How to Find Your Transverse Abdominis Muscle or ‘Engage Your Core’

MuTu Core | trademark MuTu SystemHow to Engage your Transversus Abdominis (often called TVA) muscle… Probably one of the most misunderstood muscle actions and certainly one I am most often asked about. I have compiled a ‘Engaging Your Core 101″ for you… I hope it helps!

1. ‘SUCKING IN YOUR STOMACH’ IS NOT ENGAGING YOUR CORE

It’s merely shifting pressure and mass upwards or downwards. If you suck it all in hard and your waist goes narrower (it will for as long as you hold your breath anyway), all the stuff that was hanging out has gone somewhere. Upwards, pushing into your diaphragm, or downwards pushing onto your pelvic floor. Imagine a tube of toothpaste. If you squeeze in the middle… the contents of the middle of the tube haven’t disappeared, they have moved.

Sucking in your breath or holding your breath whilst pulling your stomach in hard, is not training muscles. Its shifting pressure and displacing mass.

2.  SO HOW DO YOU ENGAGE YOUR TVA?

You exhale, GENTLY drawing your belly button back at the same time as gently drawing your pelvic floor upwards. Your abs are drawing gently inwards, but not pulling in hard. Both transverse abdominis and pelvic floor are part of your core, and they work together. Making a ‘Ssssss’ sound as you exhale may help you find the right deep abdominal muscles. For the pelvic floor part… imagine you’re sucking a smoothie with your vagina as the straw… or picking up a grape with your vagina… weird. But it works.

Inhale as you relax the muscles, engage again on the next exhale. So you’re working the muscles on the exhale, relaxing on the inhale.

If you watch side on in a mirror, this shows as a very slight movement of the lower abs – not a big one.  Spine is neutral, your chest should not thrust – so lower ribs stay back, stacked directly over ASIS (the hip bone bits that stick out at the front), stacked over pubic bone. You don’t hold your breath. Your shoulders don’t tense and very importantly, your tailbone or backside doesn’t tuck underneath you. When you isolate your TVA muscle and engage it, you should not see movement anywhere else in your body.

You could be lying on your back, on all fours, sitting or standing, but the same indicators apply – your spine should be in neutral alignment: lower ribs over ASIS, ASIS on the same vertical plane over pubic bone. If your butt tucks under, if you suck it all in, hold your breath, thrust, tense or hunch anything else… that’s not isolating your TVA. Correct alignment is VITAL to making this work and is explained in detail in our programs.

3. HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU’RE DOING IT RIGHT?

Place your hands on your ‘hip bones’ – the bits that jut out at the front of your pelvis on each side). Move your fingers slightly inwards and downwards from there, where its soft. When you engage your TVA, you will feel a tensing of the broad flat muscle under the pads of your fingers. If your stomach pooches or pushes outwards, if you’re holding your breath or anything is pushing away, then you’re working the outer abdominal muscles and TVA isn’t doing its thing.

4. ‘I CAN FEEL SOMETHING HAPPENING IN MY PELVIC FLOOR MUSCLES’

GOOD! The TVA is part of your core system of muscles, as are your pelvic floor muscles. When you draw TVA inwards, pelvic floor should also lift. Remember, to really work your pelvic floor muscles, it’s a deep lift up inside, not a little lateral squeeze at the front. Imagine drawing up the walls of your vagina and back passage (try them separately, and together… undercarriage acrobatics) as if you’re picking up a small grape and pulling it up inside you.

So the ideal TVA contraction = exhale, draw belly button gently back to spine, draw pelvic floor gently up. Pelvis doesn’t move. No tucking, hunching, thrusting or breath holding.

5. ISOLATING THE TVA

…Is a necessary first stage of achieving a functioning core because you need to reconnect with it if you’re going to work with it. But its only the first stage. You don’t have to carry on doing TVA isolation exercises. You have to find it. You have to reconnect brain to muscle and make it work right.

But to really work, to really function, the TVA is only one part (a very important part, but one part all the same) of your core system of muscles. These include your diaphragm, pelvic floor and the multifidus of your spine. Your stabilizing muscles that are utterly vital to your body working right. You find them, you figure out how to make them work on their own, then you teach the whole system to work every time you move.

6. INTRA ABDOMINAL PRESSURE

Intra Abdominal Pressure is why your stomach muscles push out, why you get diastasis recti, hernia, prolapse and a tummy you don’t like. You need to reverse this pressure to get a tummy that looks and feels like you want it to, for the long term. This is about alignment and learning to use your entire core system right…. you have to address the cause, not just the symptoms.

7. YOU’VE GOT TO FIND IT BEFORE YOU CAN STRENGTHEN IT

If you haven’t found, reconnected with and learnt to engage and use your entire core system of muscles from these foundations, no Pilates class, boot camp, binding tight things around your waist or any other abdominal exercise is going to get you a flat stomach.

8. NOW I’VE FOUND IT, SHOULD I ‘ENGAGE’ IT THE WHOLE TIME?

No! The core muscular system’s function is to stabilise your body without you consciously contracting it every time. You need to connect, to isolate, in order to find and retrain it – you do NOT have to hold it in the whole time. You definitely don’t suck it in hard (see no.1). Hypertonic muscles are too tight – weak and tight. A constantly contracted muscle is absolutely not a strong one. So let your abs go! You need to untuck your backside and allow your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles to work through their full range of movement, to help your body find it’s neutral, optimally functional alignment – and to do this the relaxing and stretching parts are every bit as important as the contracting part.

9.’BUT I STILL DON’T HAVE A FLAT STOMACH!’

That’s because there is fat sitting on top of your muscles my Lovely. The fat you carry on your waistline (and everywhere else – its the same stuff) is determined by the food your do or don’t choose to eat, by your hormones and by your activity levels. Stomach exercises (even the right ones) won’t give you a flat stomach you can see, if a layer or fat is obliterating the view.

 

A HOLISTIC APPROACH

This is why MuTu System programs work. They teach you how to find the right muscles, how to reconnect with them on an emotional as well as physiological level (the latter won’t work without the former, and many mothers have lost the former), make them work, and then make the whole system work every time you move. MuTu teaches you how to reverse the pressure causing the problem through correct alignment, without which no ab exercises will work long term. It teaches you how to eat the right foods and balance your hormones to lose the fat that sits on top. MuTu System fills in all the gaps, all the missing links in why the regime or exercises or methods you have tried before, may not have flattened your tummy.

  • Brooke

    Thanks for the interesting article!

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      Glad you found it helpful :)

  • chris

    Hi, I’m a larger girl and I am really worried that I am not doing my TVA’s properly because when I do them, I do feel as though I’m sucking in, but I think that’s just because I have a lot of fat around my mid section. How can I know I’m doing them properly?

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      This post above explains what you should or shouldn’t be feeling Chris – for a deeper explanation I would recommend you try one of our programs. The fat on top shouldn’t really matter… the muscles are going on underneath even if you can’t see them! If you fee like you;re sucking in… you’re probably sucking in though!

  • http://www.fattomuscles.com/ fat to muscles

    It is important to build muscles. Muscles signify a fit body. Achieving
    that sculpted body means knowing the right kind of muscle building
    workouts.

    The first step in the workout is to perform strength exercises. This can
    either be using free weights or body weight. This is to ready the body
    for more strenuous routines later. More calories are burned

  • Annie

    Honestly, i feel the TVA’s more so when I actually bear down rather than sucking in when I exhale.

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      Bearing down increases intra abdominal pressure, which is the opposite of what you want. the pelvic floor is lifting as TVA is engaged correctly, so if you’re pushing or bearing down, that not engaging TVA correctly.

  • Michelle Enzenroth

    I am learning how to engage my core. I started on my own and am beginning to make a bad habit of also tucking my tailbone every time I engage. I have a yoga instructor who is helping me now, but any advice you may have to overcome this habit and just engage the core?

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      Practice! Try the side on to a mirror exercise above, so you can see what your body is doing. Most likely you’re pulling in too hard + tucking your pelvis as you do so. Try a much gentler contraction on a slow exhale through pursed lips.

  • Elizaveta Briscoe

    When I’m engaging my TVAwhat am I supposed to engage first pelvic floor and than TVA. I seems to struggle to do it at the same time. Is breaking it into two steps an option?

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      Doesn’t matter a bit my Lovely. Do it however works for you… it’ll get easy I promise. The idea is that your muscles are re-learning a natural process. It’ll come. Don’t get frustrated with your body, just work with your breath, with patience + focus.

  • Joana

    Wendy, i have a lordotic curve and therefore actually need to tuck my pelvis under a little bit to achieve correct alignment. Since i also have kyphosis it gets a bit complicated to find neutral. Nonetheless i am able to draw belly button to spine by engaging the pelvic floor and i feel the “raise” in the soft part next to my hip bones when i do it. I believe i am engaging TVA. My doubt is this: I know i am NOT sucking in when i draw belly button to spine and yet if i tuck my butt under extremely i can still do it. But I thought this was impossible? You cannot draw belly button to spine if you really tuck under, right? Then why am i not sucking in and still seeing that happen?

  • Julie

    Hi Wendy, when I draw my belly button in to my spine and work on the pelvic floor, it hurts my lower back. It’s the strangest thing. Why might this be happening?

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      If you experience any pain at all please stop the exercises or movements that you;re doing causing the pain + see a Doctor. Ideally a specialist Physio / Physical Therapist. It sounds like you may be over tightening your muscles, or sucking in, but there are many possibilities… some hands on help will help http://mutusystem.com/referral-to-a-womens-health-physiotherapist.html

  • Tanja

    Dear Wendy,
    Could you please let me know how does your system differs from Tupler technique when it comes to engaging the core and diastasis recti? Many thanx Tanja

  • Tanja

    Hi Wendy thank you for your prompt answer. Just one more thing is it possible to see you in person or you just do this online. I live in NW London UK. My problem is I am not sure if I am doing this core engaging correctly and if the diastasis to big to be only fixed by this program. Doctors are not usually helpful with this and I was referred to surgeon regarding my umbilical hernia on 17th of July. I am not sure I want to do surgery,also I would like to try exercises first to fix the diastasis. I agree with your holistic approach and long time investment and I believe this is a route for me. The only problem is whether I will be able to understand from your instructions how to engage my core and what if I do not do it properly (that is why I asked to see you in person or if you recommend anybody in my area just for one to one one time session so I know I am doing it correct.)

  • Lababla

    I love your idea of holistic approach . My idea is that if I am going to jump in the pool, then it should be beneficial for everything at the same time (not just today is the core, tomorrow is the back, and next week the posture). My personal experience has led me to conclude for a flat stomach I need to take the 3 layers of it into consideration : 1- the guts (eat right food, right amount, at right time), 2 – the muscles/posture 3- the fat (= working out). ..and I am in the middle of the journey to find the right formula that works for me. That being said, I’d love to learn more about your program and will look into it further.

  • Ed

    Is there a Mutu system specialist in Singapore? I have closed my gap from 4 to 1 finger 3 months postpartum but i just could not close it completely. Am eager to resume swimming with breast stroke…please help? Thank you…

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      Hi Ed, sorry we don’t have MuTu specialists, just our programs + live events. I would suggest you go with the 12 Week Online program

  • Beata

    Hi Wendy I’m so down because I have horizontal gap _2 fingers and vertical about 10 cm. Is it very bad?? I started doing mutu system 12 weeks, im on week one. Will that help me???

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      Just follow the program + make sure you watch + revisit all the science workshop videos so you really ‘get it’. You can always make improvements with consistent adjustments!

  • Beata

    Hi Wendy. Can u please help me . I have a vertical gap -10 cmI think and horizontal -2 fingers. Is it very bad or is it quite normal?I started doing 12 week program, I’m on week one. Will this help me??

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      Hi Beata, I think I answered this below – do please use the Facebook customer group or contact the team as explained in your post-purchase emails for faster follow up that I can provide here!

      Do it as often as you like – but its quality not quantity!

  • Kelly

    Wow, I’ve been trying to get this right for a while. Read and watche videos. No one had broken it down so well. After reading this, I finally felt like I was don’t it right!

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      Great!

  • Pingback: WTF IS A CORE. |()

  • pat

    Hi Wendy, I am a very visual learner at times and need to “see”. Do you have a graphic of someone standing with a tucked tailbone. I am not sure what this looks like and what I am thinking may be an extreme. Thank you!

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      Look down. Your ASIS (‘hip bones’ – the 2 bony markers that stick out at the front of your hips) should be directly above (in the same vertical plane as) your pubic bone. If your pubic bone is further out in front, you’re tucking. Also if your glutes are on permanent low clench (which many womens are!) you’re tucking.

  • Paula Videla-Rodriguez

    Wendy, thank you so much for this excellent comprehensive guide! I am a mom of an 8yr old and 2 yr old….will be turning 44 this year….that being said, I’ve come a long way in reshaping my body….and i am currently doing a workout regimen but have terrible pelvic floor control…..everytime I sneeze or cough or do too many jumping jacks! Embarassing and highly unpleasent and uncomfortable to say the least……I fear I may not be working the right muscles as per you guide……I have lessened my mummy tummy considerably but there is still a lingering pouch….not sure what to do next….to discontinue my workout regimen, start something different? I would give anything to attend one of the live sessions but I reside in Toronto, Canada and the travelling costs and time plus the cost of the workshop would not be attainable for me at the moment…..Any guidance would be so greatly appreciated….regardless, THANK YOU SO MUCH for posting this info…sooooooo helpful!!!!

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      The 12 week program is what you need Paula – all is explained… :-) Pity you can’t come to the Masterclasses , but I’m there on video for you in the program! And thank you for your comments, you’re welcome!

  • Nicole

    Hi Wendy. I’m new to the program and am trying to internalize the concept of engaging my TVA muscles and pelvic floor. I’m having difficulties with knowing if I’m doing it correctly. I feel like I’m trying SO hard, but am still very unsure. When you say “engage your pelvic floor”, are referring to kiegals?

    I LOVE this program already and you are so relatable and helpful. Thank you!

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      Thanks Nicole + welcome! Please use the closed customer group on Facebook where you will get daily help from the team! https://www.facebook.com/groups/MuTu.Mamas/

      • Nicole

        I sent a request to join the group over a month ago, but have not received a response :-/ Is there any way you could add me because I’d love to get some help. Thank you, Wendy.

        • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

          Hey Nicole, sorry about this – something much be not matching up on our database – it’ll be a slight email difference or something – so sorry. Please email my team on hello@mutusystem.com + let them know. See you in the group soon!

          • Nicole

            Thank you for the quick response! Will do :-)

          • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

            Just checking you’re in + getting answers Nicole?

  • Kleine Maus

    Hi Wendy,
    Thank you for creating a programme for us. Lying on my bed, i tried to engage the TVA and after that i got a crump in my foot (toe). Totally unrelated or not?
    Also, what happens if instead of engaging the TVA im engaging the oblique (without noticing, obviiiii)? Can the diastasis get bigger? Thank you again!!

    • http://mutusystem.com/ Wendy Powell

      Sounds like you might be being a bit forceful there! Tight (hypertonic) muscles in your trunk or your pelvic floor (or anywhere else) are not strong … tight=weak just as much as slack=weak. And forceful sucking in or contraction will only have the effect of ‘switching off’ the deeper muscles. We isolate these muscles in the early stages of restoration in order simply to reconnect with them + establish a natural (reactive) function.
      Practice working with your breath – fully (fully!) relaxing all your abdominal + pelvic floor muscles on the inhale, then drawing gently up on the exhale (think ‘picking up a blueberry with your vagina’ as the abs draw inwards). These movements are NOT big sucky-in movements, they are deep, gentle, mindful. You won’t see much happening! If you’re seeing a big sucking-in you’re going at it far too hard + simply increasing pressure. It is likely if you’re struggling that you’re being a little too forceful… breathe + relax into it. We’re not power lifting here ;-)

  • Sami

    Hi Wendy,
    Thank you for your advice. I have a habit that I like to sit on my left side, as a result my left Transverse abdomen is bigger than the one on the right. Could you please give me any advise how to put it back again to the normal shape! if this can be possible? Thank you very much