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If you’ve ever taken a Pilates class, you know that the “Pilates powerhouse” (aka your core) is the foundation for all movements. While most people fixate on the more superficial muscles (rectus abdominis) of the core, the secret to stability — and a flatter stomach — actually lies beneath the surface. Your transverse abdominis (TVA), the deepest, innermost layer of your abdominals, is key to just about every movement you make, says Andrea Speir, lead instructor for the Daily Burn Pilates program. “These deep muscles essentially corset the waist and support the hips, pelvis and spine, which play a powerful role in stabilizing and supporting our bodies,” Speir says.
In addition to allowing your body to move safely and efficiently, your TVA flattens the abdominal wall and compresses your internal organs. Translation: Sculpting your TVA is key to achieving those six-pack abs and getting more definition in your core. "Your TVA is the key part of your six-pack. Working the obliques cuts in and gives you that nice line down the side of your abs. But nothing will get the entire zone flattened, strengthened and toned without focused TVA work," Speir explains. And if you’re a victim of low-back pain, strengthening your TVA can help alleviate symptoms.
That said, since your TVA is the deepest layer of abdominal muscle (running horizontally between your ribs and pelvic floor), it isn’t easy to target. “The exercises listed below help find this deep connection, which is somewhat tricky to do without the specific focus of these Pilates moves,” Speir says.
5 Pilates Exercises to Sculpt Your Deep Abs
These Pilates exercises involve bracing and hollowing your core, which helps activate your transverse abdominis. Research has shown that Pilates exercises are best for engaging your TVA. “It’s easier to simply flex our stomach muscles, which targets the superficial layer of your abs. But the moves below help you scoop those deep, powerful muscles in and build powerful core strength,” Speir explains. Do 12-15 reps of each exercise, unless otherwise stated, for two sets.
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Footwork is one of the best Pilates exercises to activate your TVA, and to ensure you’re engaging it, Speir recommends gazing at your navel throughout the movement. “My best trick is to curl your head and shoulders up the point of getting a good wrinkle in your shirt at your sternum. During the entire exercise, never lose that wrinkle!,” Speir says.
How to: Lie flat on your back, bring your knees together into your chest and curl your head and chest up, so your shoulder blades are off the mat (a). Stack your palms and bring them directly behind your head. Turn your heels out with your knees shoulder-distance apart, and extend your legs out to a 45-degree angle (b). Then, bend your knees back in toward your chest, while scooping your abdominals in (c). This is one rep.
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2. Frog/Circle Combo
If your find yourself gripping the mat with your hips, back or neck, Speir says you can do this exercise with your head down on the mat. “Think about drawing your abdominals in and up along your spine to find that same deep connection,” she says. “You’ll begin to create muscle memory in your core to always engage it as you move away from your body, which is key for daily tasks.”
How to: Lying flat on your back, bring your knees into your chest and curl your head and chest up, so your shoulder blades are off the mat. Stack your palms and bring them directly behind your head. Bring your heels together and toes apart (a). Slide your legs low in front of you without touching the mat (b). Then, circle them back up with your toes pointing the ceiling, so your legs form a 90-degree angle to the floor (c). This is one rep.
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3. Single-Leg Pulses
When you combine leg lifts (like this variation) with crunches, you recruit a deeper layer of muscles in your core to provide balance throughout the changing movements. “This exercise is one of the ultimate TVA activators. Adding different levels with your legs keeps your abdominals constantly engaged,” Speir says.
How to: Lying flat on your back, curl your head and chest up, so your shoulder blades are off the mat. Bring your legs up to 90 degrees, pointing your toes to the ceiling (a). Then, bring your left leg down to 45 degrees and wrap your palms together around your right thigh (b). Crunch up and down into your right thigh, while keeping your left leg lifted at 45 degrees (c). Switch legs for every five reps, and do two sets per leg.
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4. 45-Degree Lower Leg Lift
The main thing you want to avoid in this exercise is arching your back. If it’s arching at the bottom, Speir says you’re going too low for your body right now. “Imagine there’s a zipper right underneath your navel. Zip your core muscles to lift your legs back out. This will keep you in your TVA and out of your hips and back,” Speir says.
How to: Lying flat on your back, stack your palms behind your head and curl your head and chest up, so your shoulder blades are off the mat. Bring your legs up to 90 degrees (a). Then, bring your right leg down to 45 degrees and twist your torso towards your left leg (b). Lower your left leg down 45 degrees so it’s parallel to your right leg and then bring it back up (c). This is one rep. Switch your legs for every five reps, and do two sets per leg. After one side, untwist your torso and twist to the other side.
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5. 3-Legged Plank with Leg Pulse
While you’ll feel the burn in your glutes, shoulders and arms with this exercise, Speir says it activates your TVA even more. The imbalance of lifting your leg activates your deep core muscles to support your body. “As you’re doing this move, think about super gluing your core to your spine. Your tailbone slightly curls under and your neck is long. Gaze is in front of you where your hands are,” she says.
How to: Get into a high plank position with your shoulders directly over your hands (a). Lift your left foot off the ground pointed and pulse your left leg for eight reps (b). Then, move your left foot about three inches away from your body and pulse it for another eight reps (c). Bring your left foot back to the mat and switch sides.
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