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Solving the Core to Your Core

The secret to healthy abs, a solid core, and preventing low back pain? It’s not the six-pack (although that’s a good start). It’s an oft-overlooked muscle deep in your abdomen, wrapping around your waist, and keeping your spine protected: the transverse abdominis muscle (TVA).

Buckle Up for the “Seatbelt Muscle”

The first step to strengthening your TVA, also known as the “seatbelt muscle,” is thinking about your core as a muscular box. The front side of the box are the abdominals, the backside is the spinal stabilizing muscles, the base is the pelvic floor, the top is the diaphragm, and the sides are your hip muscles.

The TVA is part of a group of stabilizing, local muscles while the global muscles are those that are larger (the “six pack”). These stabilizing muscles help serve as the foundation in support of the larger muscles. Without a strong foundation, the whole system breaks down and could lead to potential low back problems. This is why paying attention to those muscles that don’t get the same publicity as the six-pack is so important.

Strengthening Your Transverse Abdominis Muscle

One critical component of core strength training is moving the muscles across all planes of motion (not just flexion and extension but also bending and twisting). Think of the core as a rubik’s cube with 6 sides and 3 different planes of motion. The following exercises will help develop and strengthen your TVA. Fasten your “seatbelt” and let’s get strengthened.

1| Pigeon Pose 

Increasing hip mobility before core strengthening can help increase the efficiency of your core movement. Dr. Stilp recommends pigeon pose as a hip opener. Here’s how to do it: 

  • Get on all fours, with your knees and palms on the ground 
  • While sliding your left leg back so your hip is extended, externally rotate your right hip (i.e. turn your leg out from your hip). Aim to position your right shin perpendicular to your body. (You’ll still get a good stretch even if you can’t get all the way there.)
  • Extend your trunk so you’re upright, lifting your chest, arching your bac and directing your gaze toward the ceiling, while resting your fingertips on the floor a few inches forward of your hip
  • Hold the pose for 30 seconds and then switch sides

This stretch targets the hip flexor muscles in the extended leg and the rotator and outer hip muscles in the flexed leg. 

2| Slow Down and Engage Your TVA During Everyday Activities

For those without time to dedicate to core strength training, you can train your TVA muscles to activate more quickly and effectively throughout the day by simply slowing down and moving more intentionally. 

Dr. Stilp suggests placing your hands around your waist (if it helps, think about where a corset would be) and then engaging your core so that you can feel your muscles contracting, in order to get a feel for the movement. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with this movement, you can engage your abdominals when doing everyday household chores and movements.

3| Pelvic Tilt
This move is vital for building the smaller foundational muscles that support a strong, healthy core. Here’s how to do it: 

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor
  • While engaging your TVA, gently tilt your pelvis upward toward your head
  • Return your pelvis to a neutral position
  • Repeat

Start with 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions. When this no longer feels challenging, or you can complete all three sets without increasing your back pain, advance to more challenging exercises such as dead bug, bird dog, a plank, or plank variation

4| Standing Exercises 

After mastering the exercises above, Dr. Stilp recommends progressing to standing exercises that require rotation to promote functional strength. One example of this type of movement is a standing lunge with rotation. Here’s how to do it:

  • Assume a lunge stance; your front leg should be flexed to 90 degrees at the hip, knee, and ankle. Your rear leg should be extended at the hip with your knee touching or almost touching the floor
  • Twist from your waist. When you feel comfortable doing this movement you can hold a weight such as a dumbbell, a medicine ball, or a gallon jug of water in both hands, gradually increasing the weight as you get stronger

If possible, Dr. Stilp recommends committing to ten minutes toward core strengthening every day, if possible. Just ten minutes will help build strength and potentially avoid the pitfalls of back pain.

Dr. Sonja Stilp is a physician and founder of RISE practicing in Boulder, CO and the featured expert at Spine Universe on core strengthening. She provides personalized care and global healing for the athlete in all of us. Make an appointment with her to talk about your health and performance today.

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