Deep Core Muscle Activation

The transverse abdominal (also known as the TA muscle) is one of 6 ab muscles that, when strong and flexible, contributes to low back stabilization, fluid body movement, and pain relief.

Here’s how it works, along with a quick little TA activation exercise you can do when you find yourself with an extra 3 minutes or so.

A woman performs the pelvic tilt exercise.

How Activating Deep Muscle Core Helps Relieve Back Pain

The transverse abdominal muscle wraps around the lower part of your trunk. This means that during work (i.e., muscle contraction), its fibers are brought toward the center of your body. As that occurs, all the structures the transverse effects—pelvic bones, abdominal contents, and more, tighten in toward one another and become more balanced relative to your center of gravity. (One result of this is a state of the joints called congruency.) When achieved by means of muscle strength combined with good body alignment, congruency may help relieve pressure on your spine, which may, in turn, lead to pain relief.

The transverse lives close to your spinal column and very deep inside your trunk. Its proximity to the spine enables it to play a big role in your back health.

What You Can Do to Relieve Pressure on Your Back

You can feel your transverse abdominal muscle at work when you cough, sneeze or laugh. The following exercise may provide you with another way to feel the action of this important spine stabilizing muscle.

  1. Lie on your back in a hook-lying position. Also called constructive rest position, the hook lying position is one where you are supine with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. For this exercise, gently place your hands—and especially your fingertips (you’ll need them there)—on your lower belly.
  2. Inhale fully. Try to feel your diaphragm moving all the way down your trunk. The downward movement of the diaphragm muscle enables your lungs to take in more air, which will likely facilitate your ability to feel your TA muscle during the exhale.
    Exhale naturally.
    Note: Please do not attach fancy breathing techniques to this exhale. Rather, just do what comes naturally. If you’re exhaling right, it will likely be a quiet, gentle experience.
  3. When you get to the point where it feels like all—or at least most—of your air has been exhaled, push any remaining air out. As you do, pay attention to the feeling under your fingers. Most likely, you’ll feel that transverse abdominal muscle contract. That’s what we want.
  4. Inhale and release the TA tension and take a break. Repeat this exercise about 10 times, 1–3 times per day.

Remember, it’s very important not to force the exhale except at the very end when you’re actually trying to contract the transverse muscle. Before that, forcing or employing other types of breathing techniques will only get in your way.

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By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.