If you want to have strong abs, you need to exercise all of your core muscles.
While most people are familiar with their rectus abdominis — also known as the “six pack” abs — many forget about or are unaware of a deeper abdominal muscle called the transversus abdominis.
Strengthening this muscle is crucial if you want to have a strong core, reduce back pain, and make day-to-day activities easier for you.
Despite its importance, many ab workouts mostly focus on your other abdominal muscles and fail to properly activate your transversus abdominis muscle. Thus, learning exercises that will target and strengthen this muscle can help produce well-rounded core strength.
This article dives deep into the anatomy and function of the transversus abdominis, lists its benefits, and provides 5 effective exercises to target it.
The transversus abdominis, also known as transverse abdominis, is the deepest layer of abdominal muscle. It sits below the internal and external obliques and rectus abdominis and spans from the lower ribs (costal cartilage of ribs 7–12) down to the pelvis (
As its name suggests, the transversus abdominis sits transversely (horizontally) around your abdomen, similarly to a corset. In fact, the transversus abdominis is known as the body’s natural “corset” muscle (
It’s the only abdominal muscle in which the muscle fibers run side to side, rather than vertically or horizontally.
The transversus abdominis plays a crucial role in everyday movements to protect and stabilize the spine. From walking around the house to spiking a volleyball, your transversus abdominis muscle is activated (
Furthermore, it helps maintain normal abdominal wall tension and increase intra-abdominal pressure, which help support internal organs and viscera and aid expulsive forces, such as forced expiration, late stages of childbirth, urination, and defecation (
Considering it plays a role in almost all movement, having a strong transversus abdominis can help protect your spine and surrounding muscles from injury.
Known as the “corset” muscle, the transversus abdominis is a deep abdominal muscle that sits horizontally around your abdomen. It plays a key role in protecting and stabilizing your spine.
Strengthening your transversus abdominis provides many benefits.
Marcy Crouch, PT, DPT, WCS, a physical therapist specializing in pelvic floor dysfunction and founder of the DT method, says there are many benefits to strengthening the transversus abdominis.
“It’s a main stabilizer of the core, so when the transversus abdominis is strong and working properly, it helps maintain proper spine support. It also has been shown to help decrease back pain, improve pelvic floor function, and help with posture.”
May reduce lower back pain
Having a strong core makes performing daily activities and exercises safer and easier. Plus, it provides dynamic stabilization, meaning stabilization during movement, of the lumbar spine.
Muscles that are involved in stabilizing the lower spine include the transversus abdominis, multifidus, muscles of the pelvic floor, rectus abdominis, and the internal and external obliques (
In particular, learning how to properly activate the transverse abdominis results in a co-contraction with the multifidus muscle in your back during movement and may reduce back pain, as your spine is better supported (
This has been observed in a number of studies involving exercise programs that strengthen the transversus abdominis and other core muscles (
While promising, some researchers argue that while core strengthening may be beneficial for some people with lower back pain, it should not be used as a universal treatment, and higher quality research studies are still needed (
Also, core strengthening programs may not be appropriate for certain groups of people, such as people who are pregnant or have chronic back pain or a hernia. Always speak with your healthcare provider before starting a new exercise program.
Lower risk of injury
Having a strong core, including the transversus abdominis, can help protect your back during heavy compound movements, such as a deadlift or squat (
Furthermore, learning to brace your core during lifting movements (e.g., lifting a heavy box off of the floor) helps stabilize your spine and prevent it from moving in a way that can cause back injury (
May help your waist look smaller
Known as the corset muscle, strengthening the transversus abdominis may make your waist appear smaller.
This muscle wraps around the abdomen similarly to a corset, creating a “cinching” effect.
While there’s little research on this topic, many anecdotal reports — especially from the bodybuilding and physique industry — swear by the effectiveness of training the transversus abdominis.
That said, the transversus abdominis is below the rectus abdominis and not responsible for the appearance of a “six pack.” Additionally, visible abs are largely based on a low body fat percentage, which may not be healthy or achievable for some individuals.
Strengthening the transversus abdominis is important for a strong core. It may help reduce back pain, lower your risk of injury, and in some cases, make your waist appear smaller.
Learning how to engage the transversus abdominis takes practice but will make a huge difference in your core workouts.
“There are few different schools of thought regarding this,” says Crouch. “How I teach it is to exhale, draw in the lower abs, engage the pelvic floor muscles, and think about the lower abs becoming hard and contracted.”
“You can feel the transversus abdominis contract and pop into your fingers if you touch right on the inside of your hip bones.”
However, Crouch says to exert caution with the “navel to spine” cue. “This cue is popular and can be helpful, but the transversus abdominis also needs to work with the breath, pelvic floor muscles, and other core musculature.”
Crouch explains, “It’s not a ‘sucking in’ movement, and I think a lot of people try to engage it that way, but that’s not correct.”
Your transversus abdominis is a deep muscle, meaning it’s harder to contract and notice than your other abdominal muscles. Thus, it can take some practice to properly engage it.
To become familiar with your transversus abdominis, try practicing the abdominal drawing-in maneuver (ADIM), which is sometimes referred to as “stomach vacuuming” or “stomach hollowing” (
- To begin, lie on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat.
- Take two fingers and place them on the top of your hip bones. Next, move them an inch (2.54 cm) inward and an inch (2.54 cm) down.
- Take a deep breath in and slowly exhale out of your mouth. As you exhale, draw in your lower abs and engage your pelvic floor muscles. You should notice your transversus abdominis contracting under your fingers.
- Continue to breathe normally as you hold your belly in. Try to hold this for at least 10 seconds.
As you continue to improve, you can increase the time. This practice can help you learn to properly engage your core as you perform other exercises.
To engage your transversus abdominis, focus on drawing in your lower abdominals while paying attention to your pelvic floor muscles and breath.
While the transversus abdominis is hard to isolate on its own, many exercises can help you engage it and surrounding abdominal muscles to help build a strong core (
“It is an important muscle and needs to be incorporated in overall core strengthening,” says Crouch.
“The transversus abdominis is a ‘corset’ muscle, so when it contracts it pulls inward, rather than flexing your trunk forward or bending your spine like in a crunch.”
Exercises that engage the transversus abdominis are mostly stabilization exercises, which require you to hold your body in a certain position for a period of time, and may also include moving the extremities in a slow, controlled fashion (
To strengthen your transversus abdominis, you’ll want to try some of these exercises after you’ve mastered the abdominal draw-in maneuver.
1. Hollow body hold
The hollow body hold is a great exercise to test your core strength and target your transversus abdominis.
- Lie on the floor with your arms straight above your head and legs together on the floor.
- With your core engaged and legs together, point your toes and lift your legs around 12–18 inches (30-46 cm) off of the ground.
- Slowly lift your shoulders off of the ground so that your lower back and hips are the only body parts touching the ground. Keep your neck in a neutral position with your chin slightly tucked in to prevent strain.
- Hold this pose for 15–30 seconds, or however long you can maintain proper form with your core engaged.
Tip: To know you’re practicing proper form, your body should look like the shape of a banana.
2. Dead bug
The dead bug exercise is a great exercise for core engagement and great for those who struggle with balance.
- Lie on your back with your arms extended up toward the ceiling and your knees bent in tabletop position (knees bent at a 90-degree angle and shins parallel to the ground).
- With your core engaged, straighten your left leg (toes pointed out) and lower your right arm to reach behind your head, parallel to the floor. Do not let your arms or legs touch the ground — keep them around 6 inches (15 cm) from the ground.
- Return your arm and leg to the starting position and alternate sides.
- Repeat this for 30–60 seconds, or however long you can maintain proper form.
3. Toe taps
Toe taps is a popular Pilates move that targets your core.
- Lie on your back with your arms to the side and knees bent in tabletop position (knees bent at a 90-degree angle and your shins parallel to the ground).
- Keeping your knee bent, exhale and lower your left toes to tap the group. Make sure your core is engaged and your spine is stable against the movement of your leg. Ensure that your back doesn’t arch as your foot lowers.
- Inhale and return your left leg to the starting position.
- Repeat this with your right leg.
- Continue to alternate sides for 30–60 seconds.
The transversus abdominis is engaged when you move your arms and legs. The bird-dog requires you to lift your opposite arm and leg while maintaining balance, which targets your deep core.
- Start on all fours with your knees aligned with your hips and your shoulders aligned with your hands. Be sure your back is flat and your neck in a neutral position.
- Extend your left arm forward and your right leg back while leaving your other arm and leg on the ground for support.
- Hold for 2–3 seconds, making sure to engage your core the entire time. Then, alternate sides.
- Repeat this 8–12 times.
The plank is a great exercise for well-rounded core strength. As you perform this exercise, focus on drawing your abdominals inward.
- Start in a pushup position with your elbows and forearms at your side and your palms facing down.
- Push your hands into the ground and raise your torso off of the ground. Your body should look as if you’re in the upward position of a pushup. Ensure your hands and shoulders are aligned, your legs are straight, your feet are hip-width apart, and your core is engaged.
- Hold this position for as long as you can while maintaining proper form and keeping your core engaged.
Exercises that target the transversus abdominis involve stabilization exercises, rather than “crunching” movements.
Known as the “corset” muscle, it wraps around your abdomen and plays a key role in protecting and stabilizing your spine.
Having a strong transversus abdominis may help reduce lower back pain and prevent injury, as well as even potentially make your waist look smaller.
During exercises that target the transversus abdominis, remember to draw in your lower abdomen and pay attention to your breath. With time, it will become easier to engage this muscle.
So, the next time an exercise calls for you to engage your core, don’t forget about your transversus abdominis.