Whenever you think of abs, you tend to imagine the six-pack, the perfectly carved rectus abdominus muscle that is visible, at least if your body fat is in single digits. You would hardly ever consider other muscles of the mid section involved with ab workouts.
Today, we are going to be looking at the transverse abdominis, this is located behind the rectus abdominis and isn’t visible but that doesn’t mean you should skip training it. Training the transverse abdominis can help you get a better six-pack and even strengthen your core.
Let us take a look at how the transverse abdominis works.
What Is The Transverse Abdominis?
The transverse abdominis (TVA) is the deepest layer of muscle tissue in the abdominal wall and originates from the costal cartilage of your lower six ribs, the anterior portion of the iliac crest (top part of your hip bone) and the inguinal ligament. It then wraps around the front where it connects to the xiphoid process (base of your sternum), pubic tubercle (front of the pubic bone) and the linea alba which separates the right and left halves of your six-pack.
The main purpose of these often underrated muscles is to compress the abdomen and the secondary purpose is spinal and core stability. This may not sound like much at first but it basically means that without the transverse abdominis, you wouldn’t be able to hold your stomach in and it would look distended. Basically you would have a beer belly.
You are probably familiar with a ‘vacuum’ or even the ‘vacuum pose’ that was made popular by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding rivals, Frank Zane. This refers to your ability to contract the transverse abdominis (sucking in your stomach). This is ideal from an aesthetic point of view as you can simultaneously contract or flex the transverse abdominis at the same time as the rectus abdominis to create a more dramatic look to the abs overall.
Imagine flexing your abs whilst your stomach is protruding, this wouldn’t look too impressive. You may still see the overall outline of your six-pack if you are lean enough but imagine how much better your abs would appear if you were able to suck in your whole stomach at the same time. By training the TVA, you’re essentially building up your endurance at holding your stomach in which is something that can be pretty difficult to do for long periods of time, like standing on stage or posing for a photo shoot. It even helps when you want to look your best on the beach.
Because of the muscle-fiber make-up, strengthening the transverse abdominis is more directed towards endurance-style training than the methods you’d use to target most skeletal muscle groups. Think of holding plank exercises for a period of time, those muscle aren’t going to grow much as a result of those exercises.
Looking at the mechanics of this muscle, most of the strengthening of the TVA comes from compound movements that require full core and lower-back stabilization (think squats and deadlifts here). A stronger TVA acts as nature’s own weight belt, stabilizing the spine and pelvis during lifting motions. Ironically, if you are always wearing a weight belt, you may be unknowingly weakening he muscle.
Performing certain rectus-abdominis movements like crunches and hanging leg raises alone does have some effect on strengthening the TVA but they are not enough to pull your belly in. Here, doing exercises to strengthen the TVA are essential to improving your vacuum while helping to reduce abdominal protrusion, not to mention the positive effect it may have on your lower back.
Dedicated TVA Exercises
There are three simple exercises that effectively target the transverse abdominis: vacuums, plank vacuums and swiss-ball roll-outs.
When you do these movements, focus on the compression of the abdomen. Since that is the natural function of the TVA, it is important to focus on emphasizing the compression of your abdomen in order to maximize the effectiveness on the TVA and increase it’s strength.
1) Standing Vacuum
Stand and suck in your stomach, focusing on drawing your belly button to the back of your spine. It may be difficult at first but after a few times through you will be able to draw into your abdomen and perform a solid vacuum.
Perform 2 sets of 12 reps with a 3 second hold in the vacuum position on each rep.
2) Plank Vacuum
This is pretty much the same as the normal vacuum except you are in the plank position on the floor (the same as the top of a push-up). You’ll follow the same protocol as above but being prone forces you to work directly against gravity and thus it makes it a more advanced variation.
3) Swiss-Ball Roll-Out
Place your shins on an exercise balls with your hands on the floor. Roll the ball towards your chest by driving your knees into your chest, flexing your abs in the process. Ordinarily, this would just be a normal exercise for the lower rectus abdominis but if you then focus on drawing in your gut too and performing a subtle vacuum at the end of the movement (when your legs are extended), you’ll notice a much stronger engagement of the abs. This is a great intro to how improving your TVA can begin to help you train your rectus abdominis (six-pack) more effectively.
It is a good idea to train the transverse abdominis three times per week. Do it after your weight workouts when you are already slightly fatigued. This does not replace your normal ab training, it should be an ancillary set of exercises that will enhance your six-pack like never before and make your ab workouts complete.
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