If I should chose one exercise, which helped me to get my abdominal muscles back after pregnancy, it would definitely be deep abdominal activation. After my second pregnancy, I found it nearly impossible to do traditional abdominal exercises like double leg raise, abdominal crunches or even plank without feeling pressure in my lower back and feeling doming of my abdominals. Looking back I don’t think even pre-pregnancy I was able to perform these exercises with a correct technique, but I just got on with them as a part of my gym training, without really being aware how my body feels. Only after I learned, how to correctly connect to my deep core muscles I was able to safely strengthen my abdominal muscles and progress into more challenging exercises, whilst maintaining stability in the lower back.
Deep abdominal activation is achieved by intentionally activating Transversus abdominis muscles (TrA). Although TrA should turn on automatically to stabilise our spine before any leg or arm movements, in many people activation of TrA is inhibited. This delay or even absence in the contraction of this deep deep core muscle is common for people who experience lower back pain, had abdominal surgery or after pregnancy but also for people with poor posture and can lead to dysfunction and pain. Fortunately, we can teach our body to activate TrA and train our deep abdominal muscles to stabilise our spine in various positions. Eventually the brain will make the connection and our body will know when and how much TrA activation is needed to fine tune the right balance between the muscle groups without us needing to think about it. The ability to activate TrA will allow all the abdominal muscles to work together as a one unit allowing your body to function without injuries or pain.
You might need to activate your deep core if you
- feel discomfort in lower back when doing traditional abdominal exercises
- notice doming of your abdominals
- want to make sure you strengthening your abdominal muscles in functional way
- starting with your abdominal routine either after pregnancy or longer period of inactivity
- want to help your other abdominal muscles, obliques and rectus abdominis to lay flat against the torso and spine
Deep core activation
This exercises teaches activation of deep abdominal muscle Transversus Abdominis (TrA). Activation of TrA will help to strengthen the weak abdominal muscles in very safe way and should be a first step before starting with other more challenging abdominal exercises. Developing good connection to our deep abdominal muscles is essential as it increases stability in the lower back and pelvic floor region.
- create connection to deep abdominal fibres of Transversus Abdominis
- helping the entire abdominal musculature to fire together working as a one unit
- enables external abdominal muscles, the obliques and rectus abdominis to lay flat against the torso and spine
- help body’s performance in daily activities as well as sporting activities
- improve back pain and prevent injuries
- increasing stability in the lower back and pelvic floor region
Activating TrA might look basic at first, but it can be fairly difficult to master. It is a small subtle movement, so if you do not notice anything the first time, be patient and keep trying. Experiment with different techniques and pay attention to all the steps. With a time you will develop connection to your deep core and notice subtle activation of your transversus abdominis, even when getting on with normal daily tasks, training your abdominals whole day long.
Transversus abdominis works in cooperation with diaphragm and pelvic floor, so for its activation is essential to have spine and pelvis in neutral alignment. before you start with following steps make sure, that you understand, how to find your neutral pelvis position and that you are able to use 360 degree breathing technique.
Lay on your back with your knees bend and feet on the floor close to your sit bones. Your feet and knees should be hip width apart. If you feel your lower ribs are lifting up, fold a small blanket under your upper back and head, this will put your abdominal muscles in the right position.
1. Find your neutral pelvis. This step is important as your deep core muscles work the best when pelvis is in neutral position. If you not sure where your neural pelvis is, try pelvic rocking exercise.
2. Using your fingers find two pointy bone prominences (ASIS) in front of your hip area. Than move your fingers in and down about 1-2 cm and gently press them into your tummy.
3.Connect to your breath feeling your ribs and belly expand with the inhale and draw in with the exhale, using your 360 degree breath.
Core Activation techniques
I provide three options to connect to your deep core as every individual will respond to different methods. Try them one by one and see which one works for you. Always initiate the movement with exhalation with inhale slowly release the activation. Each time focus on the slight movements and sensations produced.
1. Imagine a line drawn across your abdominals from one hip bone (ASIS) to another. Imagine you pulling these bones closer to each other making the line shorter. You should feel a subtle engagement of muscles underneath your finger tips.
2. Pull your navel towards you spine to contract your abdominal, ensuring you do not move your spine and pelvis from neutral position. You can imagine pulling your abdominal muscles slightly away from that imaginary line drawn between your hip bones (ASIS).
3. You can also try activating your TA via your pelvic floor muscle, very similar to Kegel exercises, so this might work for your if you familiar with those. Gently squeeze your pelvic floor muscles. As you draw your pelvic floor muscles in, you should feel tension develop under you fingers tip, that will be your transversus abdominis muscle contracting.
Explore the movement
Once you get familiar with all the steps above. Challenge your body by exploring one of the point below.
Low level contraction
Experiment with finding 20% contraction. Learning to recognize, how low level contraction feels helps to avoid unnecessary bracing of the core and allows your deep core muscles to be available entire day, stabilising your spine every time you move. Start with contracting your TrA as much as you can without loosing neutral spine. Slowly relax the muscles till you contract them with about 20% effort.
Feel and observe what other parts of your body doing, when you activate your abdominals. Are you squeezing everything else at the same time? Do your gluets contract? Do you inner tights engage? Do you upper abdominals join in? Does the position of you spine change? Can you keep your neck and shoulders relaxed? Does your facial expression change? Your body might be wanting to help with every muscle it has. Work on relaxing other parts of the body whilst activating TrA.
Start taking what you learned into you daily life. Notice what you TrA does when you push a heavy door open or when you lift a kettle full of water to make your morning tea. Can you feel your core activating when you walk up the stairs or when you lift your knee up to put you shoes on? Being aware what is happening in your body will help to engage the right muscles.
- holding you breath and/or drawing the belly in on inhalation – you will be loose the connection to your deep core, once your regular breathing resumes. Coordinate you breath with movement, breathing out as you engage TrA and releasing on the inhale
- squeezing too hard – you will be more likely to engage other muscles groups if you work too hard, aim for gentle tension under you finger tips
- rounding you lower back and tucking pelvis under – TrA is stabilising muscles so if you have zero lumbar curve you are engaging your superficial abdominal muscles instead of the deep core, try to maintain neutral position of you spine through out
- squeezing everything else at the same time – try to keep gluets, upper abdominals and inner thighs relaxed
Once you can feel your Transversus Abdominis switching on, you can start playing with more challenging positions, bridge or standing plank both provide a bit more challenge, whilst offering enough stability to ensure the right muscles are activated. You can also progress into more challenging exercises, activating you spiral chain with dead bug or single leg tap.
I hope you find the information useful. If you have any question please get in touch. Would love to hear from you.
I am a yoga teacher, pilates instructor and personal trainer based in London, Battersea. I create accessible and effective home-based exercise routines and gently guide my clients to help them understand their body and its individual needs so they can find the right exercise, progress in their own speed and build a healthy movement habits into their daily life so they feel better now and in the future. Read my story here