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Core Stabilization and the Transverse Abdominis (TVA) Muscle

Weak TVA Abdominal muscles are often related to low back pain

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Updated September 06, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

The Transversus Abdominis Muscle

The Transversus Abdominis Muscle

Photo (c) Gray's Anatomy / Wickimedia Commons
The transverse abdominis (TVA) muscle acts as a stabilizer of the low back and core muscles. It is one of the main core stabilizing muscles of the lumbar spine. A weak TVA is often indicated in low back pain.

The TVA is the deepest layer of abdominal muscles and runs between the ribs and the pelvis, horizontally from front to back. When activated, the TVA muscles create a deep natural "corset" around the internal organs and lumbar spine. This activation flattens the abdominal wall, compresses the viscera (internal organs), supports the internal organs and helps expel air during forced exhalation. One major function of the TVA muscles is to stabilize the spine during movements that involve the arms and legs.

If the TVA muscles are weak, the abdominal wall will begin to bulge forward and the pelvis may rotate forward and increase lordosis ( inward curvature) in the spine.

Researchers using electromyography (EMG) have recently identified a consistent dysfunction of the TVA in people with low-back pain and recommend TVA strengthening exercises to combat low back pain.

How to Activate the Transverse Abdominis (TVA)

There are generally two ways to activate the TVA muscles for improved core stabilization.
  1. Bracing
    Bracing refers to an isometric contraction of the TVA by contracting the muscles of the abdomen and holding them tight without movement. When bracing, imagine that you are getting ready for a punch to your belly, or preparing to lift a heavy object. The goal is to tighten the muscles without sucking in, or expanding your abdomen. To activate the TVA with bracing, you will maintain an isometric hold in this position for 6 to 10 seconds. Release and repeat several times.
  2. Hollowing
    Hollowing refers to a technique to activate the TVA that occurs as you suck in and compress the abdomen. To perform this technique, contract your abdomen and pull your belly button back toward your spine to make your abdomen as small as possible. Once you've completed this movement, maintain an isometric hold of this compressed position for 6 to 10 seconds. Release and repeat.

Research seems to indicate that bracing is more effective in stabilizing the lumbar spine than hollowing. Bracing results in the the contraction of the entire core muscle group, and particularly the TVA. The best way to use the bracing technique is to contract and hold the abdomen (don't suck in the gut as in hollowing) and continue to breathe in and out. The bracing technique also should be used during abdominal and core workouts.

Once you can activate the TVA muscles, you can progress to the following exercises for all the abdominal muscles and the core:

Source

Hauggaard A, Persson AL. Specific spinal stabilisation exercises in patients with low back pain - a systematic review. Phys Ther Rev 2007;12:233–48.

Hodges PW, Richardson CA., Delayed postural contraction of transversus abdominis in low back pain associated with movement of the lower limb. J Spinal Disord. 1998 Feb;11(1):46-56.

Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, Low Back Pain and Lumbar Stabilization Exercises, [http://www.nismat.org/ptcor/lbp]. Accessed October, 15, 2009.

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