All About Working The Transverse Abdominals


 All About Working The Transverse Abdominals

There are few things in fitness as versatile or as valuable to both strength and aesthetics than the humble transverse abdominals. A properly developed set of transverse abdominals can allow people to not only take their daily lives in stride, but also to cleanly execute lifts and other advanced exercises with ease, power, and grace.

Transverse abdominals are designed for stability; the term "transverse" actually means "across." As such, they primarily function to keep your spine aligned stable while you move your limbs around it. This means that you always want them contracting when you're lifting heavy loads or executing a twisting motion.

What Are They?
The transverse abdominals are a set of short, thin muscles that reside deep within your torso, spanning from the bottom of your sternum to the top of your pelvic bones. You can't see them without dissection, but you know that they're there when you exercise by their powerful contraction and distinct lack of contractile recovery. They may aid in flexion and extension movements to some extent, but this is pretty negligible compared to their performance during rotation.

How Do They Work?
Explosive Exercises: The short answer is very well indeed! Explosive exercises such as cleans or snatches with heavy loads require effective core stability to properly execute and perform heavy lifts. A strong transverse abdominals is a very effective tool for stabilizing the spine and creating a solid foundation for your heavy lifts to build upon.

Rowing and Pushing Exercises: When you're rowing or pressing, your torso is supported by the floor and able to move in all three planes of motion. Your core muscles provide stability against this movement so that not only can you perform rowing or pressing motions, but also because they can contribute to increased power output. The transverse abdominals are an essential part of this system.

Core Stabilization: As covered above, the transverse abdominals are primarily responsible for keeping your spine stable and aligned while you move your limbs around it. Because of this, they are also vital in any exercise that requires the stabilization of the core musculature, such as bridges, crunches, Russian twists and front raises. [Note: These exercises are often known as "core stabilizers" because of their function to stabilize during these exercises. While absolutely necessary for performance and stability in these positions, the role of core muscles is enhanced by engaging them in all movements. The transverse abdominals are another example of this, offering increased stability in these positions as well as supporting the trunk and maneuvering your limbs.]

Posterior Pelvic Tilt: Because the transverse abdominals play such an important role in core stability, they are also effective at correcting imbalances when it comes to body positioning. The proper execution of heavy lifts requires a strong posterior midline stabilization system, which can be achieved through the use of healthy transverse abdominals. In fact, this area is often referred to as the "core" because so much of our core musculature is dedicated to stabilizing our posture. [Note: This is a common point of confusion. The transverse abdominals play an essential role in the execution of heavy lifts, but that doesn't mean that they are "the core." The core is the entire torso, posterior to anterior. Many people when referring to the core, mean the abdominals or rectus abdominis muscle group. Those muscles are NOT the "core" but rather a part of it.]

What Are Their Weaknesses?
If you look up "weakness," you'll see transverse abdominals listed in virtually every area of fitness. While this may not be a surprise, it's important for people to understand why exactly this is so.

Low-back Pain: Proper transverse abdominals strengthen the core and spine, but when they are underdeveloped or too weak to support your spinal alignment, back pain can ensue. This is why many people with low-back pain benefit from exercises such as Russian twists when well executed. By keeping your lower back pressed into the ground and stabilizing your spine, you may be able to reclaim some of the strength that you've lost through injury or wear and tear. [Note: Being able to do a Russian twist doesn't mean that you have great transverse abdominals any more than benching 315 pounds means you have strong pectorals. Both of those things require time and dedication as well as proper technique. It also doesn't mean that you should continue to do a Russian twist or bench three sets of 315 pounds until you get pain relief. While exercises can be prescribed and still be effective, the primary responsibility lies in your own hands.]

Joint Pain: The transverse abdominals don't work directly on the spine, but they are critical in helping to stabilize your trunk with respect to movement in those areas. If you've had/have experiences with experiencing joint pain when performing movements such as heavy squats, deadlifts, or lunges with a weak core. This can be attributed to the transverse abdominals' inability to hold an ideal position while performing these types of movements. [Note: This is a common reason people experience joint pain without any structural issues. The muscles may be weak or short. But more likely they are weak in the right pattern, and as such don't provide the support they should in those movements.]

Keratosis Pilaris: Keratosis pilaris, also known as "chicken skin," is a phenomenon characterized by chicken skin-like bumps that appear on the upper arms and thighs (usually near your elbows and knees). It usually appears during or shortly after puberty and is often accompanied by itching, flaking, and crusting. [Note: Keratosis Pilaris can be caused by many factors, from hormonal changes to pollution. It is, however, directly related to the body's inability to sweat properly. This can be so because of a faulty lymphatic system and/or because the sweat glands aren't working correctly. There isn't any single or distinct cause but rather a combination of many factors often more than one of which will cause this condition.]

Tight Pecs: No, you didn't misread that. The Transverse Abdominals do not work your pecs. The rectus abdominis muscle group does, and despite their similar names, they're very different muscles. The transverse abdominals are not the same as your rectus abdominis muscles, so it should be no surprise that they don't work them. So what is this section even doing here?

Because of their many functions within the core musculature system, people often think of the transverse abdominals as a large muscle group that encompasses many of your abdominal muscles.


The transverse abdominals (TVA) are among the most critical and least understood muscles in the body. They are vital to core function, spinal stability, and health in general. Unfortunately, most people either ignore their existence altogether or mistakenly assume that they're part of other muscle groups. By learning about them and how they work, you can avoid common mistakes and better understand how to work with your body.

At Performance U, we teach you about the transverse abdominals primarily during our Core Strength Training classes as well as during our Functional Movement Screen assessments. If you're interested in learning more about them from a functional training standpoint, please feel free to contact us at info@performance-u.

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