Long ago, I rode a big beautiful Morgan horse. Riding his canter was like riding a real life rocking horse. I can still feel his powerful stride consuming the ground beneath us, but leaving me (the rider) with just a gentle roll to navigate. It was nothing short of amazing. His trot, on the other hand, is how I paid for the amazing canter. Beau had long spring-like legs that easily launched even the best of riders right out of the seat. In order to sit that trot, one needed a super-power located right in the core.
To find this super-power, we need to go deep. Below the rectus abdominus and even below the obliques is a little known muscle called your transversus abdominus. It isn’t flashy like the “6-pack”, nor does it chisel our waistline like our obliques.
The transversus is ‘just’ your back’s best friend.
The fibers of the transversus run from side to side meaning it doesn’t move us in any direction, its sole job is to be there to protect and support the internal organs and the spine in that region. Think of this muscle as your very literal corset. When activated, it can help you have a flatter tummy and a cushioned spine.
Because the transversus is a stabilizer and not a mobilizer (like your biceps), it is more challenging to find. And, if you are a woman who has been pregnant and/or had a c-section, this area can be a bit dormant. So, how do we re-activate (or activate for the first time) the transversus?
Here are a few exercises to get you started:
Sitting comfortably on the floor or in a chair, take your hands and place them around your belly button. Now cough. That was your transversus.
2. Use Your Breath
Sitting on a ball, in a chair or on a cushion with your hands around your belly button just take a few deep breaths. As you exhale, push the air out through your mouth through a pursed lip. As you do this, you activate your TA to expel the air. You should feel the TA gently compressing. Stay here for about 5 breaths to continue to feel the TA working and get reaquainted with how it feels. You can also do this standing.
3. Use Gravity
Come up to your hands and knees with your hands right under your shoulders and your knees right under your hips. Take a few deep breaths here where you let your belly fill on your inhale and then on your exhale you work to draw the belly button back to your spine. While working against gravity in this position it can be easier to find and feel your transversus. Now to challenge this further, lengthen one leg out behind you while you exhale and engage the TA to support the back against the weight of the leg. The goal is to utilize your transversus to maintain the integrity of your spine and not let it dip or tilt against the weight of the lifted leg. Inhale and place your knee back on the floor. On your next exhale, extend your other leg out continuing to engage the TA. As you build strength, try holding one leg out for 2 full breath cycles and then 3, and so on.
The transverse abdominus is designed to be an endurance muscle.
It should be able to be engaged at a light level (note: NO GRIPPING or TENSING!) for extended periods of time. To build up this stamina, you can simply take moments throughout your day to focus on the exhale of your breath to engage the TA. As you build awareness, next work to build stamina by maintaining engagement of your TA through the inhale. Next work to maintain engagement through 5 breaths and then work up to 10.
Every time I was asked to sit Beau’s trot in a class or by my trainer (because this was never something I volunteered to do), I would start counting… and praying that I could maintain my seat. As hard as it was, I am grateful for those early lessons in core strength.