With all the sitting we do in the Digital Age, some really important muscles get weak, even if you sit for only a few hours a day. The next few blog posts will be about deep layer muscles that contribute to spinal stability which, when weak, can lead to problems far from the original site of weakness. These stabilizing muscles are needed to prevent injuries, whether we’re moving a couch or bending over to pick up a string off the carpet. Stabilizing muscles prevent excessive compression on the spine, slow the process of degeneration (arthritis), and keep our back strong. They contribute to the strength and well-being of our hips, knees and shoulders, and have an effect on how we walk, stand, run and even sit. It doesn’t matter how in-shape or out-of-shape one may be; these weaknesses can be found in anyone from the massage client with chronic back pain, to seasoned yogi, to the buff athlete that lifts weights every week. If you’re getting out of bed, these muscles need to be kicking in!
Deep stabilizer #1: The Transverse Abdominus
The transverse abdominus (highlighted in green) is also known as “the corset muscle”. It’s the first layer of abdominal muscle and helps to nicely contain your insides. It’s the muscle you contract when you force out your breath and contracting it gives you an instant tummy tuck. Research has linked back pain and injuries with weakness in this muscle, along with other key stabilizers. This muscle pulls in your abdomen like a girdle and lessens compression on your spinal discs and joints, and reduces stress to ligaments. Attention men: Over-stretching or tearing of this muscle can also lead to an inguinal hernia.
You can be in good shape, have little body fat, or do a lot of ab exercises, and still have a pooch because you might not be targeting this muscle correctly. If your abdomen spills out in front or you have an excessive deep curve in your low back (that you weren’t born with), you may want to investigate this muscle.
The good news is you can work this muscle even while sitting, and most people won’t even know that you’re doing it. I’m doing mine right now!
The other good news is that when you activate the transverse abdominus, you automatically activate the multifidus, another deep stabilizer linked with back pain and injuries. Bonus! (There will be more details on this in a later post.) The multifidus is highlighted in green.
Is this “corset” making more sense now?
How to Activate the Transverse Abdominus
While seated, draw your navel in toward your spine, and then up toward your heart. If it’s a little more difficult to breathe, then you know you’re doing it right. Hold for 30 seconds, and keep breathing as you hold the contraction. This muscle is supposed to stay semi-contracted even if you are not consciously squeezing it. Repeat about 4-5 times.
If you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, envision a fishhook attached to the top of your head, slightly toward the back- where the soft spot is on a baby’s head. Pull the fishing line up, bringing your head and the spine along with it. Now that you’re elongated, lift the chest and drop the shoulders. Bring the navel in toward the spine. Your waist should feel like it narrowed, like a brace squeezed around it.
Note: While this muscle is important for trunk stability, it should be balanced with working the whole spinal system. The end result should be the marker between not enough transverse abdominus training and too much.
How to check for transverse abdominus activation
If you are familiar with anatomy and want to get technical on whether you’re properly activating the transverse abdominus, you can try this method.
Lying on your back with knees extended, palpate the bony aspect on the front of each side of the pelvis, or each ASIS. It’s the part that digs into the floor when you lie face down. From there, move your fingers in toward the body’s midline 1 inch, and then down in the direction of your feet one inch. Now bring your navel in and up. Did your fingers sink in when you did it? If they sank in, congratulations! You are isolating the correct muscle! If your fingers elevate, or get pushed out, you may be contracting other abdominal muscles, such as the internal obliques.
Unfortunately, there’s not just one exercise or maneuver that cures all ills. Getting in tune with little things, such as the subtleties of activating deep core muscles and getting them to kick in throughout the day, can go a long way when faced with the challenge of overcoming long periods of inactivity. For the majority of us, the world we live in makes it nearly impossible to consistently maintain the activity levels of our ancestors, so we’ve got to sneak in muscle squeezes and other tricks when we can. There’s no going back, so we may as well learn how to adapt as we keep moving forward.
To your good health,