Nothing says “fit” like a chiseled six-pack, but if you want to maximise athletic performance in addition to looking good shirtless, you have to look deeper—literally—to a muscle called the transversus abdominis.
Located directly behind your rectus abdominis (i.e., “abs”), the transversus abdominis wraps horizontally around your lower abdomen like a girdle or weight belt, hugging your internal organs and stabilising your spine. You contract it automatically whenever you move your arms or legs, and if you lift regularly, you likely also engage it purposefully and forcefully by “bracing” your core in exercises like the squat and deadlift (and if you don’t, you should).
Therein lies the key benefit of targeting this hidden and oft-neglected core muscle: The stronger your transversus abdominis is, the more stable you’ll be, and the more strength and power you can put into every movement you make. You’ll be able to safely squat more weight, deadlift greater loads, curl heavier dumbbells, and potentially even squeeze out a few more reps on the pull-up bar.
That, in turn, can help optimise muscle growth, strength building, and fat loss. As an added bonus, research suggests that strengthening your transversus abdominis can also help alleviate chronic low back pain.
Your move: Add planks and hollow holds to your weekly workout plan. The primary action in both exercises involves drawing your belly button toward your spine, directly engaging your transversus abdominis. It’s called “abdominal bracing,” and to do it effectively, just imagine you’re about to be punched in the gut.
Planks are the classic way to target the transversus abdominis, but a study by Australian researchers found that “the inward movement of the abdominal wall in supine” (aka performing a hollow hold) produces potentially even greater muscle activation. Incorporating both exercises into your workout program will make sure that you hit your transversus abdominis from multiple angles, and in so doing, optimise its strength.
This article originally appeared on Men's Health