7 Best Transverse Abdominis Activation Exercises

In just a few moments, I’m going to share with you 7 powerful deep core exercises that’ll target the transverse abdominis (TVA) – one of your deepest abdominal muscles. I’ll also explain a bit how to properly engage this muscle and signs and symptoms of a weak deep core and inactive transverse abdominis. If you experience lower back pain, there is a good chance this muscle is weak or is failing to engage on time…

So make sure you practice daily. The more you do the exercises mindfully, the better your mind-muscle connection will get. So don’t quit after just a day or two. Keep practicing.

Activating and strengthening these deep core muscles (and the transverse abdominis in particular) will help you get immediate relief from lower back pain, as well as support and protect your spine from flare-ups. Make sure you perform these exercises on a weekly basis.

Before I demonstrate how to do these exercises, I want to take a minute to briefly explain the inner and outer core units, their function and why you need to avoid any type of core exercise that puts your spinal in a flexed position (such as crunches).

The Core Units

The core consists of an inner, and an outer unit. These units are always working together to enable us to accomplish simple daily tasks to more advanced athletic performance.

Inner core muscles
The inner and outer core units

Engaging The Transverse Abdominis (Deep Core)

The inner core unit is what’s known as the deep core. The deep core muscles act as the spine’s safety belt. These muscles also work with the glutes and hip flexors to stabilize the pelvis. In simple terms, the deep core consists of the following muscles:

  • Transverse abdominis: a deep abdominal muscle that works as a belt around your waist to protect your spine.  Picking an item off the floor without properly activating this muscle will overload the lower back and pelvis which can lead to injury.
  • Multifidus: Another important muscle stabilizer connected to the pelvis.
  • Pelvic floor.

Typical abdominal exercises such as crunches won’t activate these deep core muscles. In addition, if these muscles are weak and inactive, they’ll contribute to more compensation during regular exercise.

The Outer Core Unit

The outer core consists of the prime mover muscles and these are the visible abs (rectus abdominis), the external obliques, the shoulder girdle.

When you’re engaging in exercises such as crunches, you’re only working the visible abs to achieve that “aesthetic look”. But our goal is to build a healthy balanced body… One that is composed of “intelligent” aesthetic muscles and a strong foundation.

There is nothing wrong with working your abs. Just make sure you’re also working on that inner foundation. I promise you’ll feel the difference also in your abs. When the inner core is strong, the outer core functions better also.

Signs and Symptoms of A Weak Transverse Abominis

One of the warning signs of a weak inner core is feeling the tension in your lower back and hip flexors when you perform certain abs exercises like the bicycle or the lying leg lifts. In addition, if you perform the bridge exercise to strengthen your glutes and feel pressure in your lower back and/or hamstrings, that’s another sign of a weak transverse abdominis.

I want to keep this post short and jump to the exercises now. But if you’re interested in learning more about the core, check out my post here on how to strengthen a weak core. I’ve included a full section on the warning signs of a deep core. The link will open in a new tap so you can still continue reading this post.

I created a video to demonstrate the deep core exercises, but if you can’t watch it right now, just scroll down below the video to view the exercise images. I’ve also included additional tips on how to strengthen your core if you have lower back or hip pain, and some important points to keep in mind as you integrate these exercises into your life.

7 Exercises To Activate The Transverse Abdominis

Core Exercises Breakdown:

Single-leg extensions

Single leg extensions
Single leg extensions

Dynamic toe-taps

Dynamic toe taps

Plank knee to elbow

Plank knee to elbow

Double leg lower and lift

Double leg lower and lift

It’s very important to have your back touching the floor all the time. Take as much rest as you want, but make sure you are performing each repetition properly).

Bird dog

Bird dog

Make sure you are not rotating your hips.

Plank shoulder taps

Plank shoulder taps

Focus on maintaining a solid plank position without dropping your hips or lifting your glutes up).

Plank knee taps

Plank knee taps

Important Tips To Keep In Mind

  • Keep your back glued to your mat when you are on your back. If you arch your back, that means you’re starting to compensate and shifting the tension to your lower back instead of your core.  You should take a break, breathe and try to do it again with proper form.
  • You can start with 10-15 repetitions for each core exercise, and as you gain more strength, bump those reps up to 15, or do 2 sets of 10-15 reps.
  • Take from 30-60 seconds break between each exercise. Our goal is to strengthen our inner goal, not to build abs. (for now!)

What If You Have Back Pain

If you are experiencing lower back pain, avoid ab exercises such as sit-ups, crunches or anything involving twisting (like the Russian twists). Crunches contribute to a flexed posture (rounded shoulder-forward head posture) and twisting create micro-tears in the discs making your spine more vulnerable to injury.

Exercises To Avoid If You Have Disc Herniation

If you’re suffering from a disc-related injury, you want to avoid core or abs exercises that include exaggerated flexion or extension. Here’s an example… if you have an anterior disc herniation (facing the front side of the intervertebral disc. Towards the body), you’ll notice pain when you do hyperextension exercises.  

Likewise, if you have a posterior disc herniation (towards the back of the body), you’d experience pain when bending over, and doing the typical abs flexion exercises

To keep things balanced, I like to simply avoid all exercises that promote flexion or exaggerated extension. This also applies to stretches. While extension can be beneficial to help restore your posture (especially if you spend the majority of your time sitting hunched over), try to avoid going to the extremes. For example, if you like to perform the cobra exercise…

Instead of doing a high cobra with my hands pressing against the floor, I prefer to go low resting on my forearms, or making a fist with my hand and just resting my head on my hand instead.

Glad you made it this far! I hope you found this post helpful. It’s extremely important to work on your inner core. A strong core will protect your spine from pain and injury. Schedule time every day to do at least a few exercises. And if you’d like a simple done for you plan, go grab the Deep Core Training. My clients love it!

Related: How to strengthen a weak core

  • Great video! I’m still dealing with pain in my piriformis muscle and thinking my core def needs to be worked on…I walk 3 to 5 times a week doing around 3-5 miles and feel good about that…what do you think about exercise balls? Do you use them?

    • Hi Heather!
      Yess, I’ve been doing these exercises almost everyday (especially the first 3 ones) and I always feel so much better in my pelvic area. I love how low impact they are and how much they target the inner core and stabilize my hips. When we do these with proper form (back glued to floor), we truly feel the core working. I do use the exercise balls for variety of things (back hyper extensions, Abs exercises, and hamstring/glute work such as hamstring curls, glute bridges on the ball and reverse planks with my feet elevated on ball). The reason why I haven’t introduced them yet is because it can be super easy to do them with bad form (especially if one hasn’t worked on his core strength yet) since the exercise balls can be quite challenging. I wanted to first put together core strengthening workouts that will help gain that prerequisite core strength and balance needed to move to the stability balls (especially for people dealing with back pain). Thanks for mentioning them 🙂 I will be putting together a beginner version of a stability core workout very soon! <3

  • Wow just done your workout and I feel so good already. I can’t wait to start doing this on a daily basis. I have suffered with bulging disc pain, degenerated disc disease and arthritis for 20+ years. Being very weak in the core definitely contributes to the pain I have in my back, hips and legs. Thank you so much for you easy to follow video, I just love it!!
    Love Tam

    • Hi Tam!
      Thanks a lot for your feedback! I’m soo glad to hear that 🙂 I will be posting more like these because they are super effective in stabilizing your hips and spine. Movement of the hip area is vital to help with arthritis inflammation.
      Stay Strong!

  • I am morbidly obese and I have chronic lower back pain. I would have a hard time getting up from the floor. Are these excercises modifiable to accommodate my condition.

    • Hi Lori,
      I understand your concern. I don’t think these exercises (except the bird dog) would be OK because I wouldn’t want you compensating or doing them with bad form. If you’re not active and haven’t exercised in a while, I’d highly suggest you simply learn diaphragmatic breathing, core bracing, and activating your deep pelvic muscles (which you can do even standing) to support and stabilize your lower back. The exercises are the next step.
      I have a tutorial on core bracing and activating the deep core muscles in the deep core training: https://coachsofiafitness.com/deep-core-training-2/ Once you activate and strengthen those muscles, exercises will start to feel easier and you can do them on your bed even. It’s not about the surface (which you should just make sure your back is supported so don’t lie on anything too soft).

  • >