What a waist!

If you’re interested in reading more on ideas presented in the article below, I suggest reading Diastasis Recti. If you’d like movement instruction via video, start with Smart Digestion.

All right, all you biomechanists-to-be.  Here’s your first test.  Can you tell the difference between Picture One (on left) and Picture Two? (Don’t cheat…really take a look :).)

Take a close look at my low back and on the left you will see a lumbar curve (a “sway” in my back) and on the right, nothing but a straight line.  Now let me tell you what’s going in the muscles beneath the skin.

In the picture on the left, I’ve sent a signal to my transverse abdominals (TVA), which are muscles that, when contracting (shortening), lift the abdominal wall up toward my spine (or if standing, back toward the spine).  Awesome.  Now I have increased space in between my lumbar vertebrae, my glutes are in a position to be active (especially if I was upright), and I’ve flattened my abdominal wall, not only to look fantastic by the pool, but also to start a series of microbiomechanical changes that actually have a positive effect on plaque accumulation in the abdominal aorta (but that’s for another time!)  TVA activation is a win-win situation for all systems and your body really needs this muscle firing constantly for optimal function.

The picture on the right, however, is what most people do when they think they are using their stabilizing abdominal muscles. The beauty of biomechanics is how clear it is to see what’s going on.  If you see zero lumbar curve, then you know, for sure, the TVA was not used (there is no physical way it can tilt the pelvis).  In picture 2, I see (and hopefully you do to) a pelvis that has moved into what is called a posterior tilt (tuck).  The evidence is in, and the abs are out.

Most people have replaced deep, abdominal activity with “sucking their stomach in”, and think they are constantly using their muscles.  In actuality, the sucking in motion is a pressure (like creating a vacuum) that pulls the abdomen’s contents up (not in), displacing the guts up against the diaphragm (hiatal hernia, anyone??).  You get a flat stomach that looks fantastic by the pool, but you also get a tucked pelvis (do we need to talk more about where pelvic floor disorder comes from?), no butt muscles used when walking, no real work done in the abdomen, and excessive friction in the lumbar spine, hips and knees.  That friction is called Osteoarthritis.

Here’s another side effect of sucking it in:  The constant, upward generation of movement caused by S.I.I. makes downward-moving processes like digestion, lower leg (and pelvic organ) circulation, and monthly menses more difficult for the body.  For example, many people strain on the toilet because they don’t realize they are keeping these processes at a stand-still.  Prolapsing ladies, Stop Sucking It Up, and learn how to muscle it in instead.  There’s nothing that will push an organ out more than straining to bathroom.  Check in with your abdomen and make sure it’s relaaaaxxxxeeeed.

You’re probably not going to enjoy the reality of letting your belly go.  If you’ve got an extra 20+ pounds on your body that you’ve been sucking up, letting all of that mass out of your trunk (do you hear your organs breathing a sigh of relief?), will show you what you’ve go to work with.  And, it’s going to be ok.  Here’s the cool thing.  That mass that you’ve been sucking in will go away now that you’re allowing the muscles underneath it to work, increasing your metabolism with trunk, butt, and hamstring muscles.  It will get better and you will be healthier, right away!

Now that your no longer sucking in, it’s time to practice actual, TVA activation.

The Exercise: (Use a mirror if you’ve got one handy…)

Start on your hands and knees, with your hands and knees below your shoulders and hips.  Let your head relax completely, breathing in a relaxed manner.  Now, let the wall of your belly completely drop toward the floor (you get extra points if it touches!) and let your spine unfurl, making sure that you release your pelvis completely, lifting your sitting bones up toward the ceiling.  Hang out there for 30 minutes.  No, just kidding.  But hang out for a little bit playing between where you feel most comfortable (your habitual position – watch what you do with your pelvis) and totally relaxed.

Now, exhale and pull your belly button up toward you spine, but do not let your pelvis move.  See how long you can keep your belly button up, without holding your breath, without moving your pelvis, and without sucking it in.  Can you feel the deep, abdominal contraction?  Do this a few times every day in this exaggerated position, and then, take it to the real world.  When walking and standing, do the same thing.  When squatting with your tailbone out, you can also add TVA activation.

Moms-to-be, this is a great exercise to practice while pregnant as it can prevent (or repair) diastasis recti.  Another fun birthing fact:  The TVA is the best Birthing Muscle as the TVAs fibers works in the same direction as the Uterus does during the expulsion phase of delivery, only with a lot more force.  So many moms-to-be are never taught about relaxing their abdomen and have deeply ingrained Sucking It In habits that are there when trying to push a baby out.  Practice releasing now and make delivery that much easier!  (That’s my baby shower gift to you all :).  I can’t afford a thousand pairs of booties and onesies and other things that end in “-ies”.)

Are you still interested in learning more on this?

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37 thoughts on “What a waist!

  1. When I relax my belly while standing, I can no longer breathe. Literally. It’s been that way since I birthed my first almost 7 years ago. After birthing my kids I cannot walk and breathe at the same time for about a week!

    What’s going on inside?

    Oh and I see the differences in the pictures. I’m going to have fun doing this one as my kids will want to climb on top for a ride. LOL!

  2. Yes! Another gem, Katy! How, but how, do you do it? : )
    In our yoga studio we have the engage the belly believers and the relax the belly fans among our teachers. Once again your point is made that one should know how to do both sides of an action, using the correct technique.

    Thank you!

    1. It helps when everyone has the same base knowledge of what the abdominals (f)actually do. The TVA should be generating force all the time (except when lying supine for sleeping, the belly needs to inflate for oxygen…). The real question is not should the belly be contracted, but, am I actually contracting it or am I tensing my psoas and paralyzing my diaphragm…
      So many questions easily answered with one exercise!

  3. I like this one a lot. It really isolates the TVA and lets males know what menstrual cramps feel ike! But, since I learned in the RES program that the TVA/adductor/PF groups fire synergistically, how can we keep the PF from getting involved when standing or walking? This seems to be a big challenge for me since I have a perpetual albeit subconcious PF/glute clench when standing or walking, but not sitting or lying down. Any suggestions?

    PS: for the people wanting to know how to do this: I invite you to the Monday 530 PM Hard Core class and I’ll show you in a few easy steps!!

    1. You DO want the PF to be generating force while standing and walking – the real trick is to get the PF to contract eccentrically in response to the gentle posterior motion of the sacrum generated by posterior gait. It shouldn’t clench though…

      1. How do you feel about Esther Gokhale, L Ac .:Walk This Way video on youtube, when she is explaining the j shape spin and how it is most beneficial.

  4. OK, I tried it…. I think I did it right. But when I do pull my belly up using what I THINK is the TVA, my pelvic floor also tightens. Is that normal? I CAN relax the pelvic floor and still keep the back curved and the belly up… but it takes some concentration to let the pelvic floor relax, it seems to want to autopilot up with the belly. Does that mean I’m doing something wrong?

  5. Awesome info as usual, never knew the TVA and uterine fibers ran in the same direction. This piece of info truly is a gift to the expecting momma. Will be sharing with a few that I know are close to a Happy Delivery!

    1. Kim: Your TVA won’t activate if your pelvis is tilted. The attachment for the TVA are long collagen stings called Raphe. They are extremely strong in tensile strength (pulling the ends apart) but like any string, if you push the ends together you lose integrity, and any muscle attached to the raphe have no leverage for contraction. The raphe’s attachment points are the bottom of the ribs down to the pelvis. The post. tilt moves the end of the non-contractile raphe towards each other.
      So yes, it is impossible to contract your TVA if your pelvis is tilted.

  6. should you also contract the TVA during delivery to help push baby out during the contraction phase and then relax the TVA in between contractions?

    1. Kim – Yes. If I could only get a few hours with every pregnant women, we could turn this birthing thing around!!! Spread the word!

  7. Sigh… help me understand. I found your information via the Mamasweat blog and have been fascinated. I’ve been doing T-tapp for the past 4 months and it seems like all of what you’re saying is the complete opposite of what she says – or am I misunderstanding one or both of you?

    At 47 I’m finding it impossible to get rid of my belly and the extra weight that’s just there – even with exercising 5-7 times a week using her program (which does make me FEEL better, by the way … I’m just not seeing results on the outside yet). Are you familiar with her program and can you help me to understand the differences?

    Just ordered a couple of your DVDs, btw.

    Thanks so much!

    1. Quiet Mom,
      I’m not familiar with T-tapp, let me do a bit of research. I will see if I can explain further once I know the basics of the other program. Keep in mind that we are not saying complete opposite things, but are saying exactly the same thing: You need a working pelvic floor. The method of doing this, however, is probably the difference. The biggest misunderstanding of muscle is that the tighter the better, when in fact, a longer muscle gives better, long-term and constant force generation. The kegel contraction will increase the strength of the PF until it no longer can. Because most people’s PF issue is initiated by PF tension, the concentric (shortening) contraction of the PF has little to no benefit for many (but, not for all!) When people better understand muscle physiology and mechanics, then any educated person in science, medicine, and therapy would be saying, “Oh, Of course! It’s so simple!”. Because they don’t understand muscle physics 100%, this is why they are prescribing the incorrect exercise for long-term PF (and entire body) function.
      Thanks for reading!!! –


      1. I’m also interested! I bought, used and sold my T-Tapp DVD because some of the things she said contradicted the information here (which made more sense to me). Such as always tuck tuck tuck tuck tuck the pelvis (she says this repeatedly throughout).

        (Hi Annette! Fancy meeting you here 🙂

  8. I get the TVA thing, but I also remember spending a lot of time and energy making a “table” of my back, in the hand and knees position….we’re we doing that without tucking our pelvi, or were we exercising a different set of muscles?
    I have to get back in there I guess, to get the latest scoop!

  9. I am a pilates and yoga instructor and I am also trained in the Egoscue Method – all wich have different things to say about the TVA. Is your thought here to train the TVA in this exercise and generally work on realigning the body as a whole vs. holding the TVA in all the time? (…like the PF where you suggest to work it but in correct alignment and not all day long but in delibeate practices.) In general in my experience and training, Pilates is all TVA all the time, Yoga is some abs (not necessarily TVA) sometimes (with emphasis on letting go more), and Egoscue is all about whole body alignment and the TVA will just kick in. (Egoscue discourages TVA training as they feel it is taking over other functions like Psoas…) I just want to see what you have to say about day to day TVA stuff.
    Love your work!!!

  10. My natural shape is an hourglass with very large breasts, a thin waist, and wide hips. I’m 39 and had a baby 2 years ago. I can not seem to get rid of the “pregnant belly” look. From just under my breasts (ribcage) to just above my pubic bone is a total convex…..not a hard convex…….a soft one. However, regardless of the cardio, diet, and strength training that I do, this area doesn’t seem to respond. I need pointers on posture, middle aged metabolism of fat in the belly, and the healthy way to carry large breasts as they are always pulling my shoulders forward and down. I’m tired of looking dumpy.

  11. I too am wondering if this is compatible with T-Tapp. I know so many experiencing success with it. After 8 pregnancies I have a fairly severe diastisis recti that I am desperately seeking to repair.

  12. Hi Katy, I hope you notice this question so long after your blog post.
    Here you say “this is a great exercise to practice while pregnant as it can prevent (or repair) diastasis recti.”

    Have you seen Blandine Calais-Germaine’s book “No-Risk Abs?”
    On page 37 she says “the contraction of the three broad muscles separates the linea alba. The rectus abdominis is the only abdominal muscle that does not separate the linea alba.”

    I usually can make my own decisions about which “authority” is making the most sense to me, and YOU almost always make the most sense to me, but here I am puzzled. Can you expound on this issue a little, please?


    1. It’s never too late if I can catch it! I can see what B. C-G. means, because she’s likely only considering the TvA above the arcuate line. The TvA, below that becomes the sheath that the RA lives in which is why it wouldn’t pull it apart at the umbilicus or below. I can imagine if she wasn’t looking the ways the muscles attach, like a bunch of individual muscles, it would seem like the TvA could pull one side away from the other.

      I am working on a full D.R. post right now that goes more in depth, if you can stand to wait a week, but it essentially is a failure of the RA to maintain it’s own position. I also think that a lot of people are confused — especially when I read “separate the linea alba” because the linea alba is itself a cord the RA is separated from. The TvA needs to be active in order to bear the weight of the expanding uterus so that the RA is not overloaded. Women with very little TvA activation will experience a greater load on the RA and therefore experience DR with more frequency. So, I’d still advocate the untucking and activation of the TvA, but not necessarily a super-duper all-TvA all the time program, because excessive core tension is, as B. C-G. points out, a risk factor in itself (as well as for Pelvic Floor Issues too.) Does that help at all? If you read my upcoming post and STILL have some questions, I’m happy to expand there as well!! – KBOW

  13. I’m confused! I’m able to relax my belly completely (although it feels like internal organs are going to burst out Alien-style through my RA when I do – and I don’t mean that my belly fat flops out, though it does, and I’m okay with that). And I’m able to fire my TVA and pull belly button towards spine.

    What I’m not able to do is both of those things at once! When I contract my TVA in the “cummerbund” area there is always some contraction all up the rest of my abdomen as well. It feels like I’m sucking it in again the way I have been up to now. Although it feels more like “holding in” than sucking in.

    Is this how it’s meant to work and maybe I have been “doing it right” all along? Or is it that I have been sucking it in subconsciously for so long that I can no longer fire these muscles independently and I need to practice getting a finer control over these muscles (like with lifting each toe!)

  14. this may only about semantics, but i see no difference between ‘navel to spine’ and ‘sucking it in’….understood is the isometric action. also, have you found a helpful cue to activate the ‘back core’ of multifidis(if some co-contraction is not a no-no)?

  15. I got here from Erica Robinson’s article, Training for Childbirth. The above reminds me of the cat pose in yoga. It is great to see humor in articles like this. When you said to hang out for 30 minutes, I stopped reading and starting thinking about how people do not have time to do that. Then I started reading again.

    So this article is for biomechanists-to-be but it should also be for anyone. I tweeted Erica Robinson’s article to 47,000 of my followers so anyone pregnant could use this information.

  16. Hi Katy (or anyone who can help :-), – As a Pilates instructor, I typically cue breath (forced exhale) for any activation of the TVA. Yet, I am not seeing that as a big component here. Can you let me know your thoughts on forced exhale and the TVA?

  17. Actually, I’d like to add – I guess what confused me is mostly the comment about not being able to activate the TVA and tuck the pelvis. When I do the forced exhale and do what my understanding of TVA activation is (feeling the contraction in the belly) – I am not feeling the difference with the pelvis tucked or neutral. I’d like to understand what I am missing. Thank you for any help.

  18. Ok, last one. I promise to be more thoughtful before posting in the future…. Are your ribs in line w/ the pubic bone here? Assuming that they are, but just to clarify.

  19. Hey Katy!

    I am confused!!! This exercise I was taught to do with activating the PF at the same time… I guess to stop this.

    Also your saying that you need to keep your TVA activated when walking around etc… I’ve always thought there was something wrong with my belly because when relaxed (and I’m lean btw, I have a six pack) it does just hang out, so I wasn’t sucking it in, but keeping it kinda taut. So that isn’t wrong? Keeping the TVA activated? Will it start to stay activated by itself after doing these exercises for awhile?

    Thank you!

  20. Back in the day, I used to do my ab work on a stability ball. When it sprung a slow leak, I never replaced it and instead went all in with the Pilates, lotte berk, callanetics, etc. Fat lot of good that did me. But just now when I did your exercise on all fours, I remembered that exact feeling of working the abs while maintaining the arch that I used to have while on the ball (pre-pelvic tuck obsession). Your post has been a revelation today. Thanks!

  21. Hi!

    I am fairly new to your studies, but I can’t get enough. I read your book, working from the feet up.

    Does this have anything to do with slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers and that it’s alright and good for our deeper core muscles to be working all the time because our TVA is made up of mostly slow twitch fibers?

    Also, is this the activation that we are looking for in plank poses and most of the other yoga poses?

    A lot of teachers teach a flat lower spine in poses such as plank pose, but this would mean that our TVA is not turning on.

    How about bridge pose? Teachers often teach flattening the spine before rolling it off the mat…

    I would love to know the reasons why and when we should be taking the curves out of our spine other than in dynamic movement?

  22. Hi Katy, I’ve been absent a few months, had a baby girl 3 months ago, my third child. I’m back but am wierdly stiff evrn though i am staying active by walking etc. My poeture which eas so good a la “Katy Says” pre-delivery has gne to sh*t carrying baby around and tilting my pelvis forward so i can carry baby eith one arm snd do stuff eith the other…

    Enough bsckground – i need to work on my DR and have the Tupler book, but recall you saying you were doing an article on DR soon, a few months back. Is it available yet?

    Thanks for your blog and I really Ike the excises in the ” No More Kegels” DVD.

  23. Obviously this is super duper after this post was written but I have a major question. Well more like a million alignment questions but I’ll keep it at one… I am 21 weeks pregnant with my third and had a 6cm dr before getting pregnant this last time. I’m trying to minimize the damage done this time around and man is the advice so contradictory! I was told not to be in a position that would put weight on the dr because it would make it worse. Being on all fours with my baby belly hanging down would definitely put weight on it but you say it is good for dr. What to do, what to do?

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