If you've taken a Pilates class, you've certainly heard these words before.
When we Pilates instructors say that, we are referring to the deepest abdominal muscle in your body, the Transverse Abdominis, or in other words your body's natural corset.
What is the Transverse Abdominis?
The Transverse Abdominis (or TA) literally looks and acts like a corset. It wraps horizontally all around the torso and spams across the space between the ribs and the hips. It's function is in fact to compress the abdominal wall (hug your waist) to support your internal organs and lumbar spine as you bend, twist, lift and move through life.
When do you use it and why does it matter?
Your Transverse Abdominis is the core of your core muscles
It is essential for proper body mechanics during movement and even for sitting and standing.
Breathing – When activated, your deepest abdominal muscle works along with the diaphragm and assists during exhalation, which explains why breathing is so essential in Pilates (or in life, really). If you've taken Pilates before, you may have noticed that it is easier to contract this muscle and the rest of your abdomen when you exhale.
Stability – The TA is unique in that it does not create movement when contracted (as in flex or extend). It's major function is to provide stability and support for the spine in movements that involve the arms and legs as well as movements of the spine.
You need stability in order to have mobility
Mobility – Movement is easier, happens more freely, and causes less load on the spine and joints when the body has the support it needs from its natural waist girdle. A stronger Transverse Abdominis means stronger swings, more powerful strokes, higher endurance and no strain on your spine or joints during movement.
Standing upright requires TA strength and support against the loading forces of gravity
The more you elongate the spine the more support it needs from the Transverse Abdominis.
Posture – The body's natural corset helps the back and the deep spinal muscles do their job of keeping you upright. A strong Transverse Abdominis will help your deep spinal muscles maintain the spaces between each vertebrae, supporting elongation of the spine and helping you stand taller.
Healthy lower back – As one of the main core stabilizing muscles of the lumbar spine, the TA helps keep the load from the rest of the body and gravity off the low back. A weak Transverse Abdominis is often indicated in lower back pain and compression of the spine.
Less load on the spine and joints goes hand in hand with less pain, less injuries and more strength
And it doesn't look bad either…
It flattens and narrows the midsection
Because the TA compresses the abdominal wall, it hugs the waistline helping outline it underneath of whatever you've got going on in your midsection. So If beyond health and fitness your goal is to shape up your abs and waistline, follow the tips below to strengthen your deepest abdominal layer.
How to strengthen the Transverse Abdominis?
Turn it on
Laying on your back, in neutral spine, with knees bent and feet flat down on the mat, inhale expanding the ribs back and sideways then exhale as you draw the navel and muscles around your waist toward the spine without moving any bone – maintaining neutral spine throughout the exercise.
Alternated Toe Taps
Laying on your back, legs in table top position (knees bent in 90 degree angle). Lower one leg reaching the toes to the mat until your toes tap the mat, keep your navel in toward the spine. Lift the leg back up to the table top and continue alternating legs. Make sure you don't tilt your hips in any direction – no tucking or wiggling from side to side!
Note: The toes don't have to touch the mat. Lower the leg only as far as your lower back feels safe and only as far as you can keep your navel down without tucking your hips.
Increase range of motion and speed of alternation as your TA gets stronger.
Toe Touches with Arm Raises
In the table top position, reach both arms to the ceiling with palms facing one another. As you lower one leg, lower the opposite arm without touching the floor. Quickly alternate arm and leg without losing your balance. Keep the back of the pelvis and lower ribs anchored and stable on the mat. Resist the temptation to place the foot down – taps only!
Advance your TA strength
Try abdominal exercises that test your strength against gravity and that include full body motion. I'll be listing my favorite abdominal exercises and tips on how to do them properly in my new post Seven Exercises for Strong, Cinched and Flat Abs – The Pilates Way. Stay tuned and don't miss out!
Keep the form
If your TA is weak or not working as hard as it should, it will shut down while everything else keeps going. These red flags will let you know when this happens.
Watch for these signs
Abdominals bulging outwards around the navel
Arching of the lower back
Tucking of the pelvis (imprinting or flattening the lower back)
And if you notice any of the above...
Return to the challenge point where you can maintain proper engagement of your TA and build the strength up from there. If you feel your lower back even in a smaller range of motion, work on a flat back until you build enough strength to work in neutral spine.