This blog is the result of a question that came up inclass recently – ‘Is it possible to reactivate and strengthen the lower abdominals following surgery such as a caesarian section, even after several years?” Yes*
In my last blog on pelvic floor activation, the transversus abdominis (TA) got a mention due to working in coordination with the pelvic floor, so please do read that blog in conjunction with this one.
The TA is the deepest innermost layer of your abdominal muscles and is located underneath your rectus abdominis (star of the six-pack). The TA runs horizontally across your abdomen and is involved whenever you move a limb or exhale; it also holds in your internal organs. Its main function is to activate your core muscles and stabilise your pelvis and lower back before you move by resisting flexion of your lumbar spine. In other words, a strong TA protects your back and joints against physical stresses that arise from movements such as bending, twisting and running. So it will come as no surprise that a strong TA provides a solid foundation for movement.
Yes, yes, I hear you say, but what about that flat stomach, the holy grail of core training? When your TA contracts it cinches in your waist like a girdle, therefore a well- developed TA also equates to a tighter, slimmer waist.
At this point it is worthwhile differentiating between the TA and the Rectus Abdominis (RA) or ‘six-pack” muscles. The RA is the most superficial of the abdominal muscles; it runs vertically and is responsible for flexing your torso forward. Whenever these muscles are trained they grow outward, which in individuals with a low percentage of body fat results in the ‘six-pack”; however if you have a higher body fat content, the fat sits on top making your stomach look like it is bulging out. By contrast training the TA results in it developing inward, flattening your tummy irrespective of your amount of body fat (within reason).
What causes a weak TA?
Apart from inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle, childbirth, and surgical procedures that involve cutting the abdominal wall like caesarian sections and hernias are the most common causes. During surgery the muscles, nerves and tissues are cut leading to loss of neurological impulse. Although you brain will still try to recruit the muscles, they do not answer.
What exercises can you do to reconnect the nervous and muscular systems so that your abdominal muscles function properly again?
Rather than focus on conventional flexion and extension exercises (crunches and the like), the best way to train your TA involves activation through ‘drawing-in”. This is a conscious process, like training your pelvic floor and takes a lot of practice, but once you become familiar with the exercises, you will see great results.
You can perform the following exercises seated, lying on your back or on all fours:-
- 30 Second Hold: Begin with a diaphragmatic breath (see blog on deep breathing), as you exhale let the abdominal wall fall towards the spine. Next draw the navel point all the way down to the spine, imagine your navel point is touching the spine, then scoop it towards your ribcage. Hold for 30 seconds, continue breathing throughout. Practice 5 times per day
- Pulsed Contraction: Contract the TA as above, hold for 2 seconds then release half-way out. Repeat this pulsing motion, 30 times, twice per day.
- Pelvic Floor Contractions– refer to previous blog
- Pelvic Tilts– 10 per day
* Following caesarian surgery, or in the early postpartum phase, women should not do aggressive rectus abdominis exercises.Initially women should be focusing on gentle core stability exercises and slowly increasing the exercise load and intensity over the course of the first post partum year