The Secret Muscle That Can Cure Your Back Pain
The American Chiropractic Association estimates that over 80% of the population will experience back pain at some point in their life.
It can strike suddenly. One wrong move and all of a sudden you’re in agonizing pain. It’s one of the most common reasons people miss work.
If you have ever experienced back pain, you know the feeling. It prevents you from getting a good night’s sleep. And generally, keeps you from enjoying your life. Sitting for too long aggravates it. Standing for too long irritates it. When you’re lying down, it’s difficult to find a comfortable position. It’s the opposite of fun.
First and foremost, we highly recommend that you get checked out by your doctor or a physical therapist. They can properly diagnose the issue and set up a treatment plan specific to your situation.
However, in the meantime, a little health help in the form of education can’t hurt.
The Transverse Abdominis
The transverse - what? Don’t get thrown off by the anatomical term here. It sounds technical. But let us break it down for you.
Surprisingly, most individuals with back pain have one common weakness: the transverse abdominis. The transverse abdominis, or TA, is a muscle. This muscle is a deep abdominal muscle, meaning it lies under your obliques, the muscles that help shape your waist, and the rectus abdominis, also known as the 6-pack muscle.
The TA muscle is often neglected or forgotten about. You can’t see it. So, most people don’t bother strengthening it.
Instead, many spend hours in the gym striving for that often unattainable 6-pack. The truth is 6-packs or 8-packs are made in the kitchen. For most people, they are hard to achieve and require a low body fat percentage.
Fitness goals are often more attainable and maintainable when they are based on function as opposed to a solely aesthetic appeal. Strengthening the TA should be a part of everyone’s fitness goals - especially when looking at back pain statistics. It can help you thwart weeks or even months of back pain problems.
What Does the TA Muscle Do?
The TA acts as a corset. It aids in the breathing process and helps stabilize and support your spine and your pelvis. Before you perform a movement, the TA contracts. When it contracts, it stabilizes the spine and pelvis, preventing injury or dysfunction. It’s the foundation of your core.
When lifting heavy objects, the TA can help transfer the energy and force onto other structures. In turn, this prevents stress from being placed on the low back.
It even comes into play during birth. During labour, moms-to-be are instructed to push. When this time comes, the TA is sucked in. Simultaneously, the pelvic floor muscles relax allowing for smooth passage of the baby. During pregnancy, the TA muscle and pelvic floor muscles help hold the baby in place. This is why the belly doesn’t droop and instead maintains a fairly round and tight position around the torso.
The stronger your TA muscles are, the easier life (and if you’re pregnant, delivery) will be. It’s a small heath help tip that goes a long way.
The problem? Most people don’t know how to consciously contract their TA muscle. It’s small and hard to feel. Not to mention, many people don’t even know about it. In yoga, they frequently highlight this muscle, noting the importance that it plays in everyday functioning. If you’ve done yoga before, it’s likely you have had some practice!
How to Exercise Your TA Muscle
If you are unsure how to strengthen this muscle or even contract it, don’t worry. We will walk you through it. Here are the basics:
- Lie on your back on a comfortable surface, a bed or a yoga mat works perfectly.
- Bend your knees and rest your feet flat on the ground.
- Place your fingertips in between your hips, just below your belly button.
- Take a deep inhale (try not to move your shoulders when you do this). Allow your belly to expand.
- Exhale and pull your belly button in toward your spine. Think of a tightrope pulling your hip bones together. Or, if all else fails, think of the muscles you use to stop the flow of urine. Your spine and hips should not leave the mat, ground, or bed. Your belly should not bulge and you shouldn’t feel your glutes or back tightening. If you do, reset and try again. It does take practice so don’t feel discouraged if you don’t get it right on the first try.
- As you hold the TA contraction, make sure to breathe. Holding your breath is not the same thing as contracting your TA muscle.
- Try to hold the contraction for 5-10 seconds. Start at 2-5 seconds, then build from there.
- Do 10 repetitions and aim for 2-3 sets, or 2-3 times per day.
Again, it takes practice to isolate this muscle. We often like to take the easy route. Many people will tilt their hips thinking they are performing it correctly, or they hold their breath. There are many common mistakes. Keep practicing! Consciously think about all the cues listed above. You’ll get there, eventually.
Once you’ve learned to properly contract the TA muscle, you can work toward progressing your strength further.
While contracting your TA muscle, try lifting one foot off the ground, bringing your knee toward your chest. Count to 3, then switch sides.
If this is fairly easy, you can continue to progress the exercise even further. Lift both legs, bringing both your knees overtop of your hips. Or lift both knees overtop of your hips and then, extend one leg straight, alternating sides. While doing these movements, make sure you are, again, consciously contracting that deep abdominal muscle.
If you experience pain at any point, ease off the exercise. Ask your physical therapist or doctor for more info! They are experts on the body and might be able to offer you more pointers, especially regarding your specific situation.
Even if you aren’t experiencing back pain, work on increasing the strength of your TA muscle. It comes in handy! Plus, by doing so, you’ll reduce your risk of future back pain incidences.
Back pain doesn’t have to be the norm. Take care of yourself. Have your own back!