In a society looking for a flat belly, people will crunch and sit-up thousands of times to get a washboard stomach. Unfortunately, many people will never get the results they are looking for by only working on the abs and obliques. The transverse abdominis (TrA) is the body's innermost abdominal muscle and too often neglected. Not only does this muscle contribute to a flat stomach, but is vital in preventing low back pain by stabilizing your spine and pelvis.
What core are you working on?
When a person thinks core, they usually think abs, obliques and maybe some back muscles. Core muscles are those that stabilize the spine and pelvis during exercise/activity. Our ancestors weren't sitting at a desk all day or laying on a couch, so they had a very functional and strong core, and much less back pain. Sit-ups, crunches and many other abdominal exercises focus primarily on the rectus abdominis muscles ("six-pack" muscles) and the internal/external obliques ("love handles"). Have you ever done a "core only" workout and found yourself with back pain afterwards? Perhaps you are forgetting to exercise ALL of your core.
Flat belly or fat belly?
The transverse abdominis is the deepest muscle in your stomach before you reach the organs. Its fibers run horizontally around your abdomen like a belt, hence the name "transversus abdominis". The primary function of this muscle is to compress the ribs and viscera, stabilizing the pelvis and spine. If this muscle is neglected during a core workout, it will be very difficult to achieve flat abs. Also known as the "corset muscle", the TrA prevents a protruding abdomen. Focusing some time on strengthening this muscle can give you the flat abs you've been struggling for.
TrA's role in low back pain
Low back pain typically arises after a person lifts an object with poor biomechanics, causing excessive stress on the intervertebral discs. This pressure causes the disc to buldge, prolapse or completely herniate if not corrected. In order to prevent such an occurrence, lifters and workers wear weight belts around their waists. These weight belts serve the same function as the transverse abdominal muscles do. Someone with a strong core (including the TrA) will not need to wear a lifting belt and will never incur a low back injury. A working transverse abdominis as part of a strong core can decrease the pressure on a disc by up to 40 percent. In a 2005 study, the activation of deep trunk muscles like the transverse abdominis significantly reduced low back pain and lowered the rate of re-occurrence.
How to strengthen TrA
Many core routines and ab exercises inherently activate and strengthen the transverse abdominals in a lesser fashion. Funny enough, isolating the transverse abdominis is remarkably easy and can be performed anywhere. Simply suck in your stomach like you are trying to touch your belly-button to your spine. If performed correctly, you should feel an unusual strain on a muscle around your midsection, the worse the strain, the more neglected the muscle. Start off at 5-10 seconds and relax. As the muscle gets stronger, suck in for 30 seconds to a minute at a time. These "vacuum exercises" are easy to do and good for your back and belly. Exercises like planks, side-planks, quadriped stabilization and dead bugs are excellent total core strengtheners that should be implemented in everyone's workout. Try it out, all you have to lose is a few inches around the mid-section!
Sources for this article include:
Hodges P.W., Richardson C.A., Contraction of the Abdominal Muscles Associated With Movement of the Lower Limb. Physical Therapy. Vol. 77 No. 2 February 1997.
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