We have discussed, in depth, how important the transversus abdominus (TA) is to a maximum pelvic floor contraction. These lower abdominal fibers that begin below our ribs and funnel down into our pelviscontract in coordination with the levator ani muscle of our pelvic floor. The muscle fibers of our TA act like a corset as they wrap around our abdomen and pelvis instead of running up and down or at a diagonal like our other abdominal muscles. Much like a corset, these fibers tighten, forcing the air within our abdomen and pelvis up under our ribs as we draw our belly button “up and in.” This cinching action, along with the coordinated elevation of our pelvic floor, helps to displace our intra-abdominal pressure upward, working against the effects of gravity that our pelvic floor works against every minute that we are sitting or standing throughout our day.
It is important to note the differences between the action of our TA and our other abdominal muscles. These other abdominal muscles lie over the top of our TA and include our right and left internal obliques, our right and left external obliques, and our rectus abdominus. The common action of all of our abdominal muscles, with the exception of our tansversus abdominus, is to curl our ribs closer to our pelvis. Our TA, which runs in a transverse direction, works like a shrink wrap, giving increased stability to our pelvis and lower lumbar spine. We strengthen this muscle not by curling our ribs closer to our pelvis, but by challenging the stability of our spine. This can be done in many different positions, but the positions I find most effective are in a hands and knees position and in a plank position. There is a progression of difficulty for TA stabilization within the four workouts on the Hab-It: Pelvic Floor DVD, with the plank position being the most difficult in workout #4. Below I have also included 4 more examples of plank exercises of progressive difficulty for you to try when you have mastered all the exercises on the Hab-It DVD.
Plank hold with horizontal abduction – (3 sets of 10 repetitions, on Right and Left) Holding plank position, posting on your hands and toes, pull your belly button in toward your spine and tighten up. Lift one arm out to the side, with a slight bend in your elbow, focusing on squeezing your shoulder blade down and in. Hold your shoulder blade squeezed down and in for a 2 count before bringing your arm back down to allow your hand to barely brush the floor and then repeat. Perform 10 repetitions with your right arm and 10 repetitions with your left arm. Take care to stay parallel to the ground, not letting your body rotate as you lift your arm out to the side.
Swiss ball slalom – (3 sets of 10 repetitions) Position yourself in push up position with your hands on the ground and your feet on a Swiss ball. Pull your in knees toward your chest by rolling the ball in, pause in this position for a count, and then straighten your legs back out. Repeat these slow reps with good control of the ball for 10 repetitions. Remember to keep your belly button pulled in toward your spine throughout this exercise and stop if you feel any back pain! Depending on your abdominal strength, the ball may be placed at your shins or at your laces. Start with 3 sets of 6 repetitions and gradually work up to 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
Plank holds with hip extension – (3 sets of 10 repetitions) Position yourself in plank position, posting on your elbows and your toes. Make sure your belly button is drawn in tight to stabilize your lower back as you lift one leg off the ground, squeezing the back of your thigh and your glute for a count. Reposition your leg and then lift the opposite foot off the ground, squeezing the back side of your thigh and glute for a count. Repeat these lifts for 10 lifts on each leg. Note that your hip extension is small if you don’t allow your back to arch, so don’t expect a big leg lift for this exercise.
Plank hold with knee drive/rotation – (3 sets of 10 repetitions) Holding in plank position, this time with weight on your hands (instead of elbows) and toes. Pull your belly button in toward your spine and then pull your right knee up and across, under your body, toward your left elbow and hold for a two count. The closer your knee gets to your elbow, the better the oblique contraction. Then extend that same leg back out straight, taking it into a hip extension, squeezing your glute for a count and then again draw your knee up and across and repeat. Begin with 3 sets of 6 repetitions on this exercise and then progress as you are able up to 3 sets of 10 repetitions. Remember low back pain/ache is a sign to stop.
A quick note : I have not listed any abdominal exercises lying on your back as my favorites for working transverses abdominus because it is hard to not let your rectus abdominus take over in a crunch position. I also recommend against any type of leg lowering exercise, as the weight of your lower body is quite often too much for your transverses to hold and therefore will increase the pressure forced down on our pelvic floor as the other abdominals take over.