Strengthening the Transverse Abdominis: Your Secret Weapon Against Back Pain

Back pain is a common ailment that can affect people of all ages and fitness levels. Back pain can be a result of many different factors including poor posture, muscle imbalances, or acute injury. If you have dealt with back pain before, you know how significantly it can affect your quality of life. Today, we’re diving into a topic that can be a game-changer in your quest for a pain-free back: training the transverse abdominis. This often-overlooked deep abdominal muscle can be your secret weapon in the battle against back pain. So, grab your workout gear and continue reading to find out how this muscle relates to back pain, and how to activate it properly to increase your core strength, decrease back pain, and increase your overall quality of life.

Understanding the Transverse Abdominis

Before we jump into the “how,” let’s understand the “why.” The transverse abdominis (TVA) is a deep core muscle that runs horizontally around the abdomen, it is often referred to as your body’s corset. It works in conjunction with other core musculature, including the rectus abdominis, obliques, and erector spinae muscles. Here’s what roles make the TVA special:

1. Core Stabilization: The TVA is a stabilizer for the spine and pelvis. The contraction of the TVA provides intra-abdominal pressure which supports the lumbar spine, reducing the load on the lower back. This mechanism is crucial for maintaining a neutral spine during various activities of daily life.

2. Postural Alignment/Injury Prevention: Weakness in the TVA can lead to poor posture, which often places added stress on the low back musculature, potentially leading to chronic pain and/or discomfort.

3. Functional Movement: Keeping the TVA strong through exercise can help prevent back injuries, especially in activities that involve lifting, twisting, sudden movements, or even sitting still. A strong TVA enhances the spine’s ability to resist external forces, reducing the risk of strain or injury.

Transverse Abdominal Training: The Exercises

Now, let’s get down to the good stuff – the exercises that will help you train your transverse abdominis effectively. Incorporate these into your fitness routine to build a strong and supportive core:

1. The McGill Curl-up (Modified Crunch): click here for video demo

  • Lie on your back with one leg straight and the other bent, foot flat on the floor. Place your hands under your lower back for support.
  • Keep your head and neck in a neutral position (no neck flexion) and gently lift your head, shoulders, and upper back off the ground while keeping your lower back pressed against your hands.
  • Hold this position for a few 3 seconds, then lower yourself back down. Perform 5-10 reps on each side.

2. Planks and Side Planks:


  • To set up for a plank, assume a push-up position but with your forearms on the ground. Keep your shoulders directly above your elbows and your hands in line with your forearms (do not interlace your fingers or bring the hands together) Keep your body in a straight line, engaging your core to maintain stability. Hold for 10 seconds then release. Aim for 10 reps of a 10-second hold.

Side Plank:

  • Lie on your side with your elbow directly beneath your shoulder.
  • You may either choose to stack your feet one on top of the other, or you can place your top leg, heel toe in front of the bottom leg. 
  • Engage your transverse abdominals and lift your hips off the ground, creating a straight line from head to heels.
  • Hold this position for 20-30 seconds on each side.

3. Quadruped Hip Extensions and Bird-Dogs:

Quadruped Hip Extension

  • Start on your hands and knees with your wrists under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
  • Engage your core, then lift one leg straight back, keeping it in line with your body.
  • Hold for a few seconds, then lower the leg and repeat on the opposite side. Aim for 10-12 reps per leg.

To progress the movement, try a Bird-Dog:

  • Set up the same way for a Bird-Dog as you would the Quadruped Hip Extension
  • Extend one arm and the opposite leg simultaneously while engaging your core to keep your back stable. Alternate sides

4. Pelvic Tilts

  • Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent.
  • Engage your core and gently tilt your pelvis backward as you press your lower back into the floor, engaging the transverse abdominis.
  • Hold this position for 10-15 seconds as you breathe steadily
  • Repeat 5-10 reps
  • ***you can modify this exercise by performing this standing against the wall, rather than lying on the ground.

Stir the Pot (Advanced):

  • Begin in a plank position on an exercise ball, with your forearms resting on the ball and your feet on the ground.
  • Engage your core, especially your transverse abdominals, and move your forearms in a circular motion, as if you’re stirring a large pot.
  • Perform 5-10 circles in one direction, then switch to the other direction.

These exercises are designed to specifically target the Transverse Abdominis and improve core stability, ultimately reducing the risk of back pain. Remember to prioritize proper form and alignment when performing these exercises to maximize their effectiveness and minimize the risk of injury. As always, we encourage you to reach out to your trainer for accountability and encouragement!