Probably one of the most misunderstood muscle actions and certainly one I am most often asked about.
Proper form is essential for success when training to get the best results. It is the quality of training that influences your progress, more than the quantity. Time under tension, angle of movement, range of motion and many other factors all contribute to a particular training session. Hence why it is important to understand the proper technique of the exercises to get the most benefit from your time.
TVA Isolation 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 it’s 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.
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.
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.
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.
Read on about exercises to do and how to know if you are doing it correctly.
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.
- Lying down, place your hands on the bony parts at the front of your hips and keep knees bent. This area is known as your anterior superior iliac spines (asis). Move your hands in an inch towards your belly button and down an inch towards your toes. You should now be directly over the transversus abdominus muscle.
- Imagine that a belt with 10 notches is tied around your abdomen. Take a deep breath in and on exhalation visualise that the belt is being fastened up to the tenth notch at the same time as gently drawing your pelvic floor upwards. Using the above transversus palpation technique can you feel a tightening (not bulging) under your fingers? Now visualise leaving the belt off to the 3rd notch. Alternatively, imagine trying to do up a button you a tight pair of jeans. 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.
- Focus on drawing your belly button in towards your spine at the same time as tightening that belt or doing up your jeans. If you watch side on in a mirror, this shows as a very slight movement of the lower abs – not a big one. Your 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 the 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.
- Remember to breathe normally throughout all the exercises- it is common for beginners to hold their breath as they focus on contracting the core. You should be able to breathe normally whilst engaging the core.
- Use this technique when doing any form of abdominal exercise and you will see the difference in your core strength.
- It will take a little getting used to but once you have nailed it will become second nature.
How do I know if I am 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 it’s 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 forms a doming effect 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.
Now I have found it do I have to engage it all the 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. 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.
But I still don’t have a flat stomach?
That’s because there is fat sitting on top of your muscles. The fat you carry on your waistline (and everywhere else – it’s the same stuff) is determined by the food you 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 of fat is obscuring the view.
How you breathe can impact your pelvic floor and affect your overall health and wellbeing. Learning how to do diaphragmatic breathing exercises is simple and can be readily incorporated into your everyday life.
Diaphragm breathing or abdominal breathing is a breathing exercise and technique that promotes deep breathing using your main breathing muscle – your diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that sits under the lungs.
When you breathe in normally, your diaphragm contracts and moves downwards into your abdomen. This downward movement creates a vacuum inside your chest causing air to enter and fill up your lungs. You breathe out when your diaphragm relaxes and moves back up into your chest allowing air to leave your lungs.
Diaphragmatic breathing is thought to benefit overall health in a number of ways:
- Improve circulating oxygen levels
- Reduce fatigue with exercise
- Decrease blood pressure
- Reduce stress and anxiety
- Improve core deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscle function
The way you breathe affects the tone in your deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. Your trunk is like a cylinder surrounded by muscles that should work together during breathing. The muscles surrounding your trunk cylinder include your diaphragm (top of the cylinder), your deep abdominal muscles wrapping around your trunk (the sides of the cylinder) and your pelvic floor muscles at the base of this cylinder.
During regular breathing, your deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles are also active to help maintain pressure in your trunk cylinder. When you breathe in deeply during diaphragmatic breathing, the pressure inside your abdomen is increased so that your pelvic floor muscles need to contract even more strongly to maintain your continence.
Learning diaphragmatic breathing technique and practising breathing exercises can help you promote the coordinated activity of your deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. This is a vital first step in undertaking pelvic floor rehabilitation for prolapse or incontinence problems in women and men.
Diaphragmatic breathing exercises aim to normalise breathing patterns so that the diaphragm is used appropriately with the trunk muscles during normal breathing so that upper chest breathing is minimised and the upper abdominal muscles are relaxed.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises
Start lying down with your head supported by a pillow and your knees bent. Place one hand on your upper abdomen just below your sternum and the other hand at the side of your chest on the lower part of your rib cage. Alternatively, if you find you have difficulty performing this breathing technique lying down, try it sitting down with one hand placed on your upper abdomen to feel the outward movement with your in-breath.
Breathe in slowly and deeply so that you feel your belly rise under your hand. You may also notice your lower rib cage move wide under your other hand – remember the focus is upon keeping the upper chest muscles relaxed and using the diaphragm to breathe. This technique can be cued by thinking to “breathe into the belly”. Breathe out by letting the rib cage fall back to resting. You should feel a gentle rise and fall of your belly under your hand.
When you have mastered diaphragmatic breathing exercises lying down, it is important to practice doing them sitting and standing upright. Don’t forget the need for good upright posture in allowing you to do your breathing exercises effectively. Try to then move around and walk with diaphragmatic breathing when you feel confident to do so.
Practice these breathing exercises at regular intervals throughout the course of your day when learning this technique. Try to breathe slowly and deeply using your diaphragm to inhale and let the air passively leave your body, don’t force the air out of your lungs. Do what feels comfortable for your body- a minute or two of diaphragmatic breathing when starting out is great. Then try to build on this up to five minutes at a time if you can.
Sometimes diaphragmatic breathing technique can make you feel a little out of breath when starting out, especially if you are accustomed to breathing with your upper chest. If this happens stop, take a break and try again later when recovered. Remember the ultimate goal is to promote a pattern of diaphragmatic breathing and reduce upper chest breathing as you go about your daily life. Regular daily practice will help you achieve this goal.