The Transverse Abdominus:
Our Low Back’s Best Friend!
By: Sami Ashenbrener, DPT
As a physical therapist, there is one phrase I find myself saying over and over each day, and that is “engage your core.” You have probably heard this phrase said at group fitness classes, when at the gym, or when watching online workout videos. This phrase is mentioned when people are talking about lifting mechanics and posture. “Engage your core” seems to get used a lot, but the real question then becomes WHAT does this even mean and WHY is it so important?
To begin, let's talk about one of the muscles that is most important in a deep core called the TRANSVERSE ABDOMINUS. The transverse abdominus is one of the main spinal stabilizing muscles (of course it works in tandem with other muscles such as the multifidi and pelvic floor musculature, but those are for future blog posts). The transverse abdominus is the deepest layer of the abdominal muscles and wraps around our abdominal trunk region like a corset. It attaches to our lower ribs, our back’s connective tissue (lumbar fascia), our hip bones, and our pelvis. Because of all these attachments at our trunk, when this muscle is properly contracted it can help to stabilize the entire low back region, assist with posture, and improve our low back function. We also know that training of the trunk muscles such as the transverse abdominus has been considered an important consideration in building a strong foundation for helping to prevent low back pain (Hamlyn, Behm, & Young, 2007, pg 1111).
The transverse abdominus is a muscle that we want to train to contract automatically during physical activity, but this automatic activation takes practice. Physical activity in which we want the core to activate includes everything from strenuous exercise to basic standing, sitting, and walking. There are several ways to practice activating this muscle group, and this is something that you can practice at home. One way to activate this muscle is to start by lying on your back. From here, imagine that you are drawing your belly button in toward your spine, like you are zipping up a tight pair of pants. You should also envision your low back gently pressing into the ground, taking the arch out of your back. You should be able to maintain a steady breath during this muscle activation, so make sure that you are not holding your breath! After you feel comfortable with this activation, practice the same thing in tall sitting, when standing, and during walking. Eventually, try to activate this muscle region with all functional movements such as bending, lifting, and carrying items, as well as during all exercise and recreational activities. Engaging this muscle will help to protect your back with activity, improve function and participation, and help to improve your posture. Getting use to activating the transverse abdominus takes a lot of conscious awareness and thought at the beginning, but the more you practice, the more automatic and natural it will become!
Please remember that this is a simplification of basic core activation. To have a full assessment performed and an individualized exercise program created that is specific to your needs, please visit your physical therapist. Your PT can educate you in greater depth and help you progress your training safely and efficiently.