The Abs-Defining Muscle You’re Not Working

Max-kegfire / Getty Images; Graphic by Dana Davenport

Even though there are a ton of great abs exercises out there, many tend to favor the upper abs or obliques. And, sure, those are great, but to build a stronger core you’ve got to challenge all of the muscles that make up the abdominals—that includes the rectus abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques, and even the one that’s too deep to see: the transverse abdominis.

“The transverse abdominis is an intrinsic core stabilizer, which means it helps stabilize your core and spine to help your body function correctly,” explains Cori Lefkowith, Orange County-based personal trainer and founder of Redefining Strength. This muscle is the deepest of the abdominal muscles, and is often referred to as the “corset muscle,” because it wraps around your sides and spine, Lefkowith explains. (It doesn’t actually attach to your spine though.)

It acts like a muscular girdle of sorts, protecting your lower back and helping to create that defined, nipped look when it’s worked along with the other muscles of your core. “Isolating and working one muscle alone will not give you a six pack,” says Lefkowith. But, having a strong transverse abdominis will create core stability. That stability will allow you to perform abs exercises properly, which will result in the visible definition you may be looking for.

“When engaged with other muscles of your core, it creates intra-abdominal pressure, bracing your core and tightening everything up,” says Lefkowith. That translates to lower-back pain prevention, she adds.

Learning how to activate the transverse abdominis can be challenging, but once you get the knack of it, your abs will work more effectively.

It can be difficult to recognize when you’re actually activating stabilizing muscles, like the transverse abdominis, explains Lefkowith. Whereas you can tell pretty quickly when you’re using some of your other muscles—for example, if you’re doing bicycle crunches properly, you’ll feel it in your obliques pretty quickly—it can be very difficult to know whether or not you’re engaging the deep muscles you can’t see or feel.

Lefkowith offers two suggestions for making sure you’re targeting the important but hidden muscle. “If you think about hollowing out your belly and drawing your belly button in toward your spine, you can learn to engage the muscle correctly,” she says. You can also try bracing to get it working. “You know you are engaging your core and contracting your transverse abdominis correctly when you tighten your stomach as if preparing to be punched in the gut,” says Lefkowit. “That reflexive tightening engages your abdominal muscles correctly.” Aim to create that sensation the next time you do core or compound exercises. Since this muscle is often neglected you really have to make a mental and physical effort to engage it, she adds.

Try these three exercises to activate and work your transverse abdominis (along with the rest of your core) at the beginning of a workout.

“I would pick a few activation or isolation exercises, like the ones below, to include in your warm-up to make sure your core is working correctly before you even work out,” says Lefkowith. Really think about engaging your core here—including that deep transverse abdominis. “If you just let other muscles compensate, which can happen since our bodies take the path of least resistance, you won’t get as much out of the exercises,” she says.

Do 15 of each of these exercises (or, for the plank, five 10-second holds with minimal rest in between), then repeat for two to three sets total. If that’s too much, try 10 reps–or work your way up to 20 for an extra challenge.

1. Dead Bug — 15 reps


Whitney Thielman

“This exercise is a great way to really focus on that hollow hold or the pelvic tilt and get those abs engaged correctly,” says Lefkowith.

  • Lie on your back with your feet in the air and knees bent 90 degrees. Raise your arms in the air so that your hands are directly above your shoulders.
  • Slowly extend your right leg in front of you and your left arm above your head, keeping your lower back pressed against the floor.
  • Return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
  • Do 15 reps.

2. Forearm Plank — 5 10-second holds


Valerie Fischel

“These are a great way to learn to properly engage your core especially if you focus on shorter, more intense holds,” says Lefkowith.

  • Start with your forearms and knees on the ground, shoulder-width apart. Elbows should be stacked underneath the shoulders, your forearms straight in front of you on the ground.
  • Lift your knees off the ground and push your feet back to bring your body to full extension, so your body creates one long line.
  • Keep your core tight and your hips lifted, and keep your neck in line with your spine.
  • Hold for 10 seconds, take a brief break then repeat four more times.

3. Bird Dog Crunch — 15 reps


Whitney Thielman

“These work on core stability, and they activate the glutes as you work your abs,” says Lefkowith.

  • Start on your hands and knees in tabletop position with your wrists above your shoulders and your knees below your hips.
  • Inhale and extend your right arm forward and left leg back, maintaining a flat back and square hips.
  • Squeeze your abs and exhale as you draw your right elbow to your left knee.
  • Extend back out to start. Don’t forget to do both sides.
  • Do 15 reps.

Isolated abs exercises can help with activating your whole core before a workout, but your abs should also be working during larger movements. Don’t forget to stay engaged during compound moves that work your core along with other muscle groups, says Lefkowith—think goblet squats, dumbbell thrusters, and deadlifts.

No matter what you’re doing during your workout though, keep those abs in the game–even (or especially) those deep ones.

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