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The complex movement of armed and unarmed budō taijutsu require both hypermobility and hyperflexion. In the beginning stages, it seems like the more force one uses, the farther away they are from performing the technique correctly. Have you ever heard your instructor say that the technique can be done using no force at all? But removing this force seems to take the effectiveness out of the technique leaving you scratching your head. This is the light at the end of the tunnel.
The muscles use in budō taijutsu aren’t the ones many are used to using during daily activity. Often when practicing budō taijutsu incorrectly, the muscles of the shoulders, lower back, and legs seem to harbor a hidden fire deep inside them that won’t extinguish no matter how calmly you try to breathe. This is because for the most part, many practitioners initially activate the wrong muscles during practice.
The Muscle Behind the Muscle
One of these unknown muscles is the transverse abdominis or TVA muscle. It acts like a natural corset, and supports the abdominal wall, the base of the spine, aids in respiratory expiration, protects the internal organs, and is the muscle used by women when delivering a child. This muscle horizontally wraps the core from front to back, from the ribs to the pelvis and rests behind the rectus abdominis (6-pack muscles), and the external and internal obliques.
The main function of the TVA is to activate the core and stabilize the pelvis and lower back before body movement. This muscle resist flexion of the lumbar spine (lower back). The TVA is responsible for keping the neck in a neutral position during core training. It also stabilizes and balances muscles and dramatically improves posture. Basically, any time you move a limb or breathe, the transverse abdominis is activated first. The TVA helps to transfer force more efficiently through the muscles, rather than through your back and joints, thus aiding in the reduction of aches and pains (and injuries) caused by related stresses.
Most beginning Budō Taijutsu practitioners are unaware of this muscle and begin movements with a weak TVA which destabilizes the core and all muscles that require a solid core foundation for flexion and strengthening.
For many, the subject of the transverse abdomins will never surface during conversation. When you think core, the muscles of the outer abdominal wall come to mind. We think that if we want six packs abs, we must do crunches, but this only builds the outer abdominal muscles pushing the stomach outward creating a “pooch belly”. When the transverse is properly activated the waistline becomes smaller the outer abs lay flat. Anyone you see with washboard six pack abs has a strong transverse abdominis.
Causes of a Weak Transverse Abdominis
- Inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle
- Surgical procedures
- Lack of neural drive
- Improper training of the core muscles
It’s not our fault, we learned improper movement as a child, and I can definitely tell you we weren’t born this way. When you watch a babies walk, then use their core properly to propel their bodies. It’s not until we get older do we begin what I call “balance walking”. This popular walking technique used an opposite arm-foot swing to propel the body forward. The problem is that this deactivates the transverse abdominis and forces the lower back to carry the load. In turn this causes overcompensation of the back muscles causing lower back and neck pain, bad posture and migraines.
If we walk improperly, over time the body will develop improperly and will eventually break from the force placed in the wrong areas for extended periods of time. Walking isn’t the only cause of this muscle weakness. Improper ab training also weakens this muscle as it focuses on flexion of the outer ab muscles instead of a drawing in motion pulling the waistline inward. When posture is bad, the body is out of alignment all the time. This shortens muscles while straining others making the body less flexible over time degenerating bones and joints.
Strengthening the Transverse Abdominis
Like any muscle the transverse abdominis can be strengthened with exercise and time. Since many are unaware of this muscle and it’s function, awareness of it’s location and contraction are vital. Remember, this is a muscle that you cannot see with the naked eye and when it’s flexed the outer muscles of the rectus abdominis and external obliques should not be flexed. Flexion and extension are the most commonly known methods to strengthen muscles but the TVA requires a “drawing in” motion. This “drawing in”, is in direct contrast to the “pushing out” feeling of crunches and sit-ups that train your abdomen to push outward. Ever wonder why you do so many crunches and ab-work without seeing results? This will take some practice but once it’s understood you will quickly see results aka a slimmer waistline.
Exercises for the Transverse Abdominis
- Stomach Vacuum
- Forward Ball Rolls
Stomach Vacuum Exercises
So far, the best exercise to increase strength in this muscle is the stomach vacuum and it’s been around for decades. Arnold Schwarzeneggar is probably the most famous to use this technique that gave him the insanely slim waistline that supported such a huge frame. In my opinion, this is the best exercise to form the mind body connection because the focus is concentrated in this area only. This is an isometric contraction (tenses the muscle without moving it) of the transverse abdominis. A stronger TVA can also build a stronger valsalva maneuver (the powerful exhale necessary to contract a muscle during an intense workload).
Stomach Vacuum Exercise
Slow and Steady TVA Training
With proper exercise of the transverse abdominis, the movements of budō taijutsu will become more fluent and efficient. In addition, your posture will improve and the chances for developing lower back pain will diminish greatly. Your movement will begin to flow and you will be able to command low kamae with greater ease and be able to train longer move with real power.