide. Repeat 10-20 times until you feel the coordination of the breath, the drawing in of abdomen and then the movement.
3) Exhale draw belly in, keep spine stable with knees bent then lift one leg. Repeat and lower the leg. As you switch legs maintain the abdominals drawing in to the spine, alternate sides. Keep the spine stable. Repeate10-20 times with out tension in the neck, using the coordination of exhaling with engagement of the abdominals to stabilize the spine and maintain the stable spine and flat belly with movement.
The photo below is showing how NOT to do the exercise, with the belly extended and back lifting off the floor. In the incorrect position, the psoas is shortening and the transverse abdominis is not stabilizing the spine.
4) Exhale try lifting both legs at the same time, inhale at the top, exhale and lower both legs. If the back moves lift one leg and join the second leg then lower one at a time (“up, up. Down, down). Continue 10-20 times
5) Eventually add more complex movements such as plank, maintain the drawing in of the abdominals through out the movement.
There are many wonderful stability exercises on balls, in lunging positions. Intelligent movement systems such as Gyrotonic® exercise and Pilates incorporate many lumbar stability exercises that progress into larger movements to reproduce a golf or tennis swing while continuing to practice the coordination of exhaling, engaging the abdominals and then moving.
This blog is on the importance of transverse abdominis, remember to incorporate stretching, movement and cardiovascular exercise into your regime as well to prevent low back injury.
Contraction of the abdominal muscles associated with movement of the lower limb.
Department of Physiotherapy, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. firstname.lastname@example.org
Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1996 Nov 15;21(22):2640-50.
Inefficient muscular stabilization of the lumbar spine associated with low back pain. A motor control evaluation of transversus abdominis.
Department of Physiotherapy, University of Queensland, Australia.
it is from the 20th U.S. edition of Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body, originally published in 1918 and therefore lapsed into the public domain. Other copies of Gray’s Anatomy can be found on Bartleby and also on Yahoo!.