Meet Your Transverse Abdominus: What It Is and How to Activate It in Yoga Practice

By: 
Leah Sugerman

We hear the phrase “activate your core” often in the yoga world. We even hear the phrase “use your deep core” a lot. But what exactly does this mean? And how do you actually activate it? These questions aren’t answered as often.

There are many layers of the deeper core musculature that serve different functions. Their use can drastically affect your yoga practice if you learn how to properly engage these muscles and judiciously utilize their engagement throughout your practice.

While the core has many layers and levels, there is one muscle in particular that can be utilized throughout your entire asana practice to help you create strength, support, and stability from your very center: the transverse abdominis.

This deep layer of the core is part of both the anterior (front) and lateral (side) abdominal wall. Its unique shape and muscle fiber orientation warrants dissecting this muscle in greater detail and discerning how to activate and engage this innermost layer of the core.

The Power of the Transverse Abdominis

The innermost layer of the flat muscles of the abdomen lies deep to (or beneath) the more familiar rectus abdominis (your visible and palpable “six-pack” muscles) and both the external and internal obliques (the “side abs”). This lower layer of thin musculature, known as the transverse abdominis (or TvA), has muscle fibers that run horizontally. This is a stark contrast to the vertical muscle fiber orientation of the rectus abdominis and the diagonal muscle fiber orientation of the obliques.

The transverse abdominis gets its name from its muscle fibers’ horizontal direction because this particular orientation makes the transverse abdominis unique. Typically, when you draw two ends of a muscle toward each other, a movement is created in the skeletal system: think about drawing your rib cage toward your pelvis in a classic sit-up—your rectus abdominis contracts creating spinal flexion.

However, because the transverse abdominis muscle fibers run horizontally, this muscle is not movement dependent—meaning that drawing the origin and insertion of the muscle toward one another does not create a change in the skeletal system.

The transverse abdominis wraps around the torso, connecting to the costal cartilage of the lower ribs and the xiphoid process in the front of the body, to the thoracolumbar fascia in the back of the body, and to the pelvis (both the iliac crest and the pubic crest) at the bottom of the muscle.

When contracted, the muscle draws the abdominal contents closer toward the spine. As a literal corset of musculature around the waistline, the transverse abdominis can powerfully support the spinal column by encapsulating many of the internal organs, compressing the ribs to support the thoracic spine, and providing stability to the pelvis.

Why You Need the Transverse Abdominus in Your Yoga Practice

As you’ve probably heard before, the spine (and particularly the lower lumbar spine) can be potentially susceptible to injury. Without the ribcage to support and restrict movement (as it does for the thoracic spine), the lower back is a region of seemingly free-floating bones and semi-cartilaginous discs that hold the weight of the entire upper body. These fragile structures are persistently pushed down by the force of gravity as well.

Luckily, the transverse abdominis can sturdily support and protect the lumbar spine by firing contractions of the horizontal muscle fibers to three-dimensionally wrap the musculature around the spine and hug the abdominal contents toward the central cavity of the body.

As you move throughout your yoga practice, your transverse abdominis is important (especially during transitions) to gather your core in toward the center of your being to maintain support in favor of the health of your lower back.

How to Activate Your Transverse Abdominus

While this musculature may seem quite esoteric and impossible to control, it really isn’t so mysterious to activate the transverse abdominis. There are a few tricks you can employ to feel this deep muscle of the belly and then some simple cues to find strong and stable activation there.

Find Your Transverse Abdominis

To establish a relationship with your transverse abdominis, you need to locate it. And since the muscle is deep inside the torso, it isn’t possible to palpate with your hands.

  1. To find the muscle, lie down flat on your back with your legs extended forward, and bring your fingers to the insides of your frontal hip points (the bony protrusions that stick out on either side at the front of your pelvis). Relax your belly completely so that your rectus abdominis becomes soft.

  2. Then feign a cough. Feel the movement of the abdominal cavity beneath your hands. This movement within the core stems from your transverse abdominis.

  3. Now that you’ve located the muscle, you can start to isolate it in greater detail to find engagement.

  4. Remain in the same position and keep your hands where they are. Take a full, deep inhalation, and, as you exhale, begin a round of kapala bhati, or breath of fire—taking sharp, short, forceful exhales out of your nose.

  5. Allow the inhalation to happen naturally and solely focus on the exhalation. Feel the rise and fall of your belly as your transverse abdominis pumps beneath your hands.

Engage Your Transverse Abdominus

The transverse abdominis is a unique muscle because, as mentioned earlier, it is not movement dependent. This is a fancy way of saying that it can activate and contract under any circumstance.

Whereas most muscles concentrically contract during a specific movement (think of how a bicep curl contracts and shortens the muscle fibers of the biceps), the transverse abdominis can concentrically contract during any movement. Because this key muscle is not movement dependent, it can—and arguably should—be engaged throughout your entire yoga practice.

Often referred to as the “corset muscle,” the transverse abdominis can be activated by cinching in around the waistline as if tightening a corset around the whole torso. You can enhance the engagement of the transverse abdominis by energetically drawing your frontal hip points toward each other and three-dimensionally activating uddiyana bandha, or the flying upward lock: In all directions, hug in around the navel center and draw all of that energy in and up toward the rib cage.

This “corset” action will fire the transverse abdominus to compress the abdominal contents and support the lower back. This can become particularly important when moving through quick transitions between poses when practitioners often tend to “forget” the core, which can lead to injury within the spine and beyond.

Find Balance

While it’s easy to walk away from this piece thinking that the transverse abdominis is the most important muscle of the body to use during a yoga practice, this is a misperception. As evidenced by this article, the transverse abdominus muscle is, of course, important for the health and wellbeing of the abdominal contents and the spine while practicing. However, no muscle works in isolation.

It has become somewhat of a trend to glorify the deeper muscles of the core in any form of physical activity. But, the transverse abdominis is just as important as any of the other muscles in the body, so it shouldn’t necessarily be held in higher regard than any other simply because of its depth.

All the muscles of the human body hold very specific job titles. They all work in conjunction with one another to move the skeletal system, regulate autonomous functions of the body, and literally pump the heart.

While each muscle has one (or more) primary function, they are all equally important to our overall health and wellbeing. Everything must work in tandem for optimal functioning. The deep transverse abdominis is no exception.

You should absolutely find engagement and strong activation in the transverse abdominis while practicing yoga. However, remember that no one muscle can do the work of the whole. Let everything work together harmoniously to find stability and control as you move your body through the physical asana practice. Because isn’t finding balance and harmony why we practice yoga after all?

More on yoga and the core: Study Yoga for Core Integrity & Balance with YogaUOnline and Baxter Bell MD.

Study with YogaUOnline and Robin Rothenberg - Yoga for a Healthy Back: Freeing the Neck and Shoulder Girdle.

Leah Sugerman

Leah Sugerman is a yoga teacher, writer, and passionate world traveler. An eternally grateful student, she has trained in countless schools and traditions of the practice and teaches a fusion of the styles she has studied with a strong emphasis on breath, alignment, and anatomical integrity. Leah teaches workshops, retreats, and trainings both internationally and online. For more information, visit www.leahsugerman.com.