What is the transverse abdominis?
Ever wonder how your instagram heroes float lightly and land effortlessly?
They must have some kind of unfair advantage right?
It’s troubling that not one single yoga teacher has spilled the beans.
And kept you in the dark.
A little frustrating to say the least.
Let’s undo the confusion.
Do you know the one topic that get’s discussed ad nauseam at your local gym?
How to get a six-pack.
It’s funny, this is what I’ve observed, and maybe you’ve seen the same.
You walk into your local gym, and you see the same guy doing the following:
- He isolates the same 21 muscles doing the same boring machines.
- He runs on the same treadmill in the corner for the same boring 60 minutes daily.
- He drinks the same chocolate protein drink in his “shaker bottle” that he doesn’t really like.
- He repetitively eats the same boring salad with the same boring chicken breast on top and he calls himself healthy.
All this to get a six-pack.
You’ve seen this guy right?
And then the funny part.
He walks into the corner and glances around to make sure no one’s watching.
Then lifts up his shirt to take a “quick look” at his “abs”.
He admires them like a work of art.
This is the definition of a “Bro”. So let’s refer to him as that from now on.
Now this is the *really* funny part.
One day The Bro decides to “take a peak” at the yoga class going on similar to how he “takes a peak” at his abs in the mirror when he thinks no one is watching.
And what does he see?
A perfectly toned girl wearing the perfectly coordinated yoga outfit effortlessly lifting herself off the ground.
Elegantly hovering in some foreign-cool arm balance.
And as quiet as a mouse pitter-pattering across the floor, she jumps up to handstand, repeatedly, holding it for 20 seconds at a time, effortlessly.
All this without even breaking a sweat.
And The Bro thinks to himself “Hey, I can do this, after all, I can squat 800 lbs. and I can see my six-pack”.
Then he tries.
And never mind lifting himself up, he can’t even lift a leg.
So much for that six-pack eh?
What is the Rectus Abdominis?
The Rectus Abdominis is the muscle that doesn’t matter much.
It’s not very functional.
But it looks nice.
It’s the muscle that rests on the front on your abdomen.
It does do a couple useful things like:
Help you breathe and keep the abdominal organs in place, but that’s about it.
It sure as hell isn’t the muscle that will help you float around like your heroes on Instagram.
The One that Really Matters
The Transverse Abdominis (TvA).
The transverse abdominis sits behind the six-pack muscle. It’s the highly functional muscle. This is the one that helps you float.
Your TvA runs from your Pubic Bone up to the bottom of the ribcage. It also runs between the bottom of your rib cage and your frontal hip bones.
Ok, back to the gym for a second. Have you seen the 500lb. bodybuilder walking around with a weight belt to support his (or her) lower back?
That’s the role of your TvA, it acts as a weight belt to hold you in place.
The Advice that Doesn’t Work
This is the million dollar question.
The usual advice on the topic is this:
Suck in your stomach.
Yeah, great, but it doesn’t work.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
This is why there’s confusion around floating in the yoga community.
Let’s talk about Uddiyana Bandha. It’s taught by telling you to ‘suck in the stomach’ and this is how you do arm balances and inversions.
It’s not the whole story.
The Toothpaste Trick — This is Why it Doesn’t Work
Go grab a tube of toothpaste and squeeze the center.
All you’re doing is displacing the paste. Yes, the center where you squeeze is thinner, but the paste is still in the tube, it’s just moved.
Sucking in your stomach and pulling air up into your diaphragm or pushing air down into your pelvic floor isn’t going to do anything for you.
What is the Pelvic Floor? (This is Mula Bandha)
This is a problem I have with yoga teachers.
There’s lots of terminology thrown around for the sake of…well…throwing around terminology.
How many times have we heard something like this,
“Press your second metatarsal into the ground, squeeze the tibia in and back, and descend into the femur…and you’ll feel a stretch across your Obturator Internus.”
We get it, you have this cool anatomy app on your iPhone that you play with five minutes before class in order to show off.H
And you know what’s downright hilarious?
Yoga teachers joke amongst one another about “yoga teacher lingo”.
Ok, so what exactly is the Pelvic Floor?
The Pelvic Floor technically separates the pelvic cavity (above) from the perineum (below). This is useless to you, but impressive to repeat to your friends.
The muscles of the pelvic floor run from your pubic bone to your tailbone. They fill the space at the bottom of your pelvis. Hence, the “Pelvic Floor”.
These are the muscles that start everything.
They direct the muscles of the hips and TvA muscles to contract. When these muscles turn on, the other muscles turn on.
It’s worth repeating.
When the muscles of your Pelvic Floor turn on, your TvA muscles can engage properly.
This is drastically different from simply “sucking in your stomach”.
How Exactly to Engage Your TvA & Pelvic Floor — This is how you Float
Now we’re armed with the basics, let’s dovetail theory with function.
In short, the muscles of the Pelvic Floor start the engagement (contraction) of the TvA.
You never want to isolate the TvA. It’s a waste of time and isn’t going to improve your yoga practice. Let the Pelvic Floor always drive the engagement of your TvA.
And here’s the piercing truth:
Yoga isn’t even about muscular isolation. It’s about teaching the muscles in the body to work together and this is one critical (and maybe the most complicated) relationship.
How to Engage your Pelvic Floor (for women):
This is going to sound a little weird, but this is how you have to think:
Imagine using your vagina like a straw.
Imagine sucking down a smoothie or trying to pick up a grape. It’s a gentle upward lifting action.
Note, it’s gentle, not forceful. Getting your TvA to engage properly is a combination of upward and inward drawing.
How to Engage your Pelvic Floor (for men):
I know this is going to sound cliche but it really is the best way to describe it:
Imagine yourself urinating. Then imagine stopping yourself mid-flow. Also, imagine trying to draw your testicles up.
Again, it’s a gentle upward lifting action.
Your Transverse Abdominis
Here are the key points to takeaway:
- Simply drawing your stomach in doesn’t do anything.
- Don’t waste time trying to active your Transverse Abdominis independently
- Your Transverse Abdominis and Pelvic Floor muscles activate together
- Ladies pick something up, gentlemen, stop something from flowing
- Proper engagement of your Transverse Abdominis feels like an upward *and* inward pulling
Now here is where I have to disappoint you.
You know how to engage your TvA. You’ve figured out how to do it standing or maybe even lying down.
However, in order to float around, fly and land lightly, you must be able to do this while moving.
Here’s where it gets hairy, but I’m going to guide you through it.
A Mention of “The Core”
Why have I refrained from using the “C’ word so far?
The term “core” is a fitness buzzword.
It’s unabashedly thrown around by people in the fitness world without truly understanding it’s meaning.
And it’s actual meaning can be debated to no end. How many different definitions of “the core” have you heard?
I can tell you what it’s not.
It’s not *just* the muscles in the stomach and it’s definitely not just the rectus abdominis.
The “core” consists not just of abdominal muscles, but muscles in the lower back, Pelvic Floor, and the hips. And this is still an over simplification of it.
This is why you haven’t heard me use that term in this article.
I’m not downplaying core strength.
It’s important (and I’ll have an entire post on it at some point) and it’s a lot more comprehensive.
Your Pelvic Floor muscles and TvA are a part of the core, not all of it.
Your Transverse Abdominis During and After Pregnancy (Trouble Brewing in Your Lower Back?)
Let’s start with my personal observation and a question.
Why is it that women after they’ve had kids have a harder time doing arm balances and inversions?
This is a common scenario in a yoga studio and I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes, repeatedly.
There is something that goes on during pregnancy.
Never mind the Transverse Abdominis and your Pelvic Floor muscles. Your entire Core get’s dealt a weakening blow during pregnancy. This needs to be rehabbed and for some women it never is.
Here’s what can happen:
A surefire sign of a weakened TvA is your abdominal muscles can physically split apart. Yes, your six-pack can split apart, but not completely into two.
If you’re interested, this is called “Diastasis Recti”.
Not to get to technical, but it’s useful if you understand this. While you are carrying your baby in your uterus, it literally pushes against your abs. Humans have connective tissue thats hold each of the sides of the six-pack together. This connective tissue is called linea alba and this is what get’s stretched during pregnancy.
It’s your Transverse Abdominis (along with the rest of your core muscles) that normally helps to hold all this together.
This is also the reason anyone who’s had children can suffer from extreme lower back pains. Your poor back muscles have to work overtime to compensate for the weakness in your TvA and Pelvic Floor muscles.
Another reason to acquaint yourself with your Transverse Abdominis.
Methods for Floating like Your Heroes of Instagram
Why is Engaging your TvA so difficult while inverted?
I’m going to share some valuable insight with you.
I’ve seen plenty of students who know how to engage their Transverse Abdominis who still can’t float.
Why? Again, the shift of perspective. It’s also the context in how you do it.
Start with these.
I’m going to warn you, some of these exercises are difficult and require you to have command over the rest of your body.
1. Engage your TvA while Inverted Against a Wall
Kick yourself into a handstand up against a wall. Focus on the Pelvic Floor.
Here’s the thing, you’re used to lifting your Pelvic Floor up while standing or lying down. While on your hands, you are still lifting it up anatomically, but you’re effectively drawing it down toward the floor.
It’s a different sensation from just drawing your belly button in.
Now here’s a little secret that will speed up the process of learning handstand:
Learn what it feels like to engage your TvA properly while at the wall. This is why most students never leave the wall. They never learn to engage their TvA properly and they feel “stuck” and “dependent”.
Kinda like a horrible relationship.
It’s a helpless feeling and sucking your stomach in just doesn’t do it.
2. Engage your TvA While in a Forward Fold Standing & Sitting — This Prepares you to Land
Why work on engaging your Transverse Abdominis while folding?
Think about it.
A high percentage of the time you finishing floating you end in a forward fold of some sort.
Engaging properly while folding is critical to landing smoothly (in full control).
If you’ve ever tried to jump forward and land lightly in a Sun Salutation you’ve probably experienced this:
You’re on your way down, then boom, all of a sudden the smooth decent ends and you come crashing to the earth.
Do you know how to fix this?
Work on engaging your TvA while folding forward.
How do you know if you’re engaging correctly?
Test it in a forward fold on the floor. If your Transverse Abdominis is engaged correctly you should almost feel your hips moving back along the ground, in the opposite direction of your fold.
3. Don’t Ignore Downward Dog (and other simple poses)
Don’t ignore simple poses.
Use simple poses as a vehicle to practice more complex topics in your body. Like engaging your TvA. Do it in downward dog.
Learning to engage your TvA in these basic poses will set you apart from the rest:
For your homework, start working on these now and get back to me. I also have a custom designed sequence for TvA engaging/strengthening at the bottom of this post for you. Grab it and start working on it.
4. Use a Block to Test your TvA Engagement
Grab a foam block and stick it between your legs.
Now squeeze. This will recruit the Pelvic Floor muscles and in turn engage your TvA.
Again, it’s easiest to do when standing or lying down.
Hold the block in as many different poses as possible. Try it against the wall in a handstand, while forward folding on the floor, or crow.
Learning to engage your TvA isn’t good enough for floating, you have to do it in the proper context.
Your Floating Blueprint
Learning to float forward from downward dog into a forward fold is the golden standard (like from a sun salutation). If you can nail this, you’re capable of floating into and out of all other poses and arm balances.
Here’s your mindset going forward:
Take a mental snapshot of every second of the jump forward. Take 4-5 good mental images.
Then extract those images into static standing poses.
Work on engaging your TvA in every one of those positions.
Once you’re comfortable engaging in various static position, move to engaging your TvA while in-motion. Doing this will prepare you for the float forward.
Practice engaging in these in-motion positions (these will prepare you to engage properly while jumping every time):
- Walking backwards
- Walking in Plank
- Jumping 360 degrees in a circle
- Lifting and Lowering one leg at a time off the ground (move through your full range of motion)
It’s not the repetitious nature of jumping that’ll allow you to get it, it’s focusing intensely on that feeling inside you every time you jump.
Quantifying the Unquantifiable
There is you have it.
Stop looking at Instagram with a tinge of jealousy and stop telling yourself:
“I wish that was me.” or “Why can’t I do that.” or “I’m hopeless.”
Do what they do. Now you can.
You have a detailed plan for learning to float.
Take it and apply it to your practice, today.
Don’t waste time convincing yourself you can’t or it’s too complicated. Just get started.
Answer this question below:
When doing “core exercises”, which exercises do you actually feel your Pelvic Floor muscles and TvA engage? And if not at all, which parts of the body to you feel engaging instead?
Get started with this highly-effective 15 minute sequence that can be done 3-4 times per week.